30 Years Ago…

We measure our lives in years, but we experience life moment to moment. Some moments in time are more memorable than others. Some are unforgettable. And yet, even our most remarkable moments become generalized in our memories. Years later, we no longer see them in sharp focus. What we remember becomes wrapped in gauze: kept warm and fuzzy.

And then sometimes, even after three busy, event-filled decades, something can stir the memory of a special time in your life and you relive a moment you thought you remembered well — but hadn’t really seen clearly for a long, long while.

Recently, my good friend and college roommate Rob Mendel brought a wonderful moment in time back to life when he posted a vivid series of photographs he took in and around The Practical Theatre on Howard Street in Evanston, on the northern border of Chicago, in the winter of 1981-82.

The halcyon moment in time that Rob captured with his camera was charged with a mix of creativity and youthful energy that would ultimately – in just six more months – change our lives in an unexpected and dramatic way.

It would be, perhaps, too precious to say that Robbie caught us in the last relatively innocent and naïve moment of our young adult lives. But he did.

Asked for his recollections of how he came to take this trove of photos, Rob replied, “I can hardly remember! It was after traveling back to Evanston from Texas on the Big O with Rush, I think. “Beggars Holiday” was in rehearsal. We took publicity shots for that. But am I mixing it up?”

Not really. Beggar’s Holiday opened at The PTC’s John Lennon Auditorium at 703 Howard Street on November 28, 1981 – so Rob’s publicity photos must have been taken in early November, soon after we (The Sturdy Beggars) got back from our muddy stint at The Texas Renaissance Festival.

“The Rockmes were rehearsing, I had my camera with me. I took pix of the Beggars in Texas and again in Evanston.”

Now, here Rob’s memory begins to fade.

Rob’s photos of The PTC’s house band Riffmaster & The Rockme Foundation in rehearsal at the JLA were clearly taken after Beggar’s Holiday closed and our 1982 season opener, the improvisational comedy revue The Brothers Bubba, was in rehearsal.

You can tell because I’ve shaved my beggar beard.

So, Rob’s photos of the Rockmes in rehearsal must have been taken in the first months of 1982 – exactly 30 years ago!

The band was formed late in the spring of ’81, and had been playing together less than a year when these shots were snapped.

Looking at the eager, earnest, passionate (and hairy) young garage band that Rob got on film that day in the winter of ’82 – it’s deeply satisfying to know that the Rockme adventure has continued.

In fact, the band shown in these pics is the same group of guys that still manage to reunite and rock together to this day.

Next gig? June 8th in Portola Valley, California. The beat goes on…

“Mo was two. I took her to the playground a couple of times… Used to chant, “She’s still a baby!” and she’d respond, “I’m not a baby!” She was the cutest thing!”

Okay, these photos just melt my heart. My daughter Maura was, indeed, the cutest thing. Little Mo was less than two years old at the time. (She turned two on July 3rd, 1982.) Rob snapped her in the lobby of The John Lennon Auditorium – with the “Build-a-Bear” that my mom made for her.Rob also shot this portrait of Maura in the lobby of the JLA with her Godfather Rush Pearson.And with Uncle Brad Hall, our mascot Sri Abdul Aziz, and Godfather Rush.Here’s the delightful toddler Maura with her dad a few doors west up Howard Street from the JLA at the legendary Cottage Restaurant, a classic diner. We’re waiting for old Bob to serve us a couple “chezzies” and a “shooker”. (Six months later, a UPI reporter would interview the cast of The Golden Jubilee at The Cottage to get the story of our sudden, shocking ascent to Saturday Night Live.)

Robbie’s camera also found us in rehearsal for The Brothers Bubba.

In this photo, Gary Kroeger, Jane Muller, your author, Rush Pearson and Brad Hall are rehearsing the musical number, “Macaroni & Cheese.”

In these photos, Brad and I are perfecting our impression of Simon and Garfunkel performing “The Boxer” — another sketch from The Bothers Bubba. 

 The Bothers Bubba opened at The JLA on April 1, 1982 and became the PTC’s biggest hit yet, playing to sold-out houses that demonstrated our 42-seat storefront was too small to contain our rapidly growing success.

Events were moving quickly, success was advancing swiftly, and as Bob Dylan said, the times they were a-changing. 

 Less than half a year after Rob’s photos were taken, the Practical Theatre Company, in partnership with Bernie Sahlins, owner of The Second City, opened our new cabaret theatre space at Piper’s Alley with The Golden 50th Anniversary Jubilee — a collection of our best sketches and songs performed by Brad Hall, Gary Kroeger, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and your humble author.

Robbie Mendel’s camera caught the spirit and drama of an unsuspecting cast of characters doing what they love – with no idea of what was to come.

“I remember that I had bought a camera, because the rental house I was working at in Hollywood had a bunch of guys who mentored me to get a camera and learn how to take pictures properly. I was using B&W for publicity pix for the Beggars, I believe, and that’s why they are not in color.”

Who cares about color? The classic black and white format adds to the drama of these memories: a glorious moment in time – just half a year before our lives were transformed — captured so indelibly by Robbie Mendel’s camera.

“When I returned to Hollywood, I landed my PA job on the TV movie with Susan St. James and I laid a publicity packet about PTC on Dick Ebersol there, but I think the PTC got on his radar separately, also. These pix preceded all of that, eh?”

That’s Rob Mendel for you. I never knew (or maybe I’d forgotten) that Robbie had hipped Saturday Night Live Executive Producer Dick Ebersol to The Practical Theatre just months before The Golden Jubilee opened at Piper’s Alley.It’s another intriguing brick in the wonderwall of that seminal moment in our lives.

5 Comments

Filed under Art, History, Music

5 responses to “30 Years Ago…

  1. Whoa. Of all the photos of the Practical Theatre and Rockmes I’ve ever seen, these are the most evocative of the real feeling of the era. When I first looked at ’em, I was pretty shaken, truth be told. I could absolutely feel the dirt on our Converse sneakers, I could smell the JLA stage, I could hear Maura’s footsteps — see the way she looks straight into camera? God, I remember that look! But, no, somehow it’s more than just remembering. Robbie’s pictures bring it all back, all back, all rushing back and it’s pretty overwhelming. You often wondered to what moment in the past you would return and live over again if given some magical gift to do so. Well, I wonder no more — Robbie’s given me the gift and I’ve been there and it was just as sweet as I dreamed it was. Thanks Robbie, and thanks for the post, Paulie.

  2. Rush Pearson

    You know things were moving so fast there. Robbie’s pics so perfectly capture this moment from those short span of the JLA daze. The band had now been with Rockin’ Ronny since the past August and elevated us to real band status, beggars whipped together a mad romp in 2 weeks, Maura was way out of the basket and chatting with us, and whipping up a comedy show in our blessed little space was now a “a tradition”.
    And this, this era, was just part of the pre-“PTC to SNL” time in our John Lennon Auditorium. These photos of this era recall for me that first year in JLA. When we were doing Bubba it seemed like way more than year and half had passed since we first became Practical at 703. I wish Robbie had been around a year before to capture that wacky time. The time where we were still wiping the sleep of a 4 year college dreamland from our eyes as we were hit with the brisk reality of having to fund our new playground. The time of building the stage with Louie and the building was in perpetual sawdust, and having the show postponed over and over again by the City of Evanston peoples as we wrote our first show “Thrills and Glory” in the bathroom. Though similar to these days depicted here, that first year still had a very different taste and texture.
    A big yahoo and hug to Robbie for unleashing all those times in vivid clarity.

  3. Rockin Ronny

    So proud to be on this wonderful journey Paul!

  4. Rush Pearson

    As I was just now re-reading the commentary,I came across Robbo’s recollection of calling Maura, a baby. No wonder it was so easy for me to teach Maura to say, “I love my Ugly Old Robbie” He had it coming from calling her a baby.

  5. Rush Pearson

    We still all love our Ugly Old Robbie!

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