For a golden period of time in the early 1980’s, The John Lennon Auditorium, a magical 42-seat storefront theatre at the corner of Howard Street and Custer Avenue in Evanston, Illinois was the home of The Practical Theatre Co., whose motto was, and always will be, “Art Is Good”.
THRILLS & GLORY
THE BRIEF, BLESSED HISTORY OF THE PRACTICAL THEATRE CO.
Part One: Miracle on Howard Street
In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the Practical Theatre Company was in the vanguard of an explosion of theatre and improvisational comedy in Chicago. At the time, a handful of energetic and talented young theater companies like The Remains Theatre and Steppenwolf Theatre were also getting started, and the comedy clubs, from Sylvester’s to Kobart’s Komedy Kove and The Comedy Womb were booked with standup acts like Judy Tenuta and Emo Phillips (AKA Phil Bufka, Phil Soltanek, and Phil Kidney), and sketch comedy groups like Chicago City Limits, The Comedy Rangers and The Reification Company. The venerable Second City had been staging improvisational comedy revues for two decades and was still the biggest show in town. The Goodman Theatre was the leading regional theatre and The Body Politic, Victory Gardens, Organic Theatre and Wisdom Bridge were well-established venues for new plays and classic theatre. It was a vibrant scene, ripe for a little more revolution.
In the chilly spring of 1979, four friends gathered over patty melts at Northwestern University’s Norris Center student union to launch our own theatre company. Brad Hall, Robert Mendel, Angela Murphy and I called our new group Attack Theatre, dedicated to the production of new and seldom-produced plays and the art of improvisation. We also boldly proposed to have a profound effect on popular culture and scientific method. We were only half kidding.
We incorporated as a non-profit company and, true to our founding documents, we would rarely turn a profit. But what we managed to accomplish over the next decade would both exceed our highest expectations and ultimately frustrate our fondest hopes. Our innovative and idiosyncratic theatrical experiment didn’t last, but it was a Little Big Bang – and the vibrations still emanate from that explosion of passion, creativity, and controlled insanity. We were friends, classmates, artists, clowns, and concerned citizens bound together in one wacky, wild and inspired tribe. Our motto was “Art is Good” — not Art is Profitable or Easy or Painless.
But I’m getting way ahead of the story…
Our first production opened on April 11, 1979 on the NU campus in a drafty shack known as Shanley Hall. Forty people attended the two performances of Clowns, a play about two improvisational comedians that Brad and I wrote and performed. Later that school year, Attack Theatre’s second offering, Subnormal by Barrosse & Hall, was staged at Northwestern’s Music Hall with Rush Pearson in the role of Max, a mild-mannered insurance salesman driven to steal a nuclear submarine.
Soon after Subnormal, our board of directors expanded when playwright Grace McKeaney (who had been an NU undergrad and Yale grad student) and her then husband, director Mark Milliken, joined forces with us. That September, we closed Attack Theatre’s inaugural season with a par of one-act plays staged at the National College of Education: Playgrounds by Brad Hall, and On the Fritzz by Grace McKeaney and Lewis Black. (Yes, that Lewis Black. Though none of us, including Lewis Black, knew it at the time.) On the Fritzz starred Laura Innes (long before she was hobbling around as Dr. Kerry Weaver on ER). 120 people attended the two-week run. It was a good start, but bigger things were in store.
Sound business practice was never the hallmark of our offbeat theatrical enterprise, but one thing was obvious by October of ’79. It wasn’t going to be easy to raise charitable donations for something called Attack Theatre: too many violent, bomb-throwing connotations. And, remember, the Vietnam War had officially ended just four years earlier and two decades of roiling social unrest had finally cooled to a simmer. We fancied ourselves revolutionaries – but not that kind of revolutionary. So we made the practical decision to change our name to – what else? – The Practical Theatre Co.
With the help of a modest grant from the Evanston Arts Council, we staged our second season of new plays and improvisational comedy at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center in the summer of 1980. Over the course of six weeks, from July 25th to August 31st, we offered three vastly different productions to a total audience of 671 discriminating, sometimes sweltering theatergoers. (Alas, the air conditioning in this historic old school building wasn’t the best.)
The opening show of the summer, Bag 0′ Fun, was the first improvisational comedy revue written and performed by the PTC. Most of the cast were veterans of Northwestern’s student-written Mee-Ow Show, including me, Rush Pearson, John Goodrich, Jane Muller and Fat Dave Silberger, who became immortalized in one particularly bizarre sketch as The Clown of Crime. The show’s irreverent, high-energy mix of slapstick, satire, absurdism, agitprop, and a dash of unlikely literary sophistication tied together with music and punctuated by wacky yet surprisingly polished song and dance numbers established a unique style and format that the PTC would refine in more than a dozen comedy revues over the next seven years.
Two new plays filled the rest of the summer’s theatrical bill. Nightfall by Lewis Black was a dark apocalyptic drama, and as incongruous a follow-up to the zany Bag O’ Fun as could possibly be imagined. (Imagine a double bill of Monty Python & The Holy Grail and The Road.) Getting back to funny business, the season closed with another Barrosse & Hall comedy, Citizen Stumpick, a farcical ghost story featuring the Chandleresque film noir hero-in-his-own-mind, Detective Rex Cleveland. We’d hear from Rex again. But our gypsy period of moving from one performance space to another was over.
That same summer, our search for a permanent home led us to a small vacant storefront space at the corner of Custer and Howard Streets, on the border between Evanston and Chicago. The rental price was just about right, but 703 Howard Street was hardly an ideal location for a cutting-edge theatre: it was a frontier outpost in a cultural dead zone. The only places within a mile where entertainment could be found were the Tally Ho Pub, just a block south on Howard, and The PM Club, a working class watering hole just a hundred staggered steps to the north. But at the time, the truly legendary Cottage diner was just up the street. The Cottage looked and felt as though it had not changed one iota since VJ Day, and when old Bob was serving us chezzies and a shooker, we knew we’d landed on our own little corner of heaven. There was magic on that corner. And those who were there know that’s no exaggeration.
The storefront at 703 Howard Street was leased and dedicated in July of 1980 and plans were made to build a theatre in the space — but before construction began, the show must, and did, go on.
The fateful Presidential election that put Ronnie Raygun in the White House was underway, and the PTC responded with a street theatre project in which we ran a fictional candidate named Reed O’ Branson for President. Starring as the glad-handing political everyman Reed O’ Branson was Reid Branson, a good-natured, sharp-witted, red headed pal from Northwestern, who also helped out on the theatre’s business side. We campaigned with Reed O’ on the streets of Chicago and at colleges, comedy clubs, and community centers. The project finally morphed into a holiday show in our storefront space entitled, Sant O’Claus on the Christmas Beat. We were having lots of fun, but we were operating largely under the cultural radar. Soon, we would become far more than a blip on the Chicago theatre screen.
We christened our new storefront theatre space The John Lennon Auditorium and placed a photo of our hero in the front window. Our friend, fellow actor and designer Louis DiCrescenzo (whom Brad had met when they were both in the cast of the original production of Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?) drew up plans for a 42-seat theatre that fit neatly into our little rectangular shoebox and construction was set to begin in the New Year.
Before the year was out, the space would hold one more unscheduled event in early December: an Irish wake for John Lennon. It must be noted that our theatre space was never called The John Lennon Memorial Auditorium: it was named before the great man died – and afterward, we did not want Lennon’s senseless murder to define him, or our continuing devotion to his life and art.
Incredibly, December would soon shock us all with another tragic handgun killing. Tall, good looking and athletic, Dave Bell was a beloved fellow NU alum from Florida who had been Brad’s and my roommate, a Subnormal cast member, and one of the first of our theatrical band to seek his fortune as an actor in Los Angeles. On December 20, 1980, Dave was gunned down by a crazy, frightened old woman in Hollywood. His murder was second body blow to our collective, youthful sense of joy and optimism – the third if you count Reagan’s election.
The New Year would bring better, brighter days.
Construction of the John Lennon Auditorium began early in 1981, aided by key contributions from our theatrical friends. Artistic Director Bob Falls of Wisdom Bridge Theatre (located further east on Howard Street) was renovating his space and donated his old theater seats. Stuart Oken and Jason Brett of The Apollo Theatre in Lincoln Park donated their old lighting board. Enthusiastic but carpentry-challenged members of the PTC provided the sweat equity. At one point, Louis Di had to laugh when he saw all of his volunteers simultaneously pulling bent nails out of the theatre’s emerging wooden skeleton. At one point the rat bastard Evanston city building inspector declared that we’d never open the theatre – but he was wrong.
The Practical Theatre Company’s John Lennon Auditorium (affectionately known as “the JLA”) opened officially on March 21, 1981 with Thrills & Glory, our second improvisational comedy revue. Rush Pearson, Gary Kroeger and Reid Branson joined me in the cast. 300 paying customers attended the one-month run – but the memories and the material generated by this seminal show would last a lot longer. In one particularly prescient sketch, Sergeant Dirk Pinto and The Beans found themselves on the eve of battle in Basra, Iraq. The PTC would always be well ahead of its time.
The 1981 season continued on April 16th (my 23rd birthday) with our second production of Subnormal, this time starring PTC newcomer Peter Van Wagner. (See the Riffmaster & The Rockme Foundation page.)
Next, opening on June 18th, was the premiere of the dark comedy Stunning Achievements in Iowa by Mark D. Kaufman, another friend from NU. Stunning Achievements won two Joseph Jefferson Awards and added to the PTC’s growing reputation as an innovative and adventurous group. But while the awards were nice to have (Rush as Best Actor and also for Ensemble), the best thing the Joseph Jefferson Awards Committee ever gave us was Sheldon Patinkin.
Sheldon Patinkin was already a legendary figure before he entered The John Lennon late that summer to judge our third improvisational comedy revue Scubba Hey for the Jeff Committee. Sheldon was a 17-year old student at the University of Chicago back in the 1950’s when he began working with Paul Sills in what became the Playwrights Theatre Club, then the Compass Players, and finally in 1959, the landmark comedy cabaret Second City. He worked with Second City’s Toronto company in ‘74 and was a writer and assistant producer for SCTV from ‘76 to ‘78. In 1980, he became the chairman of the Columbia College theater department. Somehow, in between all that, Sheldon had managed to direct plays for most of the significant theatres in town, including emerging companies like Steppenwolf. Now lucky for us, he was walking into The Practical Theatre Co.
The show Sheldon saw that night, Scubba Hey, featured me, Brad, Rush and 20-year old Julia Louis-Dreyfus, whom Rush and I had met when we performed together in the 1980 Mee-Ow Show at Northwestern. (We were seniors and Julia was a freshman.) I’d hauled out an old turn-of-the-century pump organ from the basement of my boyhood home in Cleveland and Brad and Rush took turns pumping and playing as we worked our wacky way through a series of inspired sketches in our most popular and critically acclaimed improvisational comedy revue to date. After the show, Sheldon came backstage and announced that he wanted to work with us. We didn’t really know who he was, but we thought he was cool, and we were thrilled to have made a good impression on anybody who was as funny and obviously groovy as Sheldon. It was a cosmic comedy connection that, in less than a year, would radically change our lives.
We closed our first season at the JLA with Beggar’s Holiday, an original Christmastime comedy written and performed by The Sturdy Beggars. (See the Sturdy Beggars page.) I had just returned from the Texas Renaissance Festival with fellow beggars Rush, Casey Fox, Al Leinonen, and Dan Deuel — and along with Fat Dave Silberger and Jamie Baron, we fashioned an odd little holiday pageant, set in the mythical town of Tomaloochie Falls (which for some reason was the alternate location in the universe occupied by the JLA).
Beggar’s Holiday opened on November 28, 1981 and ran for five successful weeks, buoyed by a wonderfully appreciative review by Richard Christiansen of The Chicago Tribune, the city’s leading theatre critic at the time. It was a satisfying end to our new beginning on Howard Street.
Bolstered by grants from both the Illinois and Evanston Arts Councils, The PTC’s second season in the JLA opened, fittingly enough, on April Fools Day, 1982 with The Brothers Bubba — another improvisational comedy revue. Under the guidance of Sheldon Patinkin, Brad, Rush, Gary Kroeger, Jane Muller and I crafted the company’s most popular show so far, including a big dance number featuring macaroni and cheese boxes, and a rousing finale entitled “Rockin’ in Bubba Dreamland”. We took in a whopping $5,743.50 at the box office — as 1,314 ticket buyers crammed into the 42-seat JLA over the six-week run. It was clear that, given the increasing enthusiasm of critics and audiences alike, we would need a larger space (in addition to the JLA) to mount our next improv comedy revue.
Meanwhile, the “Attack Theatre” name was revived as the title given to a series of agitprop aftershows under the direction of Terry McCabe, another friend and NU alum. Attack Theatre took on hot-button social and political issues like gun control, race relations, and rape in short, provocative and satiric pieces, staged on Friday and Saturday nights after the mainstage attractions. Sunday night aftershows featured The Practical Women, a project led by PTC co-founder Angela Murphy and designed to encourage and develop female talent in what was then (and still is, alas) a male-dominated improv comedy environment. At this point, the tiny JLA was literally bursting with activity and opportunity for a growing theatrical family of Northwestern alums and like-minded, passionate young artists drawn to our crazy corner of Howard Street. We still weren’t much good at running a business, but our artistic product was more vital than ever, and we were about to export our unique brand to the epicenter of Chicago comedy – and beyond.