Tag Archives: Chicago Theatre

The Practical Theatre Company: Scenes from the Early Days on Howard Street

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The front window of 703 Howard Street, painted by John Goodrich. Winter of 1980-81.

sc0000c1b2Practical Theatre member Reid Branson (AKA “Reedo”) sent me this cool stash of photos from the very first days and months on Howard Street in the winter of 1980-81 — when the 42-seat John Lennon Auditorium was under construction. Reid took the photos and his wife, Kathy Hahn, made the photochemical magic happen in the darkroom. That’s Reid in the photo above left — in character as Reedo Branson, the PTC’s street theatre candidate for President in 1980. Since we hadn’t built the theatre yet, all of us kids had to play in the street. (It’s the only photo in this post that I took.)

And now, here are the rare early JLA photos from Reid and Kathy…

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(L to R) Brad Hall, the author & Rush Pearson — with evidence of theatre construction and band rehearsal in the background. We got a lot of use out of 703 Howard Street even before the John Lennon Auditorium was finished.

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Rush Pearson (Left) and a guitar player whose name I don’t recall. (Sorry, sir!)  The stage has yet to be built — but there’s a stack of plywood against the wall. The Chicago Theatre Festival banner came by way of Rush, who had been a member of the Festival’s street theatre company.

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Looking toward Howard St., the author is in silhouette — and the seating framework is just starting to take shape. We did all the construction work ourselves, guided by the theatre’s designer, the late, great Louis DiCrescenzo. Work proceeded slowly for two reasons: none of us were great carpenters & we had to raise money in fits and starts to buy lumber and materials.

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Another angle on the construction of the 42-seat auditorium. The author can be seen in the background wearing headphones (yes, they had them back then) — and you’ll note some sort of play-pen or crib on the floor in front of me. So, what’s in that crib?

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It’s my infant daughter, Maura. She was born in July of 1980 (the same month that the storefront at 703 Howard Street was leased and dedicated) so she’s around 6 or 7 months at the time this photo was taken in the lobby of the unfinished JLA. Lucky for me, Maura was a patient, good-natured baby who seemed to thrive amid the creative chaos of those early PTC days.

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Taped to the wall is the poster for “Thrills & Glory”, designed by cast member Gary Kroeger. “Thrills & Glory” (which also starred Reid Branson, Rush Pearson and yours truly) was the first show to be performed in the completed John Lennon Auditorium. We had to work like demons to get the theatre ready for the show’s opening on March 21, 1981. We never lacked for confidence.

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It looks as though the theatre seats (donated by nearby Wisdom Bridge Theatre and its director, Bob Falls) have been installed – though the stage and “the monolith” have yet to take shape. That looks like PTC member Al Leinonen at right. The little ceramic chap to his left, wrapped in odd garments is our mascot, Sri Abdul Aziz, whose unblinking eyes watched over the theatre.

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Another angle on Al, looking toward the house and those 42 magical seats. Behind Al, Sri Abdul Aziz gazes at the auditorium in wonder. Atop Sri’s head is the hat I wore as Infra-Death in the 1980 Mee-Ow Show. I hope that Al isn’t holding an umbrella because the roof is leaking…

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PTC member Herb Metzler naps in the foreground, as Brad, the author and Rush work out a tune in the lobby of the theatre. It doesn’t appear as though the box office as been built yet. But, heck, we’re writing a show — and there will eventually be a finished theatre to perform it in!

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This appears to be a gathering of Sturdy Beggars, including (L to R) Rush, Jamie Baron, Danny Deuel, Herb, Jeff Semmerling (?), the author and Brad. Perhaps it’s an early “Thrills & Glory” preview, maybe a break in construction work — or just another opportunity to party.

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Casey Fox, Brad and Gary Kroeger — most likely at a “Thrills & Glory” rehearsal. Casey shot short comedy films for the show, Brad did his best to provide some direction — and Gary (the lone beardless cast member) played all the female roles. Ours was a very Elizabethan approach. Not.

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Portrait of the author as a young theatre builder. I loved that storefront. Still do.

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Farewell to Ray Shepardson, the Visionary Who Saved the Theatres

-35ed441eab8bdd6534306114001_3472737074001_video-still-for-video-3472657321001I honestly had no idea how to headline this tribute to the great Ray Shepardson, who died suddenly and shockingly in Aurora, Illinois late last night.

527176_405018629562668_143982015_nIt sounds like a cliché to say that Ray was full of life and larger than life – but if you knew him as his friends and associates knew him, terms like “dynamo” and “whirlwind” and “passionate” and, yes, “madman” were all frequently employed in the fruitless struggle to capture Ray in mere words.

The man who saved dozens of great old theatres and movie palaces from the wrecking ball was a man of prodigious energy, drive, and “can do” creativity.

I was a teenager in Cleveland, Ohio when I first felt the vibration from the human shockwave that was Raymond K. Shepardson. And I wouldn’t have any idea who he was for another thirteen years.

maxresdefaultIn 1973, my mother took me to see a production of “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” that was staged in the lobby of the State Theatre in Cleveland’s downtrodden, downtown Playhouse Square district.

Brel longestI was just 15 years old, but I knew that this long-running version of “Jacques Brel” was something special – and that there was a lot of excitement in my proud hometown about a surprisingly successful effort to save this group of old movie palaces and Broadway road houses in a city that had been on a long losing streak.

Inspirational young Ray waging the good fight at Playhouse Square.

At that time, I had no idea who Ray Shepardson was, or that he was the person behind the movement to preserve the theatrical and cultural glory of downtown Cleveland.

Tonight, four decades after I experienced “Jacques Brel” in the State Theatre lobby, the lights went out in Playhouse Square. The theatres that Ray saved dimmed their marquees in memory of the educator-turned-preservationist who inspired and orchestrated their revitalization.

“The thing that always baffled me,” said Ray, “is how anyone could walk into those buildings and think they weren’t worth saving.”

I met Ray thirteen years after “Jacques Brel”. Neither of us was living in Cleveland anymore. I had come to Chicago in 1976 to attend Northwestern, graduated in 1980, and in 1986, was performing with my future wife, Victoria Zielinski, in a comedy revue for my own theatrical enterprise, The Practical Theatre Company.

frank=sinatra-chicago-theater_679Our friend and fellow Northwestern alum, Drew McCoy had come to Chicago to work on the grand reopening of The Chicago Theatre: one of the finest old movie palaces on State Street in the Loop. Drew helped Victoria get a job selling seats in the luxury box level. And that brought us into orbit around the force of nature called Ray Shepardson.

He was a restless, relentless bear of man, hustling through the bowels of The Chicago Theatre with a towel around his neck, quick-witted and brimming with bravado. I’d played Professor Harold Hill in high school and I recognized “The Music Man” in Ray: the persuasive, undeterred, incorrigible charm and salesmanship.

-e2db18eed68014bdBut Ray’s accomplishments were far more legitimate than Harold Hills bogus “think system”. In the years after saving Cleveland’s Playhouse Square, Ray had wrought his restorative magic on The Fabulous Fox Theatre in St. Louis (built in 1929) – where our friend Drew first worked with the great man.

Unknown-1Ray had also supervised the 1983 restoration and programming of The Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles (built in 1931).

Now, Ray was getting The Chicago Theatre (built in 1921) ready for a grand reopening featuring Frank Sinatra in concert. And, thanks to my girlfriend Victoria and my buddy Drew, I had a ringside seat.

When Ray and I finally made the Cleveland-“Jaques Brel”-Playhouse Square connection, we became fast friends. It was a friendship that, for the next 28 years, I could always pick up right where we had left off. Until yesterday.

But I’d rather go back to that glorious day when The Chicago Theatre reopened on September 10, 1986. My fellow Practical Theatre cast members and I were on the red carpet — opening the main doors wearing white gloves and tuxes. My future wife was prowling the luxury box level. My friend Drew was wearing a path from backstage to the box office. Frank Sinatra sang “My Kind of Town” – and Ray Shepardson was at the height of his powers.

ray-shepardsonjpg-e75d4b65496286feIn the years that followed, Ray was involved in more than 30 restoration projects across the country. He was the irrepressible, uncontrollable and iconoclastic savior of historic vaudeville and movie theatres across the country – taking dowdy old pleasure palaces and returning them to their original, gilded luster.

In a promotional video for Ray’s Majestic Theatre restoration project in San Antonio in 1989, the great songstress Rosemary Clooney said that, “Ray is the one who always comes through. He has wonderful taste. He has the dedication that can make it happen, and I’m a big fan of his.”

419905_487558511255790_1551694763_nMore than two decades later, Ray helped make it happen for Victoria and me when we wanted to take our comedy revue, “The Vic & Paul Show” on the road. Not only did Ray help us beat the drum and get the press to our 2011 run at Mayne Stage in Chicago – he was instrumental in helping us make a theatrical return to my hometown in the summer of 2012. With Ray in our corner, our booking at the 14th Street Theatre in Playhouse Square was a great success.

And why not? Ray Shepardson, success and Playhouse Square will always be synonymous.

Sadly, today, the same Playhouse Square marquees that heralded our show in lights…382548_477326598945648_462078561_n

…marked Ray’s tragic passing.ray-shepardson-marquee

Kathleen Crowther of the Cleveland Restoration Society said that Ray “had the courage to go against the grain. I’m not sure he’s ever been properly recognized.”

How do you properly recognize a force of nature?

UnknownI’ve tried to do that, to some paltry degree, with this post.

But mostly I want to say thank you, Ray. I dearly wish I had a chance to do as much for you as you’ve done for me.

I’ll close with the words Victoria wrote today (quoting the English language’s greatest poet who, like Ray, loved the theatre)…

And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest, dear Ray Shepardson. We miss you.

Rest in peace, friend.

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Snickerdoodlin’ with Emilia & Maggie…

Emilia Poster Final JpegComedy lovers in the Chicago area have a chance to see a couple of bright young performers in their first live original sketch show, when my daughter, Emilia Barrosse and her friend and collaborator, Maggie Fish, present “We’re All People Here, Right” at Studio Be across the street from The Vic Theatre at 3110 N. Sheffield Avenue.

Sunny HighEmilia and Maggie met at Northwestern University, where they teamed up to shoot their own comic videos as Snickerdoodlin’ Productions. (I have no idea how a daughter of mine ever got the notion to perform original comedy with her NU classmates.)

Batman's OutYou can check out Emilia and Maggie’s Snickerdoodlin’ videos on YouTube – or follow what they’re doing on Facebook.

InterviewAnd you can watch a very nice interview with Emilia and Maggie by clicking here.

“We’re All People Here, Right?” will be presented on three consecutive Monday nights: November 25th, December 2nd & December 9th at 10:00 pm. Tickets are $5 and the proceeds go to charity.

A couple of my favorite Snickerdoodlin’ videos are “Welcome to Sunny High”…

“Do Not Solicit”

And “The Fork Factor”…

Snickerbanner

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“The Vic & Paul Show” in Chicago!

Last night, Friday, June 15th, The Vic & Paul Show began its 2-weekend run at The Beverly Arts Center on Chicago’s South Side. And a good time was had by all. For tickets to the rest of the run, click here. Come out and see the show, share some great laughs — and enjoy a drink at one of the many fine local Irish pubs. 

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“The Vic & Paul Show” Opens in Chicago Tonight!

Tonight — Friday, June 15th at The Beverly Arts Center on Chicago’s South Side — The Vic & Paul Show begins a 2-weekend run. For tickets, click here. See the show, laugh like crazy — and enjoy a drink at one of the many great local pubs. 

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“The Vic & Paul Show” Opens in Chicago this Weekend!

This Friday, June 15th at The Beverly Arts Center on Chicago’s South Side, The Vic & Paul Show begins a 2-weekend run. For tickets, click here. See the show, laugh like crazy — and then enjoy a drink at one of the many great local pubs.

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Big Fun in Chicago is About to Begin…

There’s little more than a week before “The Vic & Paul Show” opens at The Beverly Arts Center on June 15th.  Get your tickets here.

On the day before we open at The Beverly Arts Center, Victoria and I are joining our great friend, and my fellow Northwestern and Mee-Ow Show alum, Dana Olsen, for a special comedy show at The Wilmette Theatre on June 14th.  Our musical director Steve Rashid and our original “Vic & Paul Show” director Shelly Goldstein will also join us for a night of “Comedy for the Middle Ages”.

Here’s a recent Pioneer Press feature about “Mr. Olsen’s Neighborhood”…

You’ll meet the most interesting people in “Mr. Olsen’s Neighborhood,” Thursday, June 14, at the Wilmette Theatre.

First of all, there’s Mr. Olsen himself, aka Dana Olsen, the writer of such hit films as “George of the Jungle” and “The ’Burbs,” plus numerous TV scripts, who pursues his Hollywood career from the unlikely location of Wilmette.

Then there’s Evanston resident Steve Rashid, an Emmy-winning composer who is also a musician, singer, producer and recording engineer.

Two of Olsen’s other “neighbors” are Victoria Zielinski and her husband, former “Saturday Night Live” writer Paul Barrosse, stars of “The Vic and Paul Show,” an evening of comedy and music which opens a two-weekend run at the Beverly Arts Center the night after “Mr. Olsen’s Neighborhood.”

Lastly, there’s Shelly Goldstein, a cabaret artist and writer, whose numerous TV script credits range from “Laverne and Shirley” to “Flying with Byrd.”

Zielinski, Barrosse and Goldstein all live in Los Angeles but are gathering at the Wilmette Theatre with longtime friends Olsen and Rashid to relive their fun days at Northwestern University (blank) years ago. (Goldstein and Zielinski made Olsen promise not to reveal the dates.)

College buddies

“It’s kind of like we’re getting the old band back together,” 
Olsen said of the comedy-variety show he and his friends have 
created. “We first worked together in the ‘Mee-Ow Show,’ which is the annual comedy review on campus. [Rashid didn’t work on that show with them.] Then, different incarnations of us worked comedy clubs as a group for a while. After graduation, we followed separate paths in the industry. Now it’s years later and our parental obligations have diminished and we decided to start having some fun with each other again.”

Each performer is writing part of the program. Olsen has created a humorous Power Point presentation. Barrosse and Zielinski are doing a few pieces from “The Vic and Paul Show.” Goldstein will perform selections from her cabaret act, which she has presented all over the world.

Rashid is serving as musical director, as well as doing a segment of the show.

“Dana and I have been friends for quite a while through other friends,” Rashid said, “but we’ve never actually worked together. Whenever we get together, we spend a lot of time laughing so we might as well do it onstage.”

Rashid first worked with Barrosse and Zielinski in the 1980s when he was musical director for the Practical Theatre Co., which Barrosse co-founded in Chicago. He is also serving as musical director of “The Vic and Paul Show.”

In addition to participating in the musical numbers from that show, Rashid said, “I’ll have a couple of moments. One of the nice things about this show that Dana is putting together is that there will be several opportunities for all of us to be performing together, in one form or another, and we’ll each have a chance to do a little bit of what we do individually.”

Playing together

“We’ve written some 
sketches for all of us — which has been a real blast,” Olsen concurred. “We’ve been working together on conference calls and throwing ideas around in email, and sending rough drafts back and forth.”

Rashid recalled one of those conference calls. “They were practically writing sketches on the phone,” he said. “It was absolutely hilarious.”

Olsen said that the show’s theme is: “A humorous look at the trials and tribulations of middle age — an idea of different neighborhoods. Middle age being a neighborhood. Wilmette being a neighborhood. Marriage being a neighborhood. We’re taken the ‘Mr. Rogers Neighborhood’ theme and expanded it.”

Sounds like a great place to visit.

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