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When Jim Carrane moved out of his parents’ Kenilworth home at age 28, he didn’t realize just how small Chicago could be. In search of cheap rent, he spent the next six years living in an apartment designed for dwarfs. Now Carrane, 36, looks back at that time and laughs. As a performer on the local improv comedy scene, he’s honed his storytelling skills in three one-man shows about his life. His fourth, Jim Carrane Is Living in a Dwarf’s House, is directed by his longtime friend and collaborator Gary Ruderman and opens for previews this week at the Second City E.T.C.

“People used to call the place ‘Jimmy and Dave’s midget apartment,’ but ‘midget’ really isn’t a politically correct term,” says Carrane. “No matter how many laughs we’re trying to get from this show, we’re not out to make fun of dwarfs. It’s really about my urban adventures, with that as a connecting point.”

Carrane and his then roommate found the Lakeview apartment through normal channels–they were told by neighbors that the apartment was but one of many in the neighborhood that were built for dwarfs during the heyday of Riverview amusement park. When the park closed back in 1967, its dwarf contingent left overnight. Carrane says the apartment had lower-than-normal light fixtures and coatracks, as well as a kitchen sink so low that he preferred to kneel over his bathtub to wash the dishes. “The place definitely affected your sense of proportion,” says Ruderman. “You stepped in once and you felt completely taller.”

The new show features plenty of stories about life in such strange surroundings, as well as more of the tales of family dysfunction that brought him acclaim with his first show, I’m 27, I Live at Home, and I Sell Office Supplies, which was a huge hit when it ran at the Annoyance Theatre in 1991. Detailing his return home to his parents after an earlier foray into life on his own, the show played for 18 months.

Since then, Carrane has acted in corporate videos, become an Annoyance and ImprovOlympic mainstay, and presented two more shows, Since We Last Talked, about his relationship with his father, and Dog Tales, about a hellish stint as a dog-sitter on the North Shore.

Ruderman says the key to a strong solo show is the performer’s ability to make the stories feel like a conversation rather than a forced attempt to draw laughter. To that end, Carrane tells a tale of Halloween in a dwarf’s house.

“When I first moved into the neighborhood, my mom took me shopping at Sam’s Club and bought me 140 rolls of toilet paper at once along with tons of soap, paper towels, and paper cups,” he says. “But I didn’t know what to do with them, so I gave away the stuff at Halloween. I could just imagine the kids in the neighborhood talking: ‘What’d the old Cuban guy give you?’ ‘Candy.’ ‘What about the fat bald guy?’ ‘Wet Naps.'”

Jim Carrane Is Living in a Dwarf’s House previews January 30 and 31 and is scheduled to run every Tuesday and Wednesday through March 14 at 8:30 PM at the Second City E.T.C., 1608 N. Wells. Tickets are $12; call the Second City box office at 312-337-3992.

–Carl Kozlowski

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.