The Practical Theatre Co. Part 4

THRILLS & GLORY: THE BRIEF, BLESSED HISTORY OF THE PRACTICAL THEATRE CO.

Part Four: The Last Laugh

This last chapter of the Practical Theatre story is the hardest to write.

It’s not that it’s a sad tale. Just the opposite. It was a marvelous decade of passion, laughter, friendship, improvisation, and performance from 1979 to 1989. The problem is that it’s nearly impossible to convey how much fun we all had in those wild, wonderful years – and how the good vibrations from our PTC salad days still radiate today.

Drawing on a wealth of comedic talent from Northwestern University and arriving on the scene in Chicago at the dawn of an unprecedented theatrical explosion – The Practical Theatre Company was a phenomenon: an inspired moment in time. In its first five years, the PTC made national headlines, sent four cast members to NBC’s Saturday Night Live, operated two theatre spaces, and momentarily eclipsed Chicago’s venerable Second City for comic supremacy in Sandburg’s City of Big Shoulders.

Somehow, that already seemed like ancient history in 1985.

Our Piper’s Alley Theatre at North & Wells behind Second City – the place where The Golden Jubilee, Megafun and Babalooney were born – had become the Second City ETC space. (ETC? PTC? Confused? Bingo.) And, after five prodigious, prolific and fleeting years, the PTC’s fabled creative incubator, The John Lennon Auditorium on Howard Street in Evanston, was also closed by the summer of ’85.

The PTC would never have a permanent home again.

703 Howard Street circa 2008

In fact, the PTC was about to get its second wind.

In the interim, I explored other opportunities on the burgeoning Chicago theatre scene. And Practical Theatre and Northwestern connections sustained me while the PTC was in temporary exile.

Econo-Art founders Lynn Baber, Marc Silvia and Barbara Reeder.

At that moment, the Chicago theatre scene was exploding, and some veterans of the PTC were opening up their own companies. In ’84, Lynn Baber, who’d performed with Practical Women and the cast of Babalooney, started Econo-Art (“Where we do art for less”) in the basement of an art gallery – and went on to produce new and obscure plays for six years. Lynn’s ensemble included the late Ileen Getz (another Practical Women vet) and Ileen’s husband Mark Grinnell, both of whom she met at the PTC.

NU graduate school alum, Terry McCabe, had worked at the PTC as the director of our agitprop Attack Theatre after-shows and the mainstage Attack show Kablooey at the JLA. By the summer of ’85, Terry had established his own northside Chicago theatre company, Stormfield Theatre, for which he hired me to direct a production of my one-act play, Elmo & June Confront Concepts Much Larger Than Themselves as part of “Porchlife” –a double bill which also included Ross Lehman’s Sons of Coral Gap.

John Goodrich (L) and Herb Lichtenstein (R) bookend the cast of "Elmo & June" with the author in the center and his father, Pete (not in the cast), behind him.

 

Elmo and June ran from June 12 to August 24, with a set designed by the PTC’s Tom Larson, Practical veterans John Goodrich and Herb Lichtenstein in the cast, and another friend and NU alum, Mark Lancaster, starring as Elmo.

Chicago Reader critic Bury St. Edmund favorably included Elmo & June in his year-end roundup of 1985 Chicago theatre highlights.

Later that summer, the Organic Theatre’s newly arrived artistic director Tom Riccio (a fellow Cleveland native) cast Riffmaster Peter Van Wagner and me in his play, Rubber City, which opened in mid September. Pete played an Elvis impersonator and I played his faithful, rhythm guitar-playing dog, Skippy.

Pete and I had a great time working together on that weird and wonderful show, especially playing a bunch of late period Elvis tunes like “Suspicious Minds” and “Burning Love” — and we established a connection with the Organic Theatre, which led to plans for a big PTC New Year’s Eve Party at the Organic.

Ross Salinger (2nd from L) and me (with the pole) in the opening scene. No, I'm not dressed as Fezziwig yet.

Christmas ’85 saw me and several other PTC folk (including Ross Salinger and my daughter, Maura) in The Goodman Theatre’s annual production of A Christmas Carol. This time, I played jolly old Fezziwig in a show that wasn’t as colossal as the 1984 staging at the grand Auditorium Theater. It was the third play in a row I’d done outside of The Practical Theatre, and as satisfying as it was to know I could find employment in other theatres – I was aching to get the PTC back in action.

As Riffmaster & The Rockme Foundation and The Daves (featuring Jerry Getz, Bekka Eaton, Jim Ericson and Rockin’ Ronny Crawford doing double duty) rocked the Organic Theatre space that New Year’s Eve and rang in 1986, the Practical Theatre expatriate community danced joyfully into the wee hours. The event was a benefit and, as usual, we did a far better job of raising the roof than we did raising money. For the PTC, the year ahead was a question mark.

That question would be answered in three words: Art, Ruth & Trudy.

I’d begun dating Victoria Zielinski in 1985. She was a Northwestern alumna and a PTC veteran, having appeared in the original cast of Megafun in ’83 before leaving the stage for a career as a lawyer. I had always wanted to write and perform a show with Victoria – and we soon hatched a plan to stage an improvisational comedy revue with Megafun and Babalooney veteran, Jamie Baron, and musical wiz, Steve Rashid.

It would be the Practical Theatre’s first new comedy revue in nearly two years. In those youthful days, that interregnum seemed like an age.

Homeless as we were, our good friends at The Prop Thtr gave us a place to rehearse our new show.

Jamie Baron and I met the Prop’s artistic director, Scott Vehill (at right), while we were working as sturdy beggars at King Richard’s Renaissance Faire in 1980. (Click here for more on The Sturdy Beggars.) Scotty and his partner, Stefan Brun, were, like I was, Bertolt Brecht fans and agitprop theatre devotees — and they were doing cutting edge work at The Prop. That’s why my PTC partner Brad Hall and I asked them to direct Soap Box Sweepstakes at the John Lennon Auditorium in 1984. (PTC fun fact: Among Scotty’s Soapbox writing staff were comedian Bob Odenkirk and Dan Rubin, who went on to write the comic film classic, Groundhog Day.)

As the frigid winter of ‘86 tuned to the promise of spring, Vic, Jamie, Steve and I wrote and rehearsed in the former machine shop at 2360 North Clybourn Avenue that Scott and Stefan had transformed into a black box storefront theatre. We dubbed our show Art, Ruth & Trudy, and took a vaudevillian approach to skewering politics, sports, fairy tales, and the insanity of everyday life. As we worked, we bonded with the Prop Thtr regulars, including co-founder Neil Guintoli and Karen Goodman, who generously shared their theatre space with us and encouraged our efforts with their laughter and camaraderie.

But there was one particular guy at Prop who was not pleased to have us around. He shall remain nameless, but his story is too good to omit from this narrative.

We held early previews of Art, Ruth & Trudy at the Prop and, after our first preview, this cantankerous curmudgeon angrily expressed his frustration at sharing the Prop space with us. He got way out of line — and Scott Vehill intervened. Soon, they were scuffling on the floor — and as Scotty cuffed the interloper about the ears, he proclaimed that Art, Ruth & Trudy was going to be the biggest hit of the season.

Scotty was head on points and working for the pin when the cranky guy desperately bit down on Scott’s finger, chomping it to the bone. Suddenly, Neil Guintoli (at left) stepped in and took the situation (and the guy’s manhood) firmly in hand. Moments later, the dustup was over. In that moment, Neil and Scott supported The Practical Theatre in a way Victoria and I have never forgotten. Our two theaters became, quite literally, blood brothers. And Scott’s bold assertion that Art, Ruth & Trudy would be the biggest hit of the season proved prophetic.

Art, Ruth & Trudy opened in early May 1986 at Club Victoria, a tiny drag bar and showroom at 3153 N. Broadway near Belmont Avenue in Chicago. Ron Crawford created our vaudeville backdrop, stage manager Tom Larson designed the lights, our comedy guru, Sheldon Patinkin, gave us his usual brilliant direction and Artistic Director in Exile Brad Hall came to town to help stage the show.

Art, Ruth & Trudy was yet another magical moment for The Practical Theatre Company.

Reviews for Art Ruth & Trudy were universally glowing. In the May 8th issue of The Chicago Tribune, theatre critic Rick Kogan wrote, “Though Chicago is becoming increasingly a town of the cheap laugh, the Practical Theater Company’s new revue, ‘Art, Ruth & Trudy’ is so refreshingly funny and effectively playful that it renews one’s faith in the power of comedy.”

Rick continued, “It has been about two years since the PTC’s last revue, ‘The Merry Guys Who Windsurf’ at the Goodman Studio. But with ‘Art, Ruth & Trudy’…the PTC returns full of such style and sensitivity that it makes most of the other troupes in town appear pretenders to a PTC throne. This is the real thing…The three cast members are not only crafty comedians but gifted actors and physical comics…An open-end run is planned. As far as I’m concerned, it can play forever.”

"Art, Ruth & Trudy" dressed for a casual night on Broadway.

It didn’t play forever — but Art, Ruth & Trudy played longer than any show in PTC history.

But critical kudos did not immediately translate into financial success. Club Victoria was not a venue known to mainstream theatergoers – and even when our audience finally began to find us on the weekends, the small house meant we couldn’t meet the demand for tickets. Cash-strapped, it was hard to meet our Equity payroll. Blessedly, angels intervened.

"Greylord have mercy on me..."

We held a fundraiser to keep the show afloat, and we were desperate enough to raffle off the PTC’s most valuable asset: our piano. Board members Mike and Lynn Hayes won the raffle – and promptly gave the piano back to us. It was a two-fer! We’ll always be grateful to Mike and Lynn. Because of their generous act, our daughters grew up playing that piano — and it still sits in our den today. In fact, in the spring of 2010, Steve Rashid was tickling those ivories once again as we worked on songs for The Vic & Paul Show.

"Hotel" cast: Mike and Heidi (top row).

At another critical moment early in Art, Ruth & Trudy’s run at Club Victoria, it was a Northwestern connection that came through for us. Our friend and fellow NU alum, Mike Spound and his wife, Heidi Bohay, were starring in the ABC prime time soap Hotel when they came to Chicago and caught our show. When they learned about the PTC’s money problems, angels Mike and Heidi wrote a check that covered our salaries for a few weeks. We were stunned by their generosity. We hadn’t seen Mike for several years before that night, and we were meeting Heidi for the first time. Today, they are among our closest friends.

Our biggest angel at that time was our new business manager, Drew McCoy. Drew and Victoria were good friends from their Northwestern days, and Drew had come back to town to work with theatre preservation expert Ray Shepardson on the renovation and grand reopening of the landmark Chicago Theatre on State Street. (Victoria worked on the project, too.) Drew led the PTC board of directors, helped manage our marketing strategy – and basically brought a grown-up approach to the PTC as a business. The Chicago Theatre reopened on September 10, 1986 with a gala performance by Frank Sinatra – and by then, Art, Ruth & Trudy had moved up to the 600-seat Briar Street Theatre.

That summer, while we were still at Club Victoria, Saturday Night Live called on the PTC again – and Victoria was flown to Hollywood for a screen test. In an egregious lapse of casting judgment, NBC gave Vic’s spot to another Victoria, an screwball blonde with the last name Jackson (who has since gone on to become a right wing crank and Tea Party member). About that same time, on July 18, 1986, The Chicago Tribune’s Rick Kogan updated the public on the progress of The PTC and Art, Ruth & Trudy:

“Since it opened, to glowing reviews, this revue has been attracting very good crowds. And that has made everyone very happy.

The author as "The Professional Pessimist"

 

‘There were many challenges in opening this show,’ Barrosse said. ‘Pressure? Just that the future of the company depended on this show.’

That future got considerably brighter this week. The big news: With Sheldon Patinkin on board as consultant, ‘Art, Ruth & Trudy’ will move to the Briar Street Theater…on Aug. 8, after a one-night preview, for a six-week limited run. It will be restaged — a choreographer and lighting designer are coming in from New York…It’s a pretty match, this marriage of successes, with Briar Street coming off the huge box-office hit ‘Frank`s Wild Years’ and ‘Art, Ruth & Trudy’ a sure winner.”

Love ballad of Ferdinand & Imedla Marcos.

The lighting designer the article referred to was Mark Mongold, another NU alum and friend of Drew McCoy. The choreographer who came in from New York was Beatrix Potocsny, an NU alumna and close friend of Victoria. Mark and Bea joined stage manager Louis DiCrescenzo, our guru Sheldon Patinkin and Brad Hall in helping us expand our staging to fill the larger Briar Street stage. The transition was a critical and commercial success – and Art, Ruth & Trudy ran at Briar Street far longer than it’s initial six-week run.

On November 14, 1986, in an article headlined, “Art, Ruth & Trudy Just Keeps Moving Along”, The Tribune’s Phil Vettel reported on our opening at The Vic Theatre.

The way Paul Barrosse figures it, it’s only a matter of time before he and the rest of the cast of the Practical Theatre Co.’s “Art, Ruth & Trudy” make it to Hollywood. Say, about 1,500 years.

That’s because the 8-month-old hit show has changed venues three times since opening for previews in the Prop Theatre last April, each time moving a couple blocks west. First, the show hopped over to Club Victoria, 3153 N. Broadway. In the summer, it moved to the Briar Street Theatre, 3133 N. Halsted St. Now, beginning tonight, the show is at The Vic, 3145 N. Sheffield Ave. Three moves, all in the 3100 block. “There’s sort of a divine guidance at work here, saying, ‘Westward, westward, ever westward,’” says Victoria Zielinski, who plays Ruth. “It’s our manifest destiny,” says Barrosse.

Lighting whiz Terry Shaughnessey and stage manager Louis DiCrescenzo discuss technical matters backstage at The Vic.

At the time, another friend and NU alum, Steve Jarvis, was operating a trendsetting nightclub at the Vic Theatre called Clubland, which featured an emcee, a team of dancers, and lots of video monitors showing music videos: very cutting edge stuff in ‘86. I’d been working for Steve as an entertainment director, writing comedy material for the live performers and video monitors – so when the still-popular Art, Ruth & Trudy had to make way for a new show at Briar Street (Hamburger Twins), Steve and Vic Theatre owner Tom Klein booked us into their venerable vaudeville house, which opened in 1912. With the help of Clubland’s technical staff, including video and lighting wizards, Tom Piazza and Terry Shaughnessy, Art, Ruth & Trudy ran another two months in the 1,000 seat theatre, playing to the largest audiences in PTC history.

On January 3, 1987, Art, Ruth & Trudy closed it’s record 9-month run, capping what had been another impossibly productive period: somehow, during that run, the PTC also managed two major television collaborations with the local NBC affiliate WMAQ.

WMAQ’s program director, David Finney, and station manager, Allan Horlick, were tasteful, creative and ambitious local television executives who harbored the novel belief that a national NBC series could, and should, be made in Chicago. In the years before Conan O’Brien, NBC was looking for a late night series to follow David Letterman.

A parade of prominent Chicago comedy pros pitched show ideas to WMAQ, but Brad Hall and I got the nod with our pitch for Overnight Guest – an offbeat late night strip where the weekly guest co-host (ala The Mike Douglas Show) actually slept on the couch for the week. We shot four pilot episodes in September of ‘86, which drew on material from Art, Ruth & Trudy and other PTC revues, along with video techniques we’d honed at SNL and Clubland. Steve Rashid was the music maestro, and Brad was the first guest host.

On November 23, 1986, The Tribune’s Rick Kogan asked, “What’s all this other stuff about this comedy show you’re supposed to be doing? It’s designed to follow ‘Late Night With David Letterman, right?’”

“Well,” said Barrosse, a founder of the Practical Theater Company and one of the stars of its current show, ‘Art, Ruth and Trudy,’ playing at the Vic Theater. “I’m eager to go for it. We were thinking originally that this might just be a local show. But the people at WMAQ are excited and obviously think it has national potential.”

The finishing touches are being put on a presentation tape…that will be shown to potential syndicators. The hosts are Barrosse and musician Steve Rashid, another PTC member…

“This would be my show, my real shot,” said Barrosse. “It won’t be like it was when I was a 22-year-old kid (and was snapped from Chicago to become a member of the ‘Saturday Night Live’ crew). I know more.” He laughed. “Now, I’m eager to exploit myself.”

Alas, I ultimately didn’t get the chance to “exploit myself”. I don’t know whether the show was ahead of its time (two decades later, my daughters discovered the VHS tapes and they LOVE it) — but if Overnight Guest had been bought by the NBC affiliates, Conan O’Brien would have been my successor as host of NBC’s post-Letterman show. And I would’ve been a lot more gracious than Jay Leno. Maybe.

At the end of the year, I directed the PTC’s contribution to WMAQ’s Emmy-Award winning Chicago Playwrights Festival. Deer Season was a one-act play by Claudia Allen (at left) featuring Victoria Zielinski, Peter Van Wagner and Louis DiCrescenzo that was broadcast live on December 18, 1986. A month later, Art, Ruth & Trudy was closed – and one of the PTC’s greatest years came to a glorious end.

In the winter of 1987, Victoria and I were determined to mount a new PTC comedy revue – and along with board member Drew McCoy, we convinced our friends at The Chicago Theatre to back another show to be staged at the (by now aptly-named) Vic Theatre. We teamed with another fellow NU alum (and Vic’s high school classmate at Luther South High School) Kyle Hefner on a show we called Bozo the Town. Steve Rashid once again provided musical direction and limitless keyboard skills.

On May 21, 1987, Sid Smith announced in The Chicago Tribune, ‘Bozo the Town,’ a new comedy revue from the Practical Theatre Company, opens June 27 at the Vic Theatre…Promised satirical targets include Nancy Reagan, Jim Bakker, Fawn Hall and the Neanderthal man. The three-member cast, who wrote the show, consists of Paul Barrosse and Victoria Zielinski, performers in the Practical’s previous revue ‘Art, Ruth and Trudy,’ and new troupe member Kyle Heffner, whose professional credits include the film ‘Runaway Train.’ Steve Rashid, another ‘Art, Ruth and Trudy’ veteran, is musical director.

The new show is co-produced by Chicago Theatre Productions in its first venture so far in producing outside the Chicago.

We rehearsed Bozo the Town in a space provided by The Organic Theatre’s Artistic Director Richard Fire – and this time Steve Rashid was joined by his multi-talented musical partner, Don Stiernberg. As was the case with Art, Ruth & Trudy, Vic’s NU buddy (and Steve’s new girlfriend), Beatrix Potoczny choreographed the dances, guru Sheldon Patinkin kept us on our comedic course.

Sheldon (left) gives his notes after a "Bozo the Town" preview.

Watching the genius, Ron Crawford, at work.

Louis DiCrescenzo stage managed Bozo the Town and Ron Crawford designed and executed our set. And for this production, we took full advantage of Clubland’s video monitors and technical effects. Video jockey Tom Piazza and lighting wiz Terry Shaughnessy knocked themselves out helping us craft a cutting edge comedy extravaganza using all the nightclub-concert venue toys at our disposal.

Bozo the Town opened to mixed reviews. Our critical champion at The Chicago Tribune, Richard Christiansen, who adored the PTC’s early comedic efforts in our tiny storefront home (the 42-seat John Lennon Auditorium on Howard Street) had a hard time wrapping his head around the 1,000-seat Vic Theatre’s video monitors and special effects. His complaints implied that we’d invested in all that technology, as opposed to making use of what was already available to us.

Other reviews ranged from more favorable to outright enthusiastic – but the die was cast. Bozo the Town closed after a couple months: the last improvisational comedy revue that The Practical Theatre Company would ever produce. (It would be another 23 years before Victoria, Steve and I would reunite for The Vic & Paul Show.)

Vic and I looking good in "Red Noses" ('87)

Later that year, Victoria and I appeared in the U.S. premiere of Red Noses by Peter Barnes, a dark comedy about the bubonic plague in the Middle Ages that opened in October, 1987 at The Goodman Theatre.

In December of ’87, I performed in director Sheldon Patinkin’s production of The Dybbuk at the National Jewish Theatre in Skokie — followed by an utterly enjoyable turn as Chico Marx in the held-over run of Minnie’s Boys at the National Jewish Theatre, which opened on May 9, 1988.

Harpo (Ross Lehman), Chico (me), Zeppo (Alan Novak) & Groucho (Tom Mula) at Comiskey Park.

The highlight of my Minnie’s Boys gig was appearing as The Marx Brothers singing the National Anthem in four-part barbershop harmony at Comiskey Park. I still have the baseball that Kansas City Royals Hall of Famer George Brett threw me moments before we started singing. “Hey, Chico!” he called out. My heart raced so much after I made a barehanded shoe-top grab of Brett’s toss that I wavered on my first note. And I was the guy singing the first note! I caught Brett’s pitch but I nearly threw our quartet off-pitch.

Cavorting with The Marx Brothers was great fun, but I missed the originality and electricity of the PTC. And before the year was out, 1988 saw the last great Practical Theatre collaboration. Once again, Sheldon Patinkin was essential.

Rush Pearson, Tucker Smith, me, Brad Hall and Larry Schanker during the "Rockme!" workshop.

Sheldon, was also the chairman of the Theatre Department at Columbia College in downtown Chicago, invited me and Brad to submit a proposal for the school’s New Musicals Project, sponsored by and The Paul and Gabriella Rosenbaum Foundation. Three musicals would be chosen to develop in workshops at Columbia, culminating in staged readings.

Brad and I pitched Sheldon on a show about an aging garage band – and the New Musicals Project chose Rockme! as one of the three projects to workshop in 1988.

Brad returned to Chicago to work on Rockme! and actually became a real overnight guest in the apartment I shared with Victoria.

Brad and I were joined in the cast Rockme! by PTC members Rush Pearson, Riffmaster Peter Van Wagner (now dubbed “Doctor Guitar”), Victoria and keyboard virtuoso, Larry Schanker, a veteran of The Mee-Ow Show at NU and the PTC revues at Piper’s Alley. To this core of PTC regulars, we added the great Bonnie Sue Arp, the wonderful Treva Tegtmeier, fellow NU grad Tucker Smith, a young drummer named Mark Mule, and John Mohrlein, who we’d met in the cast of Red Noses. Topping the bill as the Rock & Roll Muse was another NU alumna, Megan Mullally, whose film and television career was well underway when she lent her powerful pipes to our production. All under the watchful eye and guiding hand of Sheldon Patinkin.

Around that time, we began previewing songs from the show at parties staged in our friend Bo May’s production facility on North Avenue – across the street from our old Piper’s Alley home.

Bo May was an independent commercial producer and rock and roll animal who graciously gave us the space to strut our Rockme! stuff in advance of our concert debut. By this time, the PTC was  known as much for our rock & roll parties as our theatrical productions. (Ultimately, the parties would outlive the theatre.)

On August 1, 1988 we performed Rockme! in front of a sold-out house at The Apollo Theatre. Performing on the set of Pump Boys & Dinettes, we brought the crowd to its feet.

Me, Bonnie Sue, Vic and Brad recording songs from "Rockme!" with Steve Rashid at Q&R Studio in Evanston.

Later that year, we gathered the cast – this time with Rockin’ Ronny Crawford on the drums and Babalooney veteran Bekka Eaton – to record the songs from the show. Everyone who saw the show at the Apollo or heard the music we recorded agreed that Rockme! was destined for greatness. But somehow, like the characters in Waiting for Godot, we did not move. After that auspicious beginning, Rockme! went nowhere.

Update: 22 years later, Rockme! may have found new life. My daughter, Emilia, proposed the show to a campus student theatre group at her college – and a concert production is scheduled for Winter Quarter, 2011. And what school is Emilia attending? Would you believe…Northwestern?

Back to our story…

Vic and me at home in our Evanston apartment ('89).

By 1989, after working with WLUP radio jock, Jonathan Brandmeier on his NBC television specials in Chicago and Los Angeles, I was already splitting time between Chicago and the West Coast — now as Brad and his wife Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ serial overnight guest. But my plans to relocate to Los Angeles permanently were put on old when Victoria and I were asked by our old Piper’s Alley partner, Second City owner Bernie Sahlins, to join his new comedy troupe, The Willow Street Carnival.

Learning to clown around in Spain with Jamie Baron and Peter Burns.

Bernie took us to Spain for six weeks in the winter of ‘89 to study clowning, street theatre and commedia dell arte with Barcelona’s amazing Comediants.

Sadly, Willow Street’s first show, Spring, didn’t run very long in our brand new 450-seat cabaret space in Chicago’s Clybourn corridor, but it was still a victory for me. During that production, I finally convinced Victoria to marry me. We set a date for the summer of 1990.

PTC fun fact: The Willow Street Carnival first announced that we’d open on April 11, 1989 — the 10th anniversary of the Practical Theatre Company. (We opened our first play, Clowns, on April 11, 1979 under the Attack Theatre banner at Shanley Hall on the Northwestern Campus.) Willow Street actually opened on May 24th.

The last Practical Theatre event in the 80’s was our Rockme Christmas 1989 party entitled “Deck the Halls with Buddy Holly.”

Like so many of our post-JLA bashes in the late 80’s, “Deck the Halls with Buddy Holly” was held at Bo May’s place on North Avenue — with a wall of sound provided by Riffmaster & The Rockme Foudation.

Bo May’s studio, and Bubba George McClellan’s downtown Northwestern club, Jimmy G’s, were the sites of many a rocking good time — and many fond memories.

Our dear Sheldon congratulates the bride and groom.

Vic and I were married on June 30, 1990. Dozens of our PTC and Northwestern friends came to our blissful wedding on a blazing hot day – but the Practical Diaspora was already well under way.

That fall, on September 27, 1990, my last effort in Chicago theatre opened at City Lit Theatre: an adaptation of The Last Pennant Before Armageddon, W. P. Kinsella’s short story about a Chicago Cubs manager haunted that his team’s impending World Series victory could usher in the end of the world.

Jack Helbig’s review for The Reader, sounded very much like the coda to my – and the PTC’s — career in Chicago. (The emphasis in mine.)

In adapting ‘Last Pennant’ to the stage, Paul Barrosse, Tom Mula, and Arnold Aprill have considerably broadened Kinsella’s mildly humorous short story, infusing it with plenty of loud, cartoonish characters (including a buffoonish Harry Caray parody and an obnoxious team owner who looks and talks a little like Yosemite Sam). The adaptation has the manic but good-natured comic energy I fondly remember from Practical Theatre’s (and Paul Barrosse’s) heyday in the early 80s.

Epilogue:

Earlier this year, our good friend, fellow NU alum, PTC member and Rockme stalwart, Terry Barron, was playing a DVD of clips from The Practical Theatre days. His teenage son, Taidgh, watching along with great interest, asked his dad — what happened to our space at 703 Howard Street?

According to Terry, after he gave his son “a long-winded account of Practical fragmenting and blowing to all the corners of America, (Taidgh) replied, ‘No, the space. What happened to the space?’  I said, I don’t know. It’s still there. Different stores move in from time to time and sometimes the space is vacant. He looked me with this incredulous look that implied I was missing the most obvious fact and said, ‘Buy it back.’”

I know what Taidgh means — and I know how he feels. But there’s no ned to “buy it back”. The Practical Theatre Company was never a piece of real estate. It’s an ideal. It’s a spirit. It’s a community. What was essential about the PTC is still alive today.

But the Practical Theatre in Chicago in the 1980’s — that was Brigadoon: a magical place that existed for a brief time and vanished. And I got the girl.

Art is Good.

23 responses to “The Practical Theatre Co. Part 4

  1. The last line about Brigadoon is classic. So true. My drawings are well presented thank you. You sure got the scrapbook together.
    Love Ron

  2. Rob

    My Mom and Dad met my childhood dentist, Bernard Stewart, then living in Chicago, and they all went to Art Ruth and Trudy and had the time of their lives. It was an amazing show.

  3. Rockin Ronny

    Man… Paul, I’ve shed some tears in the last few weeks but tonight I shed some for the wonderful memories that you have gathered here.
    Thank you for the look back. I love that we shared that time together, I love seeing my dad’s drawings (ones I’ve forgotten about!) and that we made the world a bit louder and a whole lot happier.
    I look forward to the next adventure in PTC land!

    Rockin

  4. Sigh. Just….sigh. The time of our lives, followed of course by more grand times of our lives, but that time was extra special. Thanks for recounting the tale so vividly, and for saving every scrap of paper.

    And I’m gonna give you at least 2 more PTC begats beyond Econo Art. Lifeline Theatre, which is still alive and well in Rogers Park, started by Practical Women alum Sandy Snyder, Meryl Freidman & Suz Plunkett (among others), my own short lived company, Chicago New Plays, and there’s one more that’s slipping my mind. Anyone else can help me out?

    Looking forward to the second coming of Rockme!

  5. Michael Raysses

    It’s official. I am jumping in the Wayback Machine. I am going back to Chicago, circa 1982, and I am going to stalk you, Paul. Ultimately, you will hire me to do something, anything, to get me off your back. I am not saying it will rewrite a history as glorious and full as the one you’ve captured here. But at least I will have had a chance to participate more fully in a phenomenon I was only passively aware of at the time of its occurrence.

    When my distant relative Thucydides was penning this thing he wrote called The Peloponessian War, he told me that at one point someone threw him a spear and told him to quit recording history and fight. He declined, begging off with the excuse that no one can do both. You have proved him wrong.

    All the best and then some,

    Michael

    P.S. Now can we have lunch, please?

  6. jeff michalski

    Hi Paul,
    Great seeing you and Brad at the Chicago get together this year. The 80’s were a great creative time for many of us and The Practical Theatre Company’s success in the Pipers Alley Space inspired and gave license to some of us in the Touring Company to mount our own shows in the space. I always viewed your shows with a certain amount of glee. The freedom of presentation hid a disciplined approach to an undisciplined wild look. The multi -talented performers, and the creative tribal extensions to other artists conveyed a sense that we were all invited to the party. All ways looked at the troupe’s camaraderie and freedom with a sense of admiration and envy. Any weirdness ( and there was some) at the space, was more about the psycho/social nature of Second City’s internal politic at that time. Anyway, here’s to the next re-generation of The Practical Theatre Company when it springs.

  7. Rod McLachlan

    I wish to take a pause from sobbing over lost youth to go on record as having first submitted the title of “Art, Ruth and Trudy” as far back as Mee-Ow. I resubmitted it for every show I was in, and then moved to New York, whereby I ceded all rights to the title. Yes, I am that insecure, that I need to glom on the glory train, if only over a detail.
    I could possibly enjoy this history more! So many old names and faces…

    • Dear Mr. McLachlan,

      Your titular contribution to “Art, Ruth & Trudy” is duly noted. Of course, all such matters are subject to an internal board of review — and the review board only convenes every five years. As our last board of review was held two weeks ago in Tahiti, it will be at least five years until a final clarification with respect to the origin of the title, “Art, Ruth & Trudy”, can be made and published. Thank you in advance for your infinite patience.

  8. Barbra Zuanich-Friedman

    Oh Paul and Vic. You underachievers! I’m sorry things haven’t exactly worked out for you and that your lives haven’t been very fulfilling or exciting. All those times you chronicle were, well, so commonplace. Hardly makes it worth writing down and I can understand why it took you four years to complete. So, please move! I would rather have some really interesting neighbors to share the hedge; I’m gonna ask Harry if he has a brother who might be interested in the cul-de-sac. Meanwhile, try to have some fun….

  9. Rushy Pearson

    “The Practical Theatre Company was never a piece of real estate. It’s an ideal. It’s a spirit. It’s a community. What was essential about the PTC is still alive today.”
    You can take the boy out of Tomaloochie Falls, but you can’t take the Tomaloochie Falls out of the boy.

  10. Riffmaster Peter Van Wagner

    The PTC has never ended for me. Like many of us Practical guys I met the girl who would be my wife through PTC. Every day a part of PTC is with me and with so many more of us. That little 40 seat theatre on Howard Street that you guys created and we all built lives on and on. And I thank Terry McCabe, who is pictured above, for bringing me into the PTC orb. He cast me in Subnormal, the second show in the John Lennon Auditorium. The seeds for the Rockme Foundation were sewn during that production. Glory be! What a time was had at 703 Howard Street. Those that were there will never forget. And we still, most of us, see one another. Its wonderful to read all about it in your blogs. Peace & Love, Riff

  11. Steve Rashid

    I agree, Ronny. Reading this really brought back a flood of emotional memories. What a time, huh? Thanks, Paul, for being the catalyst behind all that intense creative activity and for so beautifully documenting this time that was so important to all of us. And I’m digging the pictures, and Ron’s sketches! Man. We are some lucky sons-a-bitches to have shared all that, huh? And isn’t it cool that it continues?!

    Oh, and I also got a girl out of the deal. Sweeeet.

  12. It’s so great to read all these replies from everyone. The story of the PTC is a shared history — and a living history. Your comments make that abundantly clear. Art will evidently remain Good.

  13. bruce ostler

    dear pablo,

    what a beautiful history of the PTC. but then you were always a wonderful writer, and i think (more than even brad) it is was up to you to write it. i’ve read it now twice, and those parts (that i was a part of) i cycled through a few more times,( a bit wistfully perhaps) but i’ve had a smile pasted on my stupid face all morning long as i’ve laughed and wept, and winced and laughed some more. i too drank the cool-aid and in those heady days believed that we could change the world and had some fun along the way. it’s moving to see so many pictures of old freinds. where did the time go?

    and those pictures of you and vic from the Vic and Paul show made me smile some more. you looking strong and debonair, but with that look of mischief and glee and vic looking more beautiful than i remember and with great vitality in her eyes.

    i still have a Babalooney! poster in the closet, a faded John Lennon Membership Card and a ratty old Practical Theatre Co. t-shirt, that belongs in the smithsonian.

    and i still believe that “art is good”

    thank you.

    your pal,

    bruce

    • Bruce! So great to hear from you — and so glad you’ve enjoyed the PTC history. Brad and I were just talking about you the other day (all good). Among other things, didn’t you direct “Nightfall” by Lewis Black for us at Noyes?

      Yeah, I figured somebody had to write the history of that unique period of thrills and glory, and since I had all the files and photos, it would have to be me. There are still so many gaps to be filled and stories to be told — “Babalooney” in New York would fill its own chapter. Alas, I still haven’t been able to find my John Lennon Athletic Club membership card. I know I’ve got it somewhere. Hang on to that ratty old t-shirt. I’m sure there’s still some magic left in it.

  14. bruce ostler

    yes you can blame me for nightfall – and joe labritz was associate director on that… “the road meets monty python” indeed… what were we thinking? i remember we pleaded with les hendricks to lend us his special blank hand guns for the play (i remember his disertation was on usage of handguns on the stage) – and the night after opening night, and at about 5 minutes to curtain we discovered that all the hand guns had been stollen. i don’t remember if it was you or brad (or joe?) who came up with the solution (it wasn’t me) but we ran across the street and bought a bunch of toy guns and had the s.m. slam together 2X4s to simulate the gunshots… and it worked better than the blanks – people jumped out of their seats at the “gunshots”… but the hardest part was telling les hendricks that his beloved guns had been stollen. i don’t think he ever quite forgave us for that.

    • I borrowed a gun from Les H. for my production of “Of Mice and Men” sophomore year. I needed a gun that could be fired safely while pressed directly against someone’s head. Les had just the right gun. That man knew his stage firearms. ( I think it was the subject of his PhD thesis.)

  15. Martin May

    It has been a long time and a big “Thank you” for the trip down memory
    lane. It is difficult to withhold any emotion. Anyone who was a part of this
    journey, surely understands. Either as a member of the audience or one who actively participated, it was quite surreal. I still have pictures of that point in time, in the 1980’s. WOW! As the Riffmaster said, The PTC has never really ended for me. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you.

  16. I just blindly stumbled on this amazing PTC history while searching for Bob Odenkirk cuz I just saw The Giant Mechanical Man and I was pretty sure Bob was involved in Soapbox. 2 hours later, I’ve read through all four parts. Good stuff.

    I still have Practical Theatre posters up on my office wall at our Citadel Dance & Music Center building in the Benton Harbor, MI Arts District and the Practical Theatre touring brochure framed on top of my filing cabinet in my Mendel Center Mainstage office at Lake Michigan College.

    Larry Schanker recently played the piano at two events in our Oak Room at the Citadel space. Unbelievably we have both lived in the same Michigan town these past almost 20 years.

    One suggestion to add: What about the Toledo Mudhens softball? And the softball trading cards? I still have my set of those. Playing for PTC in the League of Chicago Theater softball games was a gas.

    Paul, you and Vic and other PTCers are welcome to come up and perform in The Oak Room any old time.The first Friday of every month is Improv night with TORP. Feel free to jump in. Just 2 hours north of Chicago. Great acoustics for live music too.

    Thanks for the memories!

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