Tag Archives: Chicago Reader

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.


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Practical Theatre: The Last Laugh

I’ve finally wrapped up my four-part personal history of The Practical Theatre Co. To read the final chapter of the Practical Theatre story click here — or click on the graphic above. You can also find a link to all four chapters under “Landmarks” on the right hand side of the home page.

It only took me two decades to finish this project — so please enjoy!

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More Thrills & Glory…


Part Three: A Tale of Two Spaces

To read the latest chapter in my personal history of The Practical Theatre Company, click here.

After you’ve read our ancient history, you can check out video clips of far more recent PTC-style comedy if you click here.

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The Practical Theatre Co. Part Two


Part Two: Saturday Night Live Comes to Piper’s Alley

When my wife Victoria and I take the stage on June 10th at PUSH Lounge in Woodland Hills for our first preview performance of “The Vic & Paul Show” — it will have been 28 years since the improvisational comedy of The Practical Theatre Company made national headlines in 1982. As Victoria and I get back to doing what we love most, it’s a good time to look back on the heady days when all we wanted to do was make people laugh – and the pursuit of that simple goal changed all our lives.

Bolstered by grants from the Illinois and Evanston Arts Councils, 1982 was going to be a good year for The Practical Theatre Company. As fate would have it, ‘82 would prove to be an epic year. As the cast of the PTC’s new improvisational comedy revue, The Brothers Bubba, assembled for rehearsals at the John Lennon Auditorium in February of that year, the weather was freezing outside, the mood was warm and upbeat inside – and nobody had a clue what was coming.

The biggest problem that Brad Hall, Gary Kroeger, Rush Pearson, Jane Muller and I faced at that time was an inability to find lederhosen – which we thought would be the perfect apparel for our publicity photos. But despite our plaintive calls, not even the German and Swiss consulates in Chicago were any help in our quest to dress like the Von Trapp Family. Alas, there was no Internet or E-bay back then. Your fingers had to do a lot of exhausting non-digital walking.

Looking back on those momentous days of ‘82, each month seemed like a long, long time. It’s strange how four months can pass nowadays without anything of real significance happening — but the four-month period from the opening of The Brothers Bubba on April 1, 1982 through the opening weeks of The Golden 50th Anniversary Jubilee in late July and early August — were week-by-week, and month-by-month, a brief but revolutionary time. Art was made. People laughed. Lives were changed. And it was good.

Anyone studying business management learns that dealing with sudden success is one of the biggest challenges for a young company — and nobody involved with The Practical Theatre Company went anywhere near a business school. We didn’t know that managing the rate of your small company’s growth was critical, and that coping with good fortune is as problematic as struggling against bad luck. We were young and funny and idealistic – and we had a lot to learn. 1982 would prove the start of an education in The Business of Entertainment 101.

On April Fools Day 1982, The Brothers Bubba opened at the John Lennon Auditorium and ran for six weeks, breaking all PTC attendance records. 1,314 adventurous, comedy-loving souls crammed into our Howard Street shoebox, and we pulled in $5,743. The reviews were good, too. Less than two years out of college, playing to those sold-out houses in our own tiny storefront theatre felt like victory. We were as successful as we could have imagined. And it was just the beginning.

Sheldon, Alan Arkin, Dick Christiansen (Tribune), and Bernie Sahlins.

With The Brothers Bubba a hit, our comedy guru, Sheldon Patinkin, hipped his old friend, Second City founder Bernard Sahlins, to what was happening on Howard Street. Within weeks, we were in talks with Bernie to open a new cabaret in Piper’s Alley behind Second City in the space formerly occupied by the Paul Sills Story Theatre.

Paul Sills was a legendary figure in the history of improvisational theatre: a Compass Players founder and son of Viola Spolin, the woman who authored the seminal book, Improvisation for the Theater. In 1959, Paul Sills and Bernie Sahlins opened The Second City. We were thrilled and dazzled to be even tangentially connected to figures associated with such rich and fundamental modern comedy history.

We reached an agreement with Bernie Sahlins to turn the old Paul Sills Story Theatre into a cabaret space for PTC comedy revues, served by The Second City’s bar. John Lennon Auditorium architect, Louis DiCrescenzo, designed a wonderful 150-seat theatre – and the PTC’s Piper’s Alley Theatre at North and Wells was ready to open in the summer of 1982. We planned to open this new cabaret with our latest improvisational comedy revue, The Golden 50th Anniversary Jubliee — a collection of our best sketches and songs performed by Brad Hall, Gary Kroeger, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and this author.

Meanwhile, we had a season underway at the John Lennon Auditorium on Howard Street – and while the Piper’s Alley Theatre was being built – my original play, Song of the Snells (a swashbuckling Shakespearean parody, written in faux iambic pentameter), opened on May 20, 1982 and played for five weeks on Howard Street.

Song of the Snells was nominated for several Joseph Jefferson Awards, but that success was just an inkling of the PTC’s critical and popular breakthrough to come.

A breakthrough that would be national in scope.

On July 28, 1982, The Practical Theatre Company opened The Golden 50th Anniversary Jubilee at the brand new Piper’s Alley Theatre behind Second City. A collection of the our greatest hits and some new material, The Golden Jubilee was directed by Sheldon Patinkin, and earned rave reviews. The Chicago Reader proclaimed, “Practical Makes Perfect.”

It would have run for a lot more than 6 weeks at Piper’s Alley if it weren’t for the intervention of the great Tim Kazurinsky, a Second City veteran and Saturday Night Live cast member.

I have no idea how it came to pass – maybe Sheldon Patinkin was involved — but I do know that Tim Kazurinsky came to Piper’s Alley and saw The Golden Jubilee. Tim must have liked what he saw, and he must have talked to his producers at Saturday Night Live, Dick Ebersol and Bob Tischler.

Within a month after we opened, both Ebersol and Tischler came to Chicago to see our show. They came, they saw, and they immediately hired all four of us to write and perform for NBC’S late night comedy institution. Lightning struck. We had been “discovered”.

It was a crazy summer after that. Brad and I tried to manage our looming transition to New York and SNL even as the PTC’s second season on Howard Street moved forward. Two days after The Golden Jubilee opened at Piper’s Alley, we opened another improv comedy revue, No Restroom for the Wicked, at the JLA on Howard Street. No Restroom ran for three weeks, starring John Goodrich, Rod MacLachlan, Ross Salinger, Rob Chaskin, and Catherine Martineau.

A month later, in late August, I can remember painting the set for our Howard Street production of Bertolt Brecht’s In the Jungle of Cities in between interviews with The Associated Press and The Illinois Entertainer about our SNL hiring.

In the Jungle of Cities (starring Herb Metzler and Bill Dick) opened on August 27. By then, our Piper’s Alley Theatre was dark and the cast of The Golden Jubilee was in New York preparing for our SNL debut.

From a personal standpoint, my experience at SNL was, like “A Tale of Two Cities”, the best and worst of times. It was an undeniable honor to be elevated as a writer for the foremost comedy show of the era. But it wasn’t a whole lot of fun.

To put our Saturday Night Live experience — and the pressure we felt — in perspective, it’s important to know that when we came to SNL, it had only been on the air for seven years. We arrived at 30 Rock  just three years after John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd left the Not Ready for Prime Time Players.

For four young comedians from Northwestern University who had enjoyed absolute autonomy onstage at the PTC — and who were used to the generous, supportive, and beneficent guidance of Sheldon Patinkin – the constraints of the big time TV process at SNL were not easy to deal with.

I was particularly ambivalent about my role at SNL.

For one thing, unlike Brad, Julia and Gary, I was hired as a writer, not as a performer. The SNL executives said I’d get a chance to perform. But despite the fact that Tim Kazurinsky and other writers — especially my Golden Jubilee cast mates —  wrote roles for me in sketches week after week and month after month, I only played some minor roles. I was honored to perform in a sketch with one of my all-time comedy heroes, Sid Caesar, and as a writer, I got a lot of sketches on the air — including one with another pair of comic heroes, The Smothers Brothers. But I was an unhappy young man during most of my stint at Saturday Night Live.

During most breaks in our SNL schedule, Brad and I were back on Howard Street, helping to keep the PTC’s 1982 season alive and thriving. On October 21, we opened a full length Attack Theatre production entitled, Kablooey: a satirical look at the nuclear arms race, directed by Terry McCabe. (Remember, Ronald Reagan was in the White House.) And on November 26, the PTC’s first all-female improvisational comedy revue took the JLA stage.

A Cast of Squirrels Before Swine was the first mainstage  show by The Practical Women, founded a year earlier by PTC co-founder, Angela Murphy. Squirrels Before Swine featured Angela, Isabella Hoffman, Lynn Baber, Sandy Snyder and Eileen Getz — and it’s 13-week run was the PTC’s longest to date.

On New Years weekend, as 1982 became 1983, Brad, Julia, Gary and I brought The Golden Jubilee back to Piper’s Alley for a triumphant, sold-out weekend of shows. We also taped an Emmy-winning TV version of the show for Chicago’s PBS station, WTTW. Rush Pearson joined us in the cast of The Practical Theatre Company Meets Godzilla. Rush, of course, played Godzilla.

While all this was going on, plans for our next PTC comedy revue at Piper’s Alley ran into a power struggle for control of the cabaret space we’d established in partnership with Bernie Sahlins. Now that we’d put it on the map with the success of The Golden 50th Jubilee and our stunning ascension to SNL, our Piper’s Alley theatre was coveted by Second City’s improvisational comedy classes and touring companies. But despite the contention of Second City’s brass that the PTC could not survive without the four cast members that went to SNL, we put together a great cast for our next Piper’s Alley revue, and Brad and I shuttled back and forth between NYC and Chicago to provide direction. It was well worth our effort.

Megafun opened at Piper’s Alley on March 24, 1983 to universally great reviews and became the PTC’s longest-running, most successful show to date — running for 19 weeks and earning more than $65,000 at the box office.  Among the cast were Jeff Lupetin, Lynn Anderson, Tom Virtue, Richard Kind and Victoria Zielinski – a lovely and gifted comedienne who would loom large in my professional and personal future.

Megafun was an even bigger hit than The Golden 50th Jubilee, which hadn’t really had a chance to run, caught short when SNL swooped in and carried us all off. To have followed up our breakthrough national success with another big critical and popular hit firmly established The Practical Theatre Company. And for that brief moment in time, The PTC was arguably the preeminent comedy company in Chicago and the nation — momentarily eclipsing the legendary Second City. It was our high-water mark. But we were artists and comedians, not businessmen. Megafun consolidated a comedy beachhead we could not hold for long.

Victoria (bottom center) and the cast of Megafun, including Richard Kind (left), Jane Muller, Tom Virtue, Lynn Andersen, Jeff Lupetin and Jamie Baron.


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Getting Lucky with Gary Whitney

In the 1980’s, all of us at The Practical Theatre Company were very lucky to meet and work with an artist named Gary Whitney. At the time, Gary was partnering with Jay Lynch on the strip Phoebe & The Pigeon People which appeared in the pages of the Chicago Reader – and all of us recent Northwestern University grads had been fans of Gary’s artwork and Jay’s jokes for years before the incomparable Ron and Sydney Crawford introduced us to those two fascinating and talented artists.

Connecting us with Jay and Gary was yet another important social and artistic contribution made by the Crawfords to the PTC. Soon, I will undertake to express the full measure of our collective gratitude to Ron & Syd by blogging the story of their impact on my life, the history of the PTC, and the musical adventures of The Rockme Foundation. I’m pleased to say it’s an ongoing story.

From the moment I first met Gary, I liked him. We all did. Gary was a relatively quiet guy, but he was also very open and warm. He had a big beard and a big sense of humor. I can easily picture him at any number of gatherings at the Crawford’s house or at the John Lennon Auditorium laughing and enjoying the scene. Few of us knew who Gary Whitney really was (other than the guy who drew Phoebe) and Gary wasn’t the kind of guy to toot his own horn – but he, like Jay, was already a fixture in the wild, wild world of underground and alternative comix.

Gary had already been very active in the underground comic scene in the 1970s, contributing to many titles, including Bizarre Sex, Dope Comix, Kitchen Sink Press, Flying Fungus Funnies, and Windy City Comix, among many others. In the 1980’s, we at the Practical Theatre were blessed to have Gary lend his wit and talent to our efforts.

I can’t remember what the first event was for which Gary drew one of his great posters or flyers – but he drew a lot of them. He created a whole series of fabulous flyers to promote appearances by our house band, Riffmaster & The Rockme Foundation. Gary’s posters for the band’s gigs always created excitement, especially within the band. It was so cool to have the guy who drew Phoebe & The Pigeon People make our next gig look so exciting, offbeat and…cool. There’s no better word for it.

Gary also did the poster for The Practical Theatre’s production of Soapbox Sweepstakes, an ongoing satirical look at the 1984 Presidential election, which ran at the John Lennon Auditorium for 30 weeks, from May of ‘84 through election day.

But the collaboration that I enjoyed most was working with Gary, Brad Hall, Gary Kroeger and Ron Crawford on the one and only issue of Practical Comix.

Practical Comix was a childhood dream come true. I’d been an avid reader of comic books since I was a small boy — and in high school during the groovy early 70’s, I became a big fan of underground comics. I even went to Cleveland’s Cooper School of Art one summer in a vain attempt to develop my artistic talents so that I could draw a comic book of my own. Alas, I never became more than a rudimentary cartoonist, but the dream of my own comic book never died. In 1983, Gary Whitney helped to make that dream come true.

What follows is an excerpt from Practical Comix: Special Family Ties Issue. The story is adapted from a sketch that Brad Hall, Gary Kroeger and I wrote for Saturday Night Live. The sketch didn’t make it to air on SNL – but Gary Whitney made it come alive in the pages of Practical Comix.


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Bazooka Joe, Jay Lynch & Me

It was 20 years ago that I was fortunate enough to cross paths with two pop culture legends.

Here I am, circa about '64. Just the age for Bazooka Joe. In fact, is that an eyepatch strap wrapped around my crewcut head?

I’d actually known one of these legendary figures since I was a boy, riding my bike recklessly down to the corner store for a comic book, pop and some chewing gum. The gum of choice was Bazooka, a sugary square of latent tooth decay, swathed in a waxy wrapper. But I didn’t buy Bazooka for the taste of the gum – just as I didn’t buy baseball cards to get that stale, petrified pink stick that came along with all the photos, stats, and trivia. No, as my teeth worked their way through the first torturous chomps that would eventually soften that small rock-hard mass into something chewable, I was psyched to read the latest about a smart-aleck kid with an eye-patch: Bazooka Joe.

As far as I knew back then, Bazooka Joe And His Gang had always been and always would be. Iconic characters like Joe and Mort weren’t born and could never die. That’s how it is with great folk art. Did Woody Guthrie really write “This Land Is Your Land”, or was it always on the wind, just waiting to be given voice? Was some unknown drummer the first to hit a rim shot after a bad joke – or is that response simply wired into our DNA? Weren’t hamburgers and hot dogs available since the Garden of Eden? For millions of kids like me growing up in the early 1960’s, chewing Bazooka gum while reading Bazooka Joe comics was an essential cultural touchstone — albeit, one that made our jaws sore and our dentists rich.

It was inconceivable to me, as I sat in front of that corner store and chuckled at the antics of Joe and his pals printed on those little colored rectangles of waxed paper, that I would ever have anything to do personally with Bazooka Joe. Then, two decades later, I found myself in the orbit of a second cultural luminary: Jay Lynch.

This is Jay a few years before we met -- so he's not flipping me off.

I met Jay Lynch in the early 1980’s through our mutual friends, Ron and Sydney Crawford. (Someday, I will devote a lot of blog space to the amazing, artistic Crawfords.) At the time Jay was writing a comic strip called Phoebe & the Pigeon People with artist Gary Whitney. (I will soon be writing more about Gary, too.) Of course, like any fan of The Chicago Reader I knew Phoebe & the Pigeon People very well before I ever met Jay and Gary. In person, Jay was a relatively quiet guy. He was quick-witted and fun to be around, but you wouldn’t call him conversational. Jay gave up information about himself with more reluctance than a Gitmo detainee – so how was I to know he was an underground comics legend?

These links will give you a more complete picture of Jay Lynch:




Jay is a cultural superstar that has been operating on the minds of American youth (and older folk of youthful spirit) for decades. A contemporary of R. Crumb, Jay contributed to Bijou Funnies, one of the first underground comix, and his characters, Nard n’ Pat are icons in the world of subterranean funnies.

Besides his work with Gary Whitney on the long-running Phoebe & the Pigeon People strip, Jay contributed to Mad Magazine and worked for Topp’s on Bazooka Joe comics. He’s the guy all of us middle-aged kids have to thank for Topp’s Wacky Packagesin the early 1970’s: those satiric cartoon stickers we stuck all over everything, with titles like “Plastered Peanuts,” “Ultra Blight Toothpaste,” “Messquire Magazine,” and “Mrs. Blubberworth’s Whale Fat Syrup.” And then there’s Jay’s work on classics like Garbage Pail Kids and Meanie Babies. The list goes on…

In the fall of 1989, Victoria and I were planning our wedding for June of the following year, and I already had one foot in Los Angeles, when Jay approached us with an offer I could scarcely believe: would we like to work with him on a new edition of Bazooka Joe comics? I was busy and the holiday season was upon us – but how could we pass up a chance to have our work immortalized on one of those little waxy rectangles? A cosmic opportunity like that must be seized upon with joy and thanksgiving. We told Jay that we’d give it a shot.

According to Jay, Bazooka Joe was in a transitional, post-MTV period. Joe was in need of a makeover. For one thing, the notion of Bazooka Joe and his gang was problematic. The word “gang” no longer called to mind harmless Huntz Hall and The Bowery Boys. Now, courtesy of rap video imagery and real-world drug wars between outlaws like the Crips and Bloods, “gang” had taken on a far more negative connotation. “Bazooka Joe and His Gang” were gone, replaced by Bazooka Joe & Company.

Now, Jay Lynch had dubbed himself Jayzey long before Jay-Z, so he knew that Topps had to embrace the MTV and Hip-Hop culture if it wanted to destroy the teeth of a new generation of kids, so Jay told us they were launching Bazooka Joe Raps. Run DMC meets Bazooka Joe.

Bazooka Joe himself would undergo a bit of a transformation: hipper, more handsome, and more of a jock. Joe’s hair and the bill of his ever-present baseball cap were both longer. And while his eye patch remained, Joe’s good eye was on the future.

Topps was also introducing some new characters. Mort was still there, his nose sticking out of his ultra-long turtleneck, but Bazooka Joe’s new girlfriend was a sexy shopaholic named Zena.

In another nod to advances in youth culture, Metaldude made his debut. A hairy, hard-rocking misfit, Metaldude was designed to appeal to guys who wouldn’t be caught dead hanging with a relatively square guy like Bazooka Joe.

Then, there was Ursula – something totally new for Bazooka Joe: a black woman. And a sexy, confident and athletic black woman at that! Hard-bodied Ursula was drawn in an eye-popping fashion that even a guy with one good eye like Joe would have to appreciate.

From November of ’89 through February ’90, Victoria and I submitted scripts for the various new Bazooka Joe series, including Bazooka Joe Fantasies and Bazooka Joe Mystic Master of Space & Time. As it turned out, we did our best work on Bazooka Joe Raps.

However, my favorite strips are the ones we wrote for Bazooka Joe & Company. I’d always loved those classic three and four panel jokes as a kid – and to get a chance to do it myself was an honor. Victoria, having chewed more than her share of Bazooka Joe as a youth, was also thrilled to be part of a great American cultural institution.

The comics that illustrate this article are ones that we were privileged to add to Bazooka Joe’s jaw-aching legacy. And we’ve got Jay Lynch to thank for allowing us to share a very small part of childhood cultural history.


Filed under Art, History