The Chicago Theatre Symposium & Other Cultural Treasures

My wife Victoria and I have just returned from a wonderful trip to Chicago and Evanston. It was a perfect weekend: a blissful mix of business, pleasure, family and friendship — right up until (almost) the very end.

On Friday morning, May 20th, Victoria and I boarded our Spirit Airlines flight bound for Chicago. The next day, we were scheduled to make a presentation on the history of The Practical Theatre Company at the first Chicago Theatre Symposium at Columbia College.

We’d never flown Spirit Airlines before, but Vic had given me the job of booking our travel – and swayed by Bill Shatner’s performance as “The Negotiator” in all those Priceline commercials, I used that service for the first time. Spirit looked like the cheapest way to go. But cheapest, I would later learn (once again) is not always best.

We had a 90 minute layover in Las Vegas, and spent our idle time doing the kind of thing the devil encourages in idle minds: we gambled. With poker machines right there in the airport – how can you resist? It was an omen of a great weekend-to-be when I put $5 in a machine – and moments later, walked away with $82.50! We were leaving Las Vegas ahead of the game. It doesn’t usually go that way.

When we arrived in Chicago at about 2:30 in the afternoon, the sun was shining and the temperature was in the low 60’s: the kind of spring weather that requires sweaters and jackets in Los Angeles. But as we drove east on Dempster Street toward Evanston, teenagers in t-shirts drove by in top-down convertibles like it was a hot summer day in Malibu.

We picked up our daughter, Emilia (a sophomore at Northwestern) who said this was one of the few sunny days all spring – and that kids were losing their minds, running around in shorts, halter tops and sandals as though basking in a heat wave. That we’d come to town on one of the few sunny days was another good omen. Alas, the forecast was for rain the next two days. But, for the moment, the sun was shining and Evanston was picture postcard pretty. You’d never know it had all been frozen tundra not long ago.

Steve and Bea Rashid, our good friends and hosts, were preparing a barbecued pork loin feast as we pulled up to their warm, wonderful home. Steve is our longtime musical director, and the music man for The Vic & Paul Show. Steve’s wife Bea, a dancer and choreographer, is the Director of Dance Center Evanston – one of the town’s cultural treasures. We couldn’t imagine a better way to start our weekend than to enjoy a backyard BBQ with the gracious and talented Rashids, including their son, Daniel, a senior at Evanston Township High who’ll attend The University of Southern California in the fall.

The next morning, Saturday, we drove downtown to get to Columbia College by 9:00 for the start of the final day’s sessions of The Chicago Theatre Symposium. As Vic and I walked up to 1104 South Wabash, home of the Columbia College Chicago Film Row Center where the symposium was being held, the first person we saw was the most auspicious sign yet that our weekend was blessed.

Sheldon (Photo by Anita Evans)

Crossing the street and headed in our direction was none other than Sheldon Patinkin – our beloved, legendary comedy guru! Those who have read my history of The Practical Theatre on this blog know the impact that Sheldon has had on our lives. If there was one person we wanted most to see that day, it was Sheldon. And here he was! We greeted him with genuine joy and walked into the symposium at his side.

The sessions that day were being held on the 8th floor, and Vic and I sat down in the auditorium to await the day’s first presentation, when Mary Carol Riehs walked over to say hello. Mary Carol was a contemporary at Northwestern – and it was she who told me about the symposium and suggested that The PTC should be represented. Mary Carol was, quite simply, the reason we were there. She sat with us as we took in the 9:45 presentation, entitled “Beyond the Method: Chicago Teachers and Their Impact on Chicago Theatre – From the South Side to the North Shore.”

The first speaker was Kathleen Perkins, an Associate Professor at Columbia College, who spoke about “Inspirational and Influential Chicago Teachers and Leaders,” including Winifred Ward, the late Bella Itkin – and our own Sheldon Patinkin, who has made an indelible mark on comedy and theatre, from his work with the original Compass Players, Second City, SCTV and the PTC – to Columbia College, The National Jewish Theatre, Steppenwolf and on and on and on.

Then, the session really began to feel like Old Home Week.

Kathleen Sills (Photo by Anita Evans)

Kathleen Sills spoke next. Another NU contemporary, Kathleen founded Lifeline Theatre in 1982, along with four other NU pals of ours, Meryl Friedman, Suzanne Plunkett, Sandy Snyder and Steve Totland. Kathleen gave a presentation on one of Northwestern’s most famous and influential theatre professors, the venerable Alvina Krause.

Kathleen’s presentation, “Alvina Krause, Humanities, and the Anti-Conservatory”, added rich detail to a theatrical legend that Victoria and I had been aware of since our days at Northwestern. Krause had retired years before I arrived at NU in the fall of ‘76 – but long after she left the theatre department, her presence was still powerfully felt.

Krause established herself in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania in 1971 and many NU students made pilgrimages there for master classes with their guru. In fact, one of Victoria’s closest NU friends, Elizabeth (Betsy) Dowd, was among those students who, in 1978, founded the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble, with Krause (then 85-years old) as artistic director. Krause passed away in 1981, but Betsy and her husband Rand Whipple (another NU pairing) are still making the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble a vital part of their community.

Victoria is ready for the symposium.

The next presentation, “Robert Breen and the Rise of Narrative Theatre in Chicago”, also hit close to home. Northwestern professor Paul Edwards gave a spirited account of Breen’s seminal work with Chamber Theatre – a theatrical form in which short stories, novels, and other prose works were brought to life onstage, incorporating the narrator as a central character. This was a technique I’d learned from one of Breen’s students, Frank Galati, whose brilliant class “Interpretation of Prose Fiction” was a must for aspiring actors and directors during by days at NU.

Victoria was an Interpretation Department major, and among her most inspirational teachers was Breen’s colleague Wallace Bacon, whose essential “Interpretation of Shakespeare” class was affectionately known as “Shake and Bake”.

In our era at Northwestern, the creative excitement, energy and ideas emanated from the Interpretation Department, with teachers like Galati — and his estimable predecessors Breen and Bacon – inspiring a generation of artists to think way, way outside the conventional theatre box.

This was the creative soup we were swimming in at Northwestern in the late 1970’s – and combined with our exposure to Second City style improvisational comedy through the Mee-Ow Show – provided the inspiration for four NU students to establish what became the Practical Theatre Company: a story Victoria and I were due to tell next in Room 801C as part of a session entitled, “Comedy and Improv, Part 2.”

The session began with a presentation on “Del Close, iO, and the Development of Long Form Improv” by Kim Johnson, author of The Funniest One in the Room: The Lives and Legends of Del Close, and Del’s longtime business and creative partner, Charna Halpern, who is still the producer of iO (Formerly Improv Olympic) which she and Del founded in 1981.

The late, great Del Close is a genuine American improv comedy legend: a veteran of the Compass Players in St. Louis (with Mike Nichols and Elaine May), Second City in Chicago, The Committee in San Francisco, Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, Saturday Night Live – and finally Improv Olympic.

Brad Hall and I met Del when we shared a dressing room with him during the 1984 Goodman Theatre production of “A Christmas Carol” – and Rush Pearson and I planned a show with Del (to be called The Secret Show) in which Rush and I would act as assistants/acolytes to Del’s mad comedy scientist. The Secret Show never went beyond one memorable appearance in Irv Rein’s class at Northwestern in 1985 – where Del explained the basic roles of comedy as he saw them, as his two clownish henchmen acted them out. That same year, Del became an honorary member of The Practical Theatre Company in a ritual during which a watermelon was disemboweled – and Del’s red-painted footprints were enshrined on the sidewalk in front of The John Lennon Auditorium.

Jeffrey Sweet (Photo by Anita Evans)

After Kim and Charna finished their talk about Del, it was our turn to make good on the program’s promise that, “Members of one of Chicago’s most popular comedy theatres recall their experiences as part of the storefront theatre explosion of the 1980s.” Victoria and I presented the brief, blessed history of The Practical Theatre to the assembled students, writers and Chicago theatre luminaries (including our guru Sheldon, playwrights Jeffrey Sweet and James Sherman, Chicago Reader editor Tony Adler, and Scott Vehill, artistic director of The Prop Theatre.)

Scott Vehill & Sheldon Patinkin at The Chicago Theatre Symposium (Photo by Anita Evans)

Victoria ribbed me as “the Herodotus of The Practical Theatre” for preparing an 18-page script for our presentation – but clearly, a more informal talk was in order. Luckily. I know my PTC history fairly well (having lived it) and Victoria chimed in with well-timed details, statistics, and comic asides – often at my expense. (Lovingly, of course.) Sheldon added his own color commentary – which was personally satisfying, as Sheldon’s impact on those of us who were privileged to work with him at the PTC was (and is) immeasurable. For Vic and I to be making this presentation at Sheldon’s college, and to have him there while me made it, cemented the fact that we were in the right place at the right time.

Afterward, we made sure to plug The Vic & Paul Show – which will be playing from June 9-12 at the Prop Theatre in Chicago. And I’ll plug the show here, as well.

For tickets go to: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/169351

Following our symposium appearance, Vic and I had an appointment to meet The Reader’s Tony Adler at the nearby 11 City Diner. His plan was to interview us for an article to appear in The Reader on Thursday, June 9th – the day The Vic & Paul Show opens in Chicago. The 11 City Diner is trendy, quite busy and pretty loud. Tony joined us and we got seated at a booth, our waitress arrived, and we ordered drinks. But we didn’t order food. Don’t worry, we told our waitress, we’d take care of her.

Tony turned on his tape recorder – and he’d barely begun his interview when a restaurant manager sauntered up to our table, reminded us how busy the diner was at lunchtime, and suggested we might “be more comfortable” upstairs (where it was even louder.) We protested mildly that we intended to take care of our waitress, but the manager was not to be deterred. With the smooth yet forceful false friendliness of a veteran Division Street bouncer, he had another suggestion: we might be even “more comfortable” in the quieter confines of the Columbia College student union just a few doors down the block!

In fact, he escorted us the few hundred feet down Wabash and practically opened the door to the student union for us. The whole episode was beyond odd, and Tony, Vic and I recognized that we were living a comedy sketch. But, like any good comedy sketch – there was another twist.

The “quiet” student union the manager promised was not so quiet.

It looked like a band was setting up to rehearse – and as soon we sat down and Tony turned his tape recorder back on — a percussionist began banging away on various exotic gourds and wood blocks.

Tony & Vic

By the end of our interview the band was in full swing – with a horn section blaring away – and the three of us were huddled close around Tony’s tape recorder, trying to have a conversation about the return of the PTC to Chicago, parenthood, the glory of living in Evanston (Tony’s an Evanstonian) and of course, The Vic & Paul Show.

We thoroughly enjoyed our conversation with Tony Adler – and we appreciated that the band rehearsal was one of life’s unexpected punch lines. Someday soon we’d love to continue our conversation with Tony. There’s not a nicer, more informed and erudite guy to talk to — or get thrown out of a restaurant with.

Later that evening, we enjoyed dinner with the Rashids and Emilia (and some of her college friends) at Union – a classy Evanston gourmet pizzeria that’s connected to SPACE. (SPACE is the best place for live music on the North Shore – and the site of Riffmaster & The Rockme Foundation’s triumphant reunion concert last year: our first gig in the Chicago area in more than two decades.)

There was also a Rockme connection to the next item on our Saturday evening agenda. Our Rockme band mate, Maurice “Mr. Mo” Cleary was playing a few Bob Dylan songs on his ukulele as part of a 70th Birthday celebration for Dylan at Evanston’s Café Mozart at 600 Davis Street – just a short walk from Union.

Café Mozart was packed when we arrived, and Vic and Bea had to drink their coffee sitting under the bar, as we listened to a series of acoustic performances of classic Dylan tunes by local musicians. Then, Mr. Mo stepped up to the stage with his uke. And it sounded like this…

Next, Steve and I joined Mr. Mo for an abridged, semi-Byrds-like version of “Mr. Tambourine Man”. We hadn’t planned to do this in advance – and how Steve managed to suddenly pull a harmonica out of thin air I still don’t know…

After the show at Café Mozart, we said goodnight to Emilia, then went home to Steve and Bea’s house and played Mahjong for the first time. It’s hard enough to learn Mahjong – but when you start off with hardly any sleep, a long, busy day, and two glasses of Chardonnay – it doesn’t get any easier. At the end of the game, all four of us were just one tile short of victory. And we were also out of gas.

Rick Kogan

The next day, Vic, Steve and I rehearsed the songs for The Vic & Paul Show – including our just-written musical tribute to Chicago’s brand new Mayor Rahm Emmanuel.

We also prepared some audio clips for our appearance on Rick Kogan’s WGN Radio show, The Sunday Papers, at 8:00 am CST on Sunday, May 29th. (You Midwestern early-birds may want to check it out. The rest of you can hear it online.)

We spent lunchtime with our good friends and former NU classmates, Nili Yelin and Bill Wronski. Vic and I both performed in improv comedy groups with Bill back in the day — and Nili was one of my close theatre department classmates. Nili now helps to run the landmark Wilmette Theatre. After lunch, she showed us around this cultural treasure, built in 1913. If you live anywhere near the North Shore, you’ve got to check out what they’re doing at The Wilmette Theatre.

Time was running out on our dream weekend, and our flight back home was just hours away, so we threw our bags in the trunk, jumped into our rental car, and made one last stop to meet our daughter Emilia at Kafein, a groovy local coffee shop. (One of the dozens that now exist in Evanston. The number of groovy coffee shops back in our day? Zero.) Rain was starting to fall as we said goodbye to our darling Emilia and headed out to O’Hare for our 7:50 pm direct flight back to Los Angeles.

It didn’t work out that way.

As I said at the beginning — our perfect weekend of business, pleasure, family and friendship would end on a less than perfect note.

Due to the tornadoes in Missouri and other threatening weather in the area, our 7:50 flight to L.A. was cancelled (after several dispiriting) delays) at about 9:00 pm. To make matters worse, Spirit had only one more flight going west that night: to Las Vegas, leaving at 10:00 pm and arriving at 2:00 am. But the Spirit personnel at the gate could not arrange to put anyone on that flight. We would have to go to the ticket counters downstairs.

By the time we got to the ticket counters, there were about a hundred disgruntled, increasingly agitated people already in line – so Vic started working the phone. She directed me to get in line.

While in line, I heard a ticket agent in the very empty First Class line call out, “Anyone going to Vegas?” I raced over to take my spot, just third from the start of the line. When the ticket agent tried to clarify that she was only referring to travelers going to Vegas – and not those intending to go on to Los Angeles – those of us in line made it clear that we were not going anywhere. She relented. A victory.

Soon, Vic walked up to say she’d booked us on the 10:00 pm flight to Vegas — and within minutes we’d checked our bags, gone back through security, and took our places at the gate, waiting until about 10:30, when the flight finally took off, just ahead of the approaching storm.

We got to the Vegas airport at 2:00 am, picked up our bags at baggage claim, and for the next four hours, we tried to find comfortable spots in McCarran Airport to plug in our failing cell phone and catch a few winks before the ticket counters opened at 6:00 am – at which time we could check our bags for our 8:00 am flight to Los Angeles.

By 10:00 am, we were back at LAX and by 11:00, we were home. By Noon, Vic was at school and I was at work. Tired, to be sure — but happy to have spent a wonderful weekend in the treasured city that will always be home in our hearts.

8 Comments

Filed under Art, History

8 responses to “The Chicago Theatre Symposium & Other Cultural Treasures

  1. Man, after reading about your busy stay and that delayed return trip home…..I am going back to bed! I will catch some zzzz’s for ya! 🙂

  2. I’m sure you give me too much credit, but I’m happy to have played a role in getting you involved with the symposium. Your presentation was terrific, and your story is an important part of the history of Chicago theatre. I’m so glad it all worked out, and I am looking forward to seeing the Vic and Paul Show in June!

  3. li'l rushy

    Pablo!
    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! for your involvement and reporting. My thoughts were with you two the entire trip! (oh, except at the airport delay, then my thoughts wandered off, and I was in the Tralfamador Zoo, again)

  4. nate herman

    Wait a minute…you’re THAT Paul Barosse? Wow!

    Actually I ripped that off from a page in Arthur Miller’s autobiography called TimeSomethingOrOther. He was walking down a street in Brooklyn some time after ‘Death of A Salesman’ opened on Broadway and he ran into an old friend from grammar school. The fellow shouted, “Art…Arty Miller! How the hell are you doing?” They talked and finally each told the other what he was up to lately. The fellow was pretty proud about that fact that he was in business (his father’s, I think) and it was doing well. Then he asked ‘Arty’ what he was up to and Miller told him about the play. The fellow’s face turned white. “You’re Arthur Miller?”, he gasped. Then he stuck out his hand and said “Pleased to meet you”.

  5. That is TOTALLY the perfect weekend…return travel notwithstanding. Would have loved to have been at the symposium. I knew Kathee had gone to present too!

  6. Shelly

    What a wonderful recounting of a memorable weekend. So many names of so many dear friends.

    Sandy Snyder co-founded Lifeline Theatre after spending a year with me, Sara Berg & Barbara Howard onstage at the Body Politic in my play COMING ATTRACTIONS.

    So glad you saw Shelldon but even happier you told the tale of PTC to all at the conference.

    Looking so forward to V&P rehearsals and seeing you guys back on the boards in the world’s best Theatre city.

  7. neil giuntoli

    Paul, i had a wonderful time reading this account, because you are one of the few people i know who understands rules one, two and three of show biz, “never be boring”….which leads me to apologize that i wont be at the Prop to see you and Vick, as i have recently opened the “Red Dawn Summer Camp” (a wholly owned subsidiary of Owl Farm Ventures LLC) in southwest Wisconsin, where i will be facilities manager/Corps Commandant, a responsibility and burden assumed, fully aware of the gravitas inherent.

    i will leave you now Don Barrosse, because i know you are a busy man, neil

    • Red Dawn Summer Camp? I’m intrigued. Will campers be repelling a Russian invasion? Seriously, good luck with that Neil. We’ll miss you. But since we’ll be at The Prop — your spirit and energy will always be there. (And I’m not even all that metaphysical.)

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