Part Three: A Tale of Two Spaces
As the Chicago Reader announced on its September 3, 1982 front page, The Practical Theatre was anointed with “Success” that year. Between ‘82 and ‘83 that success generated national press, sent four cast members to Saturday Night Live, and established the PTC as a comedy company to (briefly) rival Second City. But our sudden success was a challenge for a young theatre company less than four years old and run by a band of idealistic twentysomethings fresh out of Northwestern University.
What was once a cozy comic clubhouse in a homemade 42-seat storefront theatre on Chicago’s northern frontier had quickly become a growing business operating in two locations. Brad Hall and I became “Associate Artistic Directors in Exile”, shuttling back and forth from our gigs at Saturday Night Live in New York City to guide the creative agenda at The PTC — both at our tiny John Lennon Auditorium on Howard Street and our new Piper’s Alley Theatre at North and Wells behind Second City, which we ran in an increasingly uneasy partnership with Second City’s owner and founder, Bernie Sahlins.
In the spring of ’83, our smash hit comedy revue Megafun was filling the seats and selling drinks at Piper’s Alley while on Howard Street, rehearsals were underway for our second staging of the Barrosse-Hall comedy, The Adventures of Citizen Stumpick, which opened it’s 6-week run on May 6, 1983.
Herb Metzler played Detective Rex Cleveland in a cast that included “Fat Dave” Silberger, Bekka Eaton, and Peter Van Wagner, making his PTC debut in the title role. Pete would go on to fame as The Riffmaster. (More on the rock & roll aspect of the PTC story can be found here and here.)
Producing Megafun at Piper’s Alley had not gone as smoothly as we expected. Now that our groovy new cabaret space had been established with such fanfare when the cast of The Golden Jubilee was elevated to SNL, our Second City partners had their own designs on the space. They saw it as a home for their touring companies and improvisation classes – and they probably hoped that we’d simply grab the brass SNL ring, run off to New York, and leave Piper’s Alley to them.
Bernie Sahlins was dubious about the PTC’s ability to succeed without the Jubilee cast — so during pre-production for Megafun, we had to agree to an uncomfortable space-sharing arrangement for Piper’s Alley. Show times for Megafun were set at 7:00 PM to allow the Second City touring company to perform at 9:00. Losing a more favorable 8:00 curtain time was one thing – but losing the ability to perform two shows on Friday and Saturday nights was an even bigger blow to our bottom line. Still, Megafun packed them in at 7:00 and we savored the victory.
Meanwhile, our first season at Saturday Night Live drew to a close, and I returned home to Evanston, where I was renting a big house on Sheridan Road populated by my family and various PTC friends and Megafun cast members. Looking back, it was crazy to rent that house, nicknamed “Homer Practical” by its residents – but it was also glorious on several impractical Practical levels. Like the PTC itself, the house was a lively moment in time: a creative battery with a short life that generated fellowship and shared memories that still hold a charge today.
I was in the kitchen of that house when I took the call from my SNL bosses in New York informing me that “for budgetary reasons” they weren’t bringing me back to Saturday Night Live. The news stung, though it was not entirely unexpected.
Accustomed to calling my own comedy shots onstage at the PTC and Northwestern, I’d chafed at the constraints of network television — and I hadn’t been given the promised opportunity to perform on SNL. I wrote lots of sketches that made it to air, but it was clear I wasn’t happy with my situation. Considering my obvious displeasure and the fact that I was one of the higher paid writers on the staff, my fate at SNL was sealed. In retrospect, I might have saved my job by taking a pay cut – but I lacked the maturity and humility to do anything other than give my former employers a piece of my mind. As Bob Dylan sang:
“Oh, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”
Getting unceremoniously bounced from SNL was a personal setback – but my fellow PTC members Brad Hall, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Gary Kroeger were still on SNL, while I returned to my first love, The Practical Theatre.
The Chicago press, which had been publishing complaints about how The Golden Jubilee cast was being used, or rather not used, on SNL readily printed the story of my exile from 30 Rock and my return to the PTC. Not very careful about what I said to reporters, I made for “good copy” – but when I professed to be happy about getting back to the stage, I truly meant it. I’d left the PTC too soon in the fall of ‘82, but now I could focus on securing the theatrical beachhead we’d established. Of course, that meant staging a new improvisational comedy revue.
Negotiations with our Second City partners over opening the PTC’s third revue at Piper’s Alley had not gone smoothly. Bernie Sahlins couldn’t understand why we wanted to close Megafun, which was still drawing a large audience. Bernie saw it as a business proposition, but young and idealistic and confident as we were, Brad and I saw it differently. Megafun ran for five months, drawing more than 12,000 paying customers – an incredibly long and profitable run in our brief experience. Having scored that triumph, we felt it was time to move on creatively. Besides, hadn’t Bernie said that we’d never replicate the success of The Golden Jubilee? Megafun had proved him wrong – and we were certain that our next show would be another winner.
We closed Megafun at the end of July 1983 – and given that Bernie Sahlins had argued the PTC couldn’t come up with more talent on the level of The Golden Jubilee cast — it was satisfyingly ironic that he hired Megafun cast members Richard Kind, Tom Virtue and Isabella Hoffman to perform with Second City. Thus, Bernie himself deepened The Practical Theatre’s reputation as a wellspring of comic talent.
Meanwhile, as we were wrapping up Megafun at Piper’s Alley, our 1983 season of new plays continued at the John Lennon Auditorium. British director Steven Rumbelow of England’s Triple Action Theatre, who had recently made quite a splash in Chicago with his version of Dr. Faustus and an award-winning 1982 production of Moby Dick with Remains Theatre, staged his own original adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s Diary of a Madman for the PTC.
Rumbelow’s Diaries of a Madman opened on Bastille Day – and would probably have caused its own riot if the audience had not been literally put in a cage. Cast members Herb Metzler, Bill Dick, John Goodrich, Earl Pastko and Jerry Getz gave their all in the service of Rumbelow’s provocative, darkly satiric vision – but there was very little of Gogol’s classic story left in the production, and critics and audiences alike were bewildered and somewhat browbeaten by the relentless sturm und drang.
A Pyrrhic victory for Total Artistic Freedom, Diaries sold only 380 tickets during its 6-week run. The $1,628.50 taken in at the box office barely paid for the lumber used to build that cage around the audience.
Diaries of a Madman closed at the JLA on August 21, 1983 and ten days later Babalooney opened at Piper’s Alley.
We were still stuck with a 7:00 curtain and no late shows as we continued to share Piper’s Alley with Second City touring companies. Some of those touring company members, especially Rick Hall and piano player Laura Wasserman (who’s married to Rick now), became good friends who we’d work with down the road.
The Practical Theatre Company and Second City had reached an uneasy peace in the battle for Piper’s Alley — and the focus was back on the funny business.
As he had since The Brothers Bubba in the spring of ‘82, our comedy guru Sheldon Patinkin helped to guide our Babalooney efforts. Musical director, Larry Schanker was back at the keys, this time backed by Rockin’ Ronny Crawford on drums. The cast included Rush Pearson, Jane Muller, Jamie Baron, Lynn Baber, Rod McLachlan and a certain former SNL writer who was delighted to get back onstage and make folks laugh without several layers of network television hierarchy between the audience and me.
Richard Christiansen at The Chicago Tribune wrote:
“…it’s encouraging, as well as entertaining, to see the Practicals still turning out the same sweet, zany humor that first endeared them to audiences. They may have lost some of their membership to “Saturday Night Live” in New York and to Second City next door, but as this revue proves, they have not lost their capacity for fun.
Sketches like “The Basic Food Groups Four”, “The Shoe Store Opera” and “Fred” – a suave and sophisticated love ballad about a man and his dog – drew more than 6,500 PTC fans to Piper’s Alley over Babalooney’s 17-week run, including the distinguished New York theatrical producer Arthur Cantor.
In November, Arthur Cantor read the enthusiastic review of Babalooney in Variety and came to Chicago to see the show for himself. Cantor liked what he saw, and plans were made to bring Babalooney to the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village in February of ’84.
The Practical Theatre was set to open Off-Broadway, our string of headline-making successes was unbroken – and I was going back to New York City. This time, I’d be doing what I loved most. It all seemed very much like destiny.
While preparations were underway to take Babalooney to New York, the PTC’s season on Howard Street continued. The Attack Theatre production of My Dog Ate It, an agitprop piece on the subject of education directed by Reid Branson, kept audiences coming to the JLA during its 6-week run — followed by Mayor Lytle’s Hands Across Howard New Plays Fiesta, a collection of new plays which ran for 3 weeks from November 3rd through November 20th.
The Hands Across Howard Street New Plays Fiesta showcased a series of new works, including Flight by Sally Nemeth, starring Catherine Martineau and PJ Brown — and Tomato by “Fat Dave” Silberger. And who can forget the singular and celebratory parade that opened the New Plays Fiesta, featuring the Walk/Don’t Walk Marching Band? As it proved too difficult to pull a parade permit on a street bordering Chicago and Evanston, our Fiesta parade circumnavigated the four crosswalks at Custer & Howard Streets — crossing on the lights, of course!
Somehow we managed to find time onstage at the JLA for the children, too – as director Lynn Andersen staged a show with The Practical Kids (including my three and a half year old daughter Maura) on the weekend of December 17th.
The Practical Kids performed Wild Connections in front of a wildly colored Hawaiian fantasy set, but not because the kids dug a Polynesian theme. PTC co-founder Angela Murphy and The Practical Women had taken the stage at The John Lennon Auditorium once again to present their second improvisational comedy revue, Hula-Rama.
Angela was joined in the cast by Ileen Getz, Jacquie Krupka, Kit Falsgraf and Tracy Thorpe as Hula-Rama opened on December 8, 1983 — and closed out the PTC’s fifth season with yet another hit show, running for 16 weeks and capping a rewarding year in which the recent college grads at the PTC earned four Joseph Jefferson nominations, racked up a slew of great reviews, kept two theatres in continuous operation and became Off-Broadway bound.
We celebrated another successful season – and rang in the New Year – at Cabaret Metro with a comedy extravaganza we called The Diamond Anniversary Comedy Ball & Cakewalk: “An evening of music and comedy celebrating 75 years of history-making hysteria and hi-jinks.”
Act One of the big Cakewalk show featured the best of Megafun, Hula-Rama, and Babalooney. Act Two brought highlights from The Golden Jubilee performed by this author and our returning SNL heroes, Brad Hall, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Gary Kroeger. Current SNL cast member Jim Belushi made a cameo appearance as well. We wrapped up the Cakewalk with the entire cast performing our classic a cappella arrangement of The William Tell Overture under the baton of Tom “Wolf Larson”.
Located at 3730 North Clark Street in Chicago, Cabaret Metro was a venue large enough to hold the nearly 1,200 ticket buyers that paid a total of 13,873.75 to witness a unique moment in Chicago theatre history, culminating in a jubilant post-show New Year’s Eve bash rocked by our two house bands, The Shades (who would soon become The Daves) and Riffmaster & The Rockme Foundation.
Having left the Piper’s Alley cabaret space to Second City, the Off-Broadway bound cast of Babalooney needed a place to perform some pre-New York previews — and our friends Tom Goodman and Mitch Kovic, the offbeat impresarios of CrossCurrents, a wonderful countercultural bar and theater at Belmont and Wilton, booked us for 6 performances between January 6-15, 1984.
Babalooney underwent a few changes on its way to New York. Bekka Eaton joined the ensemble along with Jane Muller, Jamie Baron, Rush Pearson and myself. Brad Hall spent his Christmas hiatus from SNL directing the show and Sheldon Patinkin lent his invaluable wisdom as we added several golden PTC nuggets from previous revues to the material from the original running order of Babalooney. Audiences were receptive, spirits were high, and the energy was electric at CrossCurrents.
Once again, so much was happening in a short amount of time – and only a month after our last preview at CrossCurrents, Babalooney opened on February 15, 1984 at the Provincetown Playhouse in NYC. The week before, New York preview audiences had responded to our oddball blend of knockabout slapstick and social satire with the same enthusiasm we’d enjoyed in Chicago. Louis DiCrescenzo’s multi-colored jungle gym set provided the perfect improvisational playground – and Larry and Rockin’ Ronny dialed up their magical music yet another notch. The famed Martha Swope took our cast photos, Ron and Sydney Crawford turned the theater’s lobby into an art gallery – and the stage was set for another inevitable victory in the PTC’s Comic Campaign of World Conquest.
Alas, it didn’t happen that way.
First, the good news. The New York Tribune headline said “Zany Babalooney tickles funnybone From top to bottom” and Long Island Nightlife Magazine declared, “If a zanier, sillier, more enjoyable play has hit New York in the past few years, I didn’t see it”. There were lots of other good reviews, too, but…
The New York Times killed us.
Riffmaster & The Rockme Foundation had barely played our last note at the raucous opening night party as the morning edition of The New York Times hit the newsstands – and critic Frank Rich single-handedly knocked all four wacky wheels off the Babalooney bandwagon. Three weeks later, on March 3, 1984, the show closed.
How did it feel?
I wrote a song at the time that pretty much summed up those long three weeks, as we performed our doomed revue and pondered what might have been.New York City living, it got old Running out of money, out of time. Ate a lot of pizza there, I ate a lot of crow Ever see a show stop on a dime? I’m goin’ back, I’m goin’ back, I’m goin’ to Chicago right away. I’m goin’ back, I’m goin’ back, I’m goin’ like I’ve never been away.
Note: For years afterward, Frank Rich occupied a very dark place in my psyche as The Man Who Murdered Babalooney. But since then, I’ve grown to love the guy for his outspoken and articulate criticism of George Bush, the GOP, and the Religious Right. In fact, on critical issue after issue, Frank Rich has been so right so often about politics that I’ve come to believe he must have been correct on some level about Babalooney. At any rate, he is forgiven. Frank, did you hear that? C’mon! Give us a kiss.
Less than two weeks after Babalooney’s untimely demise, Beats Workin’: The Best of Practical Theatre Company opened at CrossCurrents on March 15, 1984. Beats Workin’ featured PTC ensemble members Herb Metzler, John Goodrich, Ross Salinger, Kit Falsgraf, Rod McLachlan and Lynn Baber in a collection of old and new material, presented on Thursday nights. They would soon become the cast of the PTC’s next mainstage improvisational comedy revue – to be staged at the Goodman Theatre Studio.
The John Lennon Auditorium would be busy that year.
On May 5, 1984, the PTC opened a new show on Howard Street. Soapbox Sweepstakes: The 1984 Election Revue would run for the next 31 weeks at the John Lennon Auditorium: an ongoing, ever-changing satire of the American electoral process: a weekly skewering of Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign versus Walter Mondale right up to Election Day, November 6th.
Soapbox Sweepstakes was directed by Scott Vehill, co-founder of The Prop Theatre and a visionary wildman of the first rank. Scott’s cast included PTC veterans Herb Lichtenstein, Al Leinonen and Steve Beavers with newcomers Russell Freund, Ed Townley, Melinda Skilondz and Michelle Shire. Said Chicago Tribune critic Sid Smith, “…there’s something likeable and timely about ‘Soapbox Sweepstakes’, the Practical Theatre Company’s new assault on the campaign process…’Soapbox’ is consistently literate and sometimes subtle, witty in its humor and mostly wise in its satire.”
Scotty Vehill and his crew managed to wring much-needed laughter out of the onset of another four long years of President Ronald Reagan.
The Merry Guys was our first mainstage improv comedy revue since The Brothers Bubba to be staged in a venue other than a cabaret, and while we wondered if the crowd that came to laugh and drink at Piper’s Alley and CrossCurrents would find us downtown at a legit theatre in Grant Park, we were nonetheless delighted to be the guests of Goodman Artistic Director Greg Mosher in his classy studio space, which had just seen the premiere of playwright David Rabe’s Hurlyburly, directed by Mike Nichols and starring William Hurt, Harvey Keitel and Sigourney Weaver. It was always a thrill to walk down those stairs into The Goodman’s impressive lobby and see that large blue poster for Merry Guys hanging from the ceiling.
The Merry Guys Who Windsurf ensemble were the cast of Beats Workin’, directed by this author (who was quickly shaking off his post-Off-Broadway flop funk) and ably assisted by Dave Silberger. The reviews were universally enthusiastic, especially The Tribune’s Dick Christiansen, who wrote:
“’The Merry Guys Who Windsurf’ are still, thank goodness, those crazy kids from the Practical Theatre Company.
“Their new comedy revue…offers a rapid-fire barrage of material that teeters between the so-so and the hilarious; but it encouragingly demonstrates that the zany imagination and the oddball attractiveness of the original Practical crew can be carried on by an entirely different band of likeable performers.”
And if that wasn’t satisfying enough, Chicago’s other major cultural tastemaker, Bury St. Edmund at The Chicago Reader opined, “’Merry Guys’ features the strongest Practical performers in years.” And “’The Merry Guys Who Windsurf’ is going to be your basic summer comedy hit.”
Alas, once again, it didn’t happen that way.
The nightlife-loving cabaret audience that had packed Piper’s Alley and enjoyed hoisting a few while watching our shows at CrossCurrents did not follow us in great numbers to the relatively staid confines of The Goodman Studio. It was a head-scratcher to be sure, but Merry Guys finished its run in front of smaller audiences than it deserved.
But the PTC’s artistic association with The Goodman Theatre was far from over. Many of the Practicals were soon in rehearsals for a revamped Goodman production of A Christmas Carol.
For many years The Goodman Theatre had staged a much-beloved production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but for its 1984 edition, Greg Mosher was looking to shake things up in a big way. Mosher moved the annual holiday show from the Goodman’s 400-seat mainstage to the vast, ornate, 3,900-seat Auditorium Theatre, designed and built in 1889 by the legendary architects Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan. And he put The Practical Theatre front and center. It was both an honor and a challenge.
On December 11, 1984, A Christmas Carol opened at The Auditorium Theatre, directed by Gregory Mosher and adapted by Mosher and Larry Sloan.
Our favorite Northwestern professor and theatrical wizard Frank Galati played Scrooge in cast that included a long list of PTC veterans: this author as Fred and the Ghost of Christmas Past, Brad Hall as Bob Cratchit, Rush Pearson and Jamie Baron as Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig, Ross Salinger as Dick Wilkins, Rod McLachlan as Young Scrooge, Laura Innes as Belle, Bekka Eaton as Mrs. Cratchit, Kit Falsgraf as Mrs. Fred, Pete Van Wagner as Topper, and little Maura as one of the Cratchit kids.
PTC keyboard genius Larry Schanker and drummer Ronny Crawford performed the music for A Christmas Carol — and we all got to know another Chicago comedy legend, Del Close, who played the Ghost of Christmas Present. This new production, grand and glorious though it was, did not find as warm a place in the heart of audiences and critics as the Goodman’s traditional presentation had earned over the years. But it was still a thrill for all the PTC folk involved.
I still remember our great friend, theatre architect, stage manager and designer Louis DiCrescenzo telling me and Brad, “You guys sure come up with the gigs.” Louis was right. Whatever ups and down we endured in 1984, The PTC managed to stay in the hurlyburly and the headlines.
After our nomadic 1984 season, the plan was to get back to basics at the PTC’s “spiritual home” on Howard Street with a season of new plays – the first of which was a one-act double bill of Noonday Demons by English playwright Peter Barnes and Wendell and Betty in the Throes of Anarchy by this author.
I directed both plays — with Rush Pearson and Rod McLachlan in Noonday Demons, joined by Herb Metzler and Kit Falsgraf in Wendell and Betty. We opened on April 18, 1985 – but when the box office demands of an Equity contract combined with modest audiences in our 42-seat clubhouse, the days of The John Lennon Auditorium as a practical Practical venue were over.
Plans were made to open The Secret Show, a revolutionary new revue to be written and performed by this author and Rush Pearson in the comic service of a mad comic scientist to be played by Del Close. But, yet again, it didn’t happen that way.
Del Close was enshrined as an honorary member of The Practical Theatre ensemble at a wacky JLA ritual in which a poor, innocent watermelon was disemboweled and Del dipped his feet in red paint and stomped his iconic footprints into the sidewalk in front of our cherished storefront.
The John Lennon Auditorium was kept open for many months as a private meeting place for The John Lennon Athletic Club, but eventually it became clear that The Miracle on Howard Street was played out. I can’t remember the actual day that we finally closed our beloved JLA – but I do remember that final, passionate party, played by The Daves and Riffmaster and the Rockmes. Everyone who was there that evening knew that they were witnessing the end of a blessed era.
That night, someone took these photos as I stood onstage for the last time at the JLA, filled with a mixture of pride and early-onset nostalgia. So much had happened so quickly on that postage stamp of a stage. And now, after five marvelous, madcap years, that chapter of the PTC’s history had come to a celebratory close.
Del Close’s fading red-painted footprints would linger on the sidewalk in front of the storefront at 703 Howard Street long after we were gone. And the many wonderful memories made in that magical place will never fade.
However, though we’d said goodbye to our spiritual home on Howard & Custer Streets, the last chapter of The Practical Theatre story had yet to be written.
Art, Ruth and Trudy were waiting in the wings.