In 1995, I moved to Chicago to pursue improv greatness. I wanted to take classes at the Second City and the ImprovOlympic, specifically from this guy named Del Close. My college friend from New York, John Mulhern, had been aiding and abetting my weekend dalliances with Chicago improv and his group had even been kind enough to let me sit in with a few rehearsals where I did not completely disgrace myself.
Classes for ImprovOlympic were just beginning at its new resident space at 3541 North Clark. The neighborhood at the time was empty, and I mean, M. Tea. Empty storefronts, a tiny bar, a small grocery. And that’s about it. There was Sluggers, Cubby Bear and Exedus. That’s it. John Barleycorn was a futon store. No Salt & Pepper, no Goose Island… After ImprovOlympic was up and running, the space to the left of it became El Pollo Loco. But everyone got sick after eating there so it closed up. There was a WrigleyDawg (great hot wings, brats, etc… oh! they had a Galaga machine. That was awesome) where Red Ivy is now.
During my level 1 class (which was simply called “Charna”) the July 1995 Chicago heatwave hit. John and I lived a few blocks from ImprovOlympic and like many people we were without electricity for several days. I had no job, no power, and it was 110 degrees for 5 days. One Saturday, with little sleep and less food, I was stumbling zombie-like through the neighborhood when I was discovered by Charna Halpern and her dog, Gracie. I told her my story and she invited me to come to ImprovOlympic. There was power there
and air-conditioning; she had paperwork and I could rest before our class later that day. What’s now the back of the cabaret (AKA The Hamlet Lounge) had several couches and she stashed me there with a blanket (it was that cold in there) and a pitcher of water. She would wake me in time for class. And I became, definitely not the first nor the last, one of Charna’s strays.
A few months later and I was in Del’s Monday class. At the time, the cleaning guy (Armando) only came Wednesdays and Saturdays mornings. So, by Monday, the place stank like, well, a bar. and cigarettes because you could still smoke in public back then. Del had undergone chemical aversion therapy for alcohol and the smell made him retch. So between the coughing from emphysema and the retching from the smell, we were getting every third word. I worked at Blockbuster and was off on Mondays, so I began going to class at 6pm so I could sweep and mop the entire cabaret. That began a personal tradition for me; I would sweep and mop before my team shows and I still do before Whirled News Tonight.
In my Level 2 class, I was told to commit to a character by my teacher Miles Stroth. I was in a break up scene and was told to get on my knees and beg, which I did and I stayed on my knees, following my scene partner around the stage. When the scene was over I stood and I had rubbed holes into the knees of my pants and friction burned my knees bloody. There were traces of my blood on the stage.
I began doing a lot of shows at iO and before each “big show” (usually a Halloween show or something based on Star Wars) I would sand, paint and lacquer the Del Close Theater stage. I did that two or three times. After the shows or classes (usually about 10pm back then) and I would stay and work till 3 or 4am. I know that stage pretty well.
Once, during Space Dreck, (the improvised Star Trek we did in 1996) I was Kirk and, of course, had my shirt off. As I squeezed by another cast member back stage, a random nail scratched me right about my left nipple and it bleed copiously. Which was weird because the show had just begun,,, why was Kirk bleeding? We were plagued by such continuity problems.
During rehearsals for Jedi! the Tour De Force Musical, we rehearsed on Friday nights from 10pm – 2, maybe 3am. Only to reconvene at 10am on Saturday. I didn’t have keys to the building at the time so I simply slept in the green room to open the doors in 7 hours.
Behind the coat area in the Cabaret there is a door to the AC and furnace. Once, I was back there and stood too suddenly. I have a nice crater in my head flesh you can sink your finger in.
Before there was an annex, Mike Click, Charna and I worked out of what is now the Training Center office for years. I would arrive first (around 9am) and then Mike, then Charna… we would rotate the two people in the office and the third person would work at the bar or go for lunch.
For many years, I had Halloween shows that culminated in a giant costume party. We felt bad about leaving a mess for the
cleaning man, so not only would we host the party we would clean up the DCT afterwards. I mean, all the garbage, mopping, etc… we would get out around 4am. We did that for years. And, you know what? I fucking loved it. A great Halloween party is like a show and vice versa.
I had a show called Dinner for Six, a small improvised romantic comedy. No one came to see it. Once it was just Charna Halpern and Susan Messing. One night it was five people from Close Quarters (which was running at the SC etc) After the show, Charna came up to me and said, “Don’t worry about the rent, just keep doing this kind of work.”
There have been nights where it has been 90 degrees in the theater. There have been nights where water floods the entire cabaret (I remember water up to my ankles as I looked directly at the… fusebox.. “Eh, if it was going to kill me I’d be dead by now…”) There have been great shows with no audience and awful shows with sold out houses. Within the walls of 3541 N. Clark I have hidden from stalkers, ex-girlfriends, ex-friends, myself, and reality. I have cried, ranted and raged both on-stage and off. There have pure crystal moments of unadulterated happiness and transcendental nirvana at that address. All of these things housed under one roof for the past twenty years, but the walls didn’t tell me they loved me. The stage didn’t tell me to keep pushing, to keep learning and growing… it was the people, the friends and lovers and colleagues that did that. It was the people that made it a home.
The treasured old memories will be where they belong; in our memories, in our hearts, as we go on to build new ones with friends old and new. Maybe it’s all the terrible chores and blood (both literal and figurative) that went into 3541 that make me relatively unsentimental but I can’t wait to see what we do with 1501 N. Kingsbury. A new sandbox! What wonders will be wrought?! I have so many shows in my brain and I can’t wait to do them all! I can’t wait to share them!
As a great poet once wrote,
Fish don’t fry in the kitchen;
Beans don’t burn on the grill.
Took a whole lotta tryin’
Just to get up that hill.
Now we’re up in the big leagues
Gettin’ our turn at bat.
As long as we live, it’s you and me baby
There ain’t nothin wrong with that.
No. There sure isn’t.