I heard him before I saw him–a clackety-clack sound coming from a semicircle of about 60 people. In front of them was a guy with big blue eyes and blond ringlets with a touch of gray, wearing an old T-shirt with “The Bones Show” emblazoned on it and a gray vest with a button bearing his likeness. He played two pairs of what he called “vegetarian” bones, though he also had a pair of the real thing–cow ribs. Somewhere along the way in the instrument’s history, he said, a musician carved wood into the shape of a rib.

To the accompaniment of a cassette player, he sang a song about all kinds of bones–backbones, wishbones, dog bones–while he clackety-clacked in all sorts of rhythms. All six foot two of him shimmied and swayed like a bag of broken bones.

Unlike street performers I’d seen playing the guitar or dancing, this guy did an elaborate 30-minute show complete with props and a moral. Near the end he raffled off an imaginary balloon ride. He asked the little girl who won, “Is this the first time you’ve won an imaginary hot-air-balloon ride?”

“No,” she said.

Everyone laughed, and the man released a balloon that spiraled into the air.

Later he got serious. “This summer, if you play with balloons, I don’t care if they break into a thousand pieces–please don’t just throw them in the yard, the grass, the park, or the zoo. Pick up those little pieces of balloons, take them inside, and put them in the garbage, because a bird or some animal might find that balloon and choke–blaaahhh–or get it around his neck and choke.”

Darryl Muhrer, aka Mr. Bones, has put on a show in Lincoln Park Zoo for about seven years. It hasn’t made him famous, though someone once recognized him at a Grateful Dead concert. He usually performs on weekend afternoons near the lion house, but when he sets up elsewhere in the zoo crowds still find him. He says in a good week he can earn a couple hundred dollars. The day I met him he walked away with $55 after four hours.

Muhrer, who’s 52, has been doing the “Bones Show” for nearly 20 years. In the early 1980s, accompanied by a pianist, he took it to 240 schools across the midwest. For about ten years he’s been thinking of converting it to a theater piece and a television show, but he hasn’t found the time or the money. Besides, he says, the show isn’t good enough yet.

Muhrer holds a master’s degree in education from Northwestern University and served as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He’s taught broadcasting at Northeast Missouri State University and classes in creativity and organizational change for the Department of Energy. More recently he’s been an artist in residence and substitute teacher with the Chicago Public Schools.

Lately he’s been doing a little freelance carpentry for friends and playing the bones some nights with a jazz band at the Underground Wonder Bar downtown. He lives in a Ukrainian Village garage that he and a roommate have converted to an apartment of sorts.

But this month he’s leaving town to spend a year or two in Kahoka, Missouri, helping his mother with the family farm. His dad’s in a nursing home.

Muhrer may come to Chicago a couple of times a month to perform at the zoo, but he says the time in Missouri will be good for his show, especially its third act, which deals in part with people growing older. “I’ve dealt with little kids, changing diapers, high school kids, adults, but the thing of following ourselves clear to the other end–you don’t think very much about that when you’re younger. What is it like when you start losing all this that you have, your brilliance, and you become less capable, and somebody else has to change your diapers?

“I don’t plan to retire. I hope I’m just doing a great show someday and just blppp, heart attack, skkkeee. Carry me off. That’s it. Somebody write up an obit, put me in a box, ship me back. I want to make sure I get my free flag. Because I’m a veteran, I get a free flag when I die. My mother gets it–or whoever is still alive. I can’t imagine being like my dad and retiring. Letting my brain deteriorate from the time I’m 65 until the time I’m 85. I want to be this character for the rest of my life, until I can’t perform anymore. If I don’t have any marketable product in television at least I still have the live show. I can always do that.”

–Cheryl Ross

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Darryl Muhrer photo by Nathan Mandell.