In late June 2012, I had just completed the first of three stages in my two-month summer sabbatical from the television business. It was a dramatic step to jump off the TV treadmill after 22 years and reconnect with my improvisational comedy roots – but while our run of The Vic & Paul Show at The Beverly Arts Center on the South Side of Chicago started out well, it wasn’t exactly a blockbuster engagement.
We had some good shows, in particular a fine opening night and a rousing Father’s Day matinee where the audience got every joke. On those nights my wife Victoria, our musical partner Steve Rashid and I were greeted with the familiar sound of knowing laughter after every sketch. But there were too many shows where the laughs – and the ticket buyers — were scarce. We closed our run at The Beverly Arts Center with fond memories of our large, appreciative North Side audiences at Mayne Stage in Rogers Park six months earlier.
You live, you learn. I may have a bit of P.T. Barnum in me – but as Professor Harold Hill should have taught me, “Ya gotta know the territory.”
The highlight of our Beverly Arts Center experience were the visits from good friends who traveled many miles to see the show and share some laughs with us: the brilliant pianist and composer Larry Schanker and his wife Jenny, our great friend Bubba George McClellan who made the long drive in from Fort Wayne, and my Rockme Foundation band mates Casey Fox and Rush Pearson, who brightened the BAC scene with their better halves.
The day after we closed at the BAC, Victoria and I headed north for some much-needed R & R in the upper reaches of Wisconsin. We’d been invited to spend a week with friends at their lakeside cottage in the tiny town of Three Lakes. (There are a lot more than three lakes up there, by golly!)
Our hosts, Steve Stroud and Carol Stogsdill were waiting for us at Steve’s charming family cottage with their characteristic hospitality, a fridge full of cold Leinenkugels, and another couple of our very best friends, Jim Newton and Karlene Goller, along with their teenage son Jack and a school pal, Chris Gates. In this delightful company, amid the natural beauty of Three Lakes, we settled in for a wonderful week at Camp Stroud.
Indeed, such indulgences are required.
But camp counselor Stroud is an avid proponent of aquatic sports of all kinds, and it was made known that if Victoria and I wanted to earn our Camp Stroud merit badge, we would need to take advantage of the kayak, canoe, paddleboard, and sailboat that stood ready for our use.
Steve also had his family’s sleek, gorgeous, classic powerboat in the boathouse – and as the sun set on our first day at Three Lakes, we motored out across the lake to take in the sights and sounds of summer in northern Wisconsin.
That night, I was given the honor of fashioning a formal campfire service to retire the old, tattered U.S. flag that had long served as the ensign for Steve’s powerboat, waving proudly from its stern for many years. With Jack and Chris assisting me, we disposed of Old Glory in the regulation manner, consigning it to the flames with all appropriate honor and solemnity.
At one point, it was necessary to maneuver over a dam – which required putting our craft on a boatlift that carried it over the dam and lowered it back into the river below the dam. I’m a big fan of nautical evolutions, and this one was new to me.
But the coolest moment on the pontoon boat trip was witnessing a white-headed sea eagle (commonly called a bald eagle) catch a fish.
There was just enough time to alert the rest of our party – and we all watched in awe as the eagle stretched out its talons, plunged them into the water, and snatched a large fish!
Steve, a professional photographer and photo editor at the LA Times, got his camera focused in time to record the event – and shot a series of photos as the eagle raced across the lake clutching its prey, and soared off into the trees beyond Steve’s cottage. If nothing else had happened the whole trip, that moment alone would have been worth the long drive to northern Wisconsin.
For the rest of the week, Victoria and I worked on earning our Camp Stroud merit badge, although it must be said that my darling wife proved far more proficient on the paddleboard than I did. In fact, I stunk at paddleboarding. I was much better in the canoe and kayak. But I was lucky to barely earn a qualifying grade in the small boat sailing portion of my requirements. Salty, capable Steve took me out in the smallest sailboat I’ve ever been aboard – and though I managed to help keep her afloat, I cannot say that I covered myself with anything resembling glory on that brief voyage. Still, it was great fun – as was our entire week at Camp Stroud.
To my surprise, Victoria jumped at the chance to make what looked like a more than mile-long swim in chilly waters from Steve’s dock to the other side of the lake and back.
I’ve never claimed to be much of a swimmer, so I begged off – even though it my might cost me my merit badge.
Victoria was game – and she began her marathon swim with great determination. She got about a quarter of the way across the lake when common sense and self-preservation prevailed — and she gave up her attempt.
Steve, however, swam on and on and on like an English Channel swimmer – and made it back to his dock with a wide, victorious smile.
As we departed Camp Stroud, our camp mates surprised us by decorating our car with a Diet Coke can tail – and a soapy sign on the rear window celebrating the fact that it was our 22nd wedding anniversary.
In fact, we’d almost forgotten our anniversary.
Victoria and I had gotten entirely off the grid of our normal existence this summer, and with all the plans, travel, and performances that crowded our calendar, we were blissfully unaware that June 30th was anything more than the date on which we planned to drive back to Chicago.
That changed when Vic and I decided not to drive all the way back to Chicago in one day – but to break the trip up with a romantic one-night stay somewhere halfway between Three Lakes and Chicago. Steve and Carol recommended a resort in Kohler, Wisconsin, north of Milwaukee. When Victoria called to book a room the woman taking the reservation asked if we were celebrating any special event.
Thank goodness I was sitting right next to my darling wife when she made that call. I was looking right at her as her eyes widened and she came to the sudden realization that – yes, indeed – we were celebrating a special event. It was our wedding anniversary! We had BOTH forgotten it. I shudder to think of the calamity had I been the only one that forgot.
We got back to Evanston on July 1st, just in time for me to board a plane for a quick one-day trip to Cleveland to scout The 14th Street Theatre in advance of our upcoming run. I arrived in Cleveland late that night and slept at my mom’s house before heading downtown to Playhouse Square the next morning to check out the space where we were set to open “The Vic & Paul Show” in a dozen days.
The 14th Street Theatre was a joy to behold: the perfect cabaret space for a comedy revue like ours. I met with key members of the Playhouse Square staff to discuss publicity and technical concerns, and came away with a clearer idea of how to move into the space and adapt our staging to fit. I also thought, “Man, I’d like to have space like that of my own.”
The thought of having a cabaret of my own was not a random one. In fact, the other underlying reason for my sabbatical was to explore the notion of opening a comedy cabaret on the North Shore of Chicago, preferably in Evanston. So, when I returned from Cleveland, that exploration got underway in earnest.
During the course of the next week, Victoria and I had a series of meetings with area restaurateurs and people from the Downtown Evanston development organization and city of Evanston.
Joined by the very funny Dana Olsen we took a tour of possible cabaret spaces with Carolyn Dellutri, Executive Director of Downtown Evanston.
It’s been 32 years since we opened our own comedy shop on Howard Street in Evanston – and the idea of having our own home to perform in again is a compelling one. I would spend a lot of time over the next month and a half in Chicago meeting with people whose opinions I respect, confessing my plans to them, and getting their feedback.
Will the Practical Theatre return to Evanston? Stay tuned…
On Sunday, July 8th, the day before we left for Cleveland, Vic and I drove to the Illinois-Wisconsin border to see The Sturdy Beggars perform The Mud Show at The Bristol Renaissance Faire. It’s been many, many years since Victoria and I cavorted in the mud as Sturdy Beggars, and we were delighted to be back at the mud pit to watch our good friends Rush Pearson, Herb Metzler and John Goodrich perform “The Greatest Show In Earth”.
This was another homecoming for me. Herb was with me (along with Jamie Baron) in the summer of ’78 when The Sturdy Beggars were born at King Richard’s Faire – now known as The Bristol Faire. Rush joined us the following rainy summer when the mud show was born of necessity and began its development into the popular and polished yet merrily mud-spattered act it is today.
Rush, Herb and John had a great crowd that Sunday – and put on a fine and funny show in the filth. Herb’s devil-may-care performance of the celebrated “Acapulco Cliff Dive” was a highlight, as were Rush’s antics as The Judge and John’s comic command of the crowd.
A fine summer day at the Renn Faire, a beer in hand, and the Sturdy Beggars in the mud pit make for an outstanding entertainment trifecta. Plus, we got to spend time backstage with Rush’s girlfriend, Theresa Miele.
On July 9th, we loaded up the rental SUV with our props, costumes and other baggage – and Victoria, daughter Emilia and I drove to Cleveland. Since my college days, I’ve driven the route from Chicago to Cleveland on the Indiana and Ohio Turnpikes many times, but this was the first time I’d made the drive with Vic and Emilia. It’s a long, straight drive across acres and acres of corn, interrupted by rest stop plazas that in my younger days the plazas were all Howard Johnson’s restaurants but they’re now a generic series of national fast food franchises like Burger King and Pizza Hut. My daughter Emilia did not understand my nostalgia for the lost Howard Johnson’s plazas. (She doesn’t know what she missed.)
We got to Cleveland in late afternoon and checked into our downtown hotel on Euclid Avenue in the heart of Playhouse Square – just a couple short blocks from the 14th Street Theatre. Downtown Cleveland gave an immediate impression of cleanliness and civic pride, which my wife and daughter picked up on immediately.
This was not the “mistake on the Lake” they had heard about – or the downtrodden town that my daughter had seen savaged in a couple of infamous YouTube videos. Cleveland was looking very good from Playhouse Square.
Dinner that night was at my childhood home on Cleveland’s Westside, near the Metropark Zoo. My beloved mom, Mary, had made her magical meatballs and pasta – and we all dined on the stuff that I was raised on: love, laughter and truly great tomato sauce. Then, of course, my mom kicked all our butts at Scrabble. Traditions prevail at home in Cleveland.
Later that evening, we picked up daughter Eva at Cleveland Hopkins Airport after her incredible two-week adventure in Europe. (She’ll have to write her own blog post on that amazing, life-changing trip to Switzerland, France and Italy.) Getting back to our hotel after dark we were delighted to see “The Vic & Paul Show” announced in lights on the marquees along Playhouse Square. It was a good omen.
On Tuesday morning I loaded the show’s equipment into the 14thStreet Theatre, enjoyed a late breakfast in the hotel with Vic and the girls, and then drove over to my childhood home on Cleveland’s west side, near the zoo. My daughters hadn’t been to Cleveland and Grandma’s house in way too many years, and my sabbatical provided us the chance to spend quality time in my hometown and visit my mom and family while putting on our show together. Several of my cousins joined us for a dinner of spaghetti and meatballs, some cutthroat Scrabble, and a great family photo on the front porch steps.
The next day, I picked up music man Steve at the airport and that afternoon we moved into the 14th Street Theatre and worked through our technical rehearsal. My daughter Emilia handled the lighting set up and her three-man union crew with competence and good humor. Daughter Eva helped out by running errands and assisting with the set-up backstage. We’re a bit like the Von Trapp Family of improvisational comedy – minus the lederhosen.
It was great to be working in a cabaret space again, designed and built a decade ago by Second City as its short-lived Cleveland outpost. Adjusting our staging to the 14th Street stage was easy, which was good because we had a few new things to rehearse. We’d made some tweaks for the Cleveland run, including a new line for Steve’s opening song in honor of the Cleveland Indians’ surprisingly competitive performance up to that point.
All the people are drinking their cocktails,
All the people are drinking their cocktails,
They’re happy, they’re hopeful, a smile on their face,
Tonight the Tribe’s just two games out of first place!
We opened the next night, Thursday, July 12th. We were fortunate to get some nice advance press, including an article in The Cleveland Plain Dealer and another in Scene Magazine (at left), which was an important rock and roll rag back in my day and has since grown into a prime source for what’s hip and happening on the weekend in the Greater Cleveland area.
As Steve got behind the piano and kicked off the show that evening, Victoria and I waited offstage to make our entrance. I had not been on a Cleveland stage since 1976 (when I played George M. Cohan in a Bicentennial production of “George M!”) and there were a handful of cousins, former high school chums and teachers in the opening night crowd who hadn’t seen me perform since then.
Most of the audience were strangers, attracted by the press and Playhouse Square promotional effort. How would the show play in Cleveland, especially among folks who had no idea who we were? Vic and I were reassured within moments, when Steve got a warm, appreciative laugh singing, “Tonight the Tribe’s just two games out of first place.” From there, the laughter flowed.
Our opening night show set a pattern for the Cleveland run: great crowds, including a delightful collection of family members, longtime friends, high school classmates, my favorite high school teachers, a large and receptive contingent of perfect strangers — and lots of boisterous, knowing laughter.
The only frustration was that there was not enough time to spend with all of the special people who came. A Northwestern classmate, Ellen Hyman Jones, drove all the way out from New York to see the show! There was barely enough time to dash out to the lobby and greet as many folks as possible before we had to clear the theatre, straighten backstage, and get our union crew off the clock.
As we set up for the show we had our concerns that many in the audience might be too old or too hard of hearing to get all the jokes – but we needn’t have been concerned.
There was no joke too subtle (or too racy) for this crowd. My mom sat at the center table with her fellow Red Hat Ladies and my sister, Nancy.
Then it was on to the West Side Market. I was eager to show off the market to Steve, Emilia and Eva. (Vic had seen it before.) It’s been a Cleveland landmark on West 25th Street since 1912. Unknown to me, the West Side Market was, of course, celebrating its centennial – and there was a festive buzz in the air. Here are Emilia and Eva enjoying the view from a balcony high above the crowded stalls filled with meats, cheeses, bakery, and other fabulous ethnic foodstuffs.
Next, we drove to the east side of Cleveland to meet with my high school art teacher and mentor, Ellen Howard (Ellen Fasko back in my day), for a quick tour of my high school. Or at least one of the campuses I attended.
In my day, Cleveland Central Catholic was a one-of-a-kind educational institution. In 1969, four struggling Catholic high schools – two on the west side (St. Michaels and St. John Cantius) and two on the east side (Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Stanislaus – joined together in a unique scholastic experiment. My brother Peter was in that first CCC class. Three years later I enrolled as a freshman.
By my junior year I was driving crosstown to classes on both sides of the Cuyahoga River Valley, known in Cleveland as The Flats. Today, only one campus remains: St. Stan’s — the one we toured. Ellen showed Vic, Steve and the girls the building where my football locker room was (and still is), as well as the classrooms where I took art class and history. We also pored over the 1976 yearbook from my senior year that I’d worked on, writing copy and photo captions. Ellen was our yearbook advisor – and remains a Central Catholic treasure to this day.
During our stay in Cleveland we also squeezed in a visit to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, less than a mile’s walk from Playhouse Square. There was way too much to see at The Hall of Fame and we had far too little time to see it all, but it was a rewarding experience nonetheless. A particular highlight was sitting on the floor with my wife and daughters, all of us spellbound by a series of videos detailing the unique stories behind each of The Beatles’ wondrous albums. We could have sat there forever — but we had a show to do.
Closing night of “The Vic & Paul Show” at the 14th Street Theatre was a triumphant end to a great run. After the show (and a frantic load-out) we raced back across The Flats to the near west side for a closing night party at Sokolowski’s University Inn, a fine Polish restaurant run by former high school classmates of mine.
A special group of my favorite former high school teachers, coaches, classmates and family were waiting at Sokolowski’s to celebrate with us. It was a magical end to a wonderful Cleveland homecoming: a memorable party full of friendship, laughter, great old stories, good wine — and several plates piled high with pierogi!
Cleveland knows how to party.
This Cleveland stage of my summer sabbatical was particularly important. After two decades of making television shows that entertained a remote audience whose response to my work I could only imagine – taking “The Vic & Paul Show” to Cleveland was an opportunity to reconnect with live audiences in a town far away from Hollywood and many miles removed from Chicago, where The Practical Theatre Company made some history and earned a reputation that lingers today.
If I did nothing else during my summer sabbatical, our adventure in The Best Location in The Nation made it all worthwhile.
Next: Further cabaret explorations in Evanston and Chicago, a brief return to Cleveland, and “The Vic & Paul Show” summer tour ends on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.