An You Ready for Herman van Veen?

In London last weekend a question starkly posed in newspaper ads and on posters throughout the city–“Herman van Who?”–was answered resoundingly for this reporter when Herman van Veen, one of Holland’s leading musical-theater performers, made his United Kingdom debut at Queen Elizabeth Hall, some 25 years after he first went onstage in his native country. Next Tuesday, van Veen begins a two-week engagement at the Briar Street Theatre, his first appearance in the midwest and only his third time ever in the U.S. Producer Michael Frazier, who also operates the Halsted Theatre Centre, is giving Chicago a taste of a distinctly European talent. “I think the timing is right now for Herman,” he says. Van Veen’s act is a unique blend of stage ingredients: singing (in English, French, Dutch, and German), mime, dance, and acrobatics as well as violin, piano, and harmonica playing, all whipped into an intelligent and totally unpredictable 90 minutes of theatrical entertainment. At the end of his audience-rousing London performance, van Veen dressed down for a bizarre but amusing game of tennis using a completely wrecked racket and a follow spot for a tennis ball.

Eight years ago van Veen appeared on Broadway and two years later he returned to New York for a brief engagement at Carnegie Hall. At the time the critics either loved or hated him. “There was no in-between,” remembers van Veen, who has learned not to let critics overly influence what he does onstage. “I always have to go back to my own truth,” he says. “It may not be the most interesting, but it is the only story I can use.” As van Veen prefers it, his approach to performing cannot be easily categorized. “In the U.S.,” he says, “the media always want to know what is your point. I don’t have a point. Everything nowadays is labeled. I think that is beautiful, but I think life is different.” Though van Veen has recorded 51 albums in Europe (none of which have been released in the U.S.), he has not trodden the path traditionally taken by recording superstars. Instead of saturating the radio and television airwaves with his vocal presence, van Veen has developed audiences rather methodically, touring in Holland and Germany and spreading out to France, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, and more recently Denmark and the UK. His interests and talents go well beyond the stage, however: he has developed a cartoon duck called Alfred J. Kwak, the star of an animated TV series that has been sold throughout Europe and in Japan. (Turner Broadcasting has discussed picking up the series in the U.S.), and he also is a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF; recently he appeared at the United Nations singing a song he composed for the UN’s World Summit for Children.

It will be interesting to see how the Chicago audience takes to this unorthodox performer. He says he really wants to make people smile. But at the same time he admits, “I am as afraid and insecure as everybody else, and I want to express this feeling that we are all scared.”

Auditorium Joins Forces With Off-Loop Producers

The Auditorium Theatre, headed by executive director Dulcie Gilmore, and the Payne-Leavitt Group, comprising producers Wes Payne and Michael Leavitt, have joined forces to form Big Ticket Entertainment in association with New York-based producer James M. Nederlander. Big Ticket will offer a subscription series that combines touring productions of theater and dance companies with locally produced entertainment. The first season includes the Payne-Leavitt productions of Prelude to a Kiss, opening January 23 at the Wellington Theatre, and Lend Me a Tenor, plus touring productions of Grand Hotel, Les Miserables, Peter Pan, the Joffrey Ballet, and the MoMix dance troupe. Big Ticket gives its partners the chance to cross-pollinate two somewhat distinct audiences and types of entertainment. They hope, for example, to introduce the Auditorium’s core of 6,000 downtown subscribers to the adventures of off-Loop theater.

Introducing the Liquor Bar: All You Can Drink, $10

The Sportscorner at 956 W. Addison has been transformed into a new bar for these recession-racked times. As of today it’s called Club Wrig, and customers will pay a flat $10 admission for unlimited draft beer and drinks (no name brands), sandwiches and snacks, free pool, and whatever is tuned in on the television sets around the room. Manager Brad Altman thinks it’s the ideal spot for Wrigleyville people who are short of money but still want somewhere in the neighborhood to enjoy themselves. Altman insists he can make money with the $10 charge: “We’ve got it costed out so that well make more than if it was a regular bar.” He hopes the new concept will make Club Wrig more of a neighborhood establishment. “It never did much business as the Sportscorner,” he concedes, “except when there were baseball games.”

Pieces of Hunt

Chicago sculptor Richard Hunt can add a Playboy puzzle to his list of accomplishments. Last Wednesday Playboy Enterprises CEO Christie Hefner unveiled a new puzzle called Landscape Variations, created by Hunt, that will be distributed to specialty shops and department stores by Playboy subsidiary Special Editions, Ltd. A Chicago executive headhunter named Tom Kennedy got the idea for the item from a MasterCard commercial in which the credit card appears as the key piece in a gold puzzle that depicts various high-consumer delights. Kennedy took the idea to Hunt, who agreed to do it. According to a Playboy spokeswoman, the puzzle, which is a landscape as seen from the window of an airplane, can serve either as a coffee-table artwork or as a real puzzle, albeit an expensive one. Landscape Variations will be sold in four versions. The cheapest, in bronze, will sell for $150, in while the sterling silver version, in a limited edition of 1,000, goes for $2,000. Hunt sculptures, by comparison, range in price from $8,000 to $12,000. The puzzles are expected to be available soon in the museum shop at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.