Off Into the Sunset

Blue Rider Theatre would try anything once. Since opening in 1986 the Pilsen theater has hosted traditional drama, wacky satire, dance, jazz, performance art, and a seven-month festival celebrating all manner of sexual experience. But this spring Blue Rider will close its doors: artistic director Tim Fiori is moving to Los Angeles with his fiancee to pursue a career as an actor and screenwriter. Fiori came to Chicago in 1982, expecting to stay for a year, and now he wants to ride off into the sunset while the theater is in the black. “The last decade was a great one for me at Blue Rider,” he says, “but now I want to concentrate on my own work and end things here on a high note.” The company’s final production, the “multi-art improv” Spontaneous Kandinsky, opens on Saturday and will run through April 3.

Blue Rider Theatre Company was formed in 1984 by Fiori, Mitch Covic, and Donna Blue Lachman; two years later the partners rented a space in the building at 18th and Halsted that had once housed the Palace Theater. At first Blue Rider served mostly as a vehicle for Lachman’s plays, including a biography of Frida Kahlo and the autobiographical piece After Mountains, More Mountains…the Haiti Stories. Blue Rider was among a handful of organizations trying to transform Pilsen into a thriving arts community; Interplay, Econo-Art Theatre, and the Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre all operated there, but one by one they either folded or left for greener pastures and then collapsed.

In 1990 Fiori took the reins as program director, doubling and then tripling the theater’s offerings. The company continued to produce plays, including Lachman’s memoir The Thirst: A Work for Jew and Clarinet and Fiori and Michael Vitali’s G-Man! A Day in the Life of J. Edgar Hoover. But Fiori also made the theater a much-needed clearinghouse for “interdisciplinary” work, renting the space to artists like Xsight! Performance Group and small theater troupes like Whole Art Theater Company, Tellin’ Tales Theater, and AlienNation Company. In 1994 it opened its doors for a week solid to present Mathew Wilson and Eduardo Martinez-Almaral’s seven-day, nonstop improvised performance Tragedy. In ’95 it held a two-day benefit called The Bad Review, in which actors got even with their critics by staging their worst notices. And in ’97 it orchestrated “Nights of the Blue Rider SexFest,” a multidisciplinary performance art series that included 96 groups presenting 69 performances. Says Fiori: “We could have turned that into a franchise.”

Pornfest’s Big Bust

On the eve of Saint Valentine’s Day, the Congress Theatre hosted King Velveeda’s Court of Porn, a festival celebrating the city’s sexual fringe. But apparently Chicago’s finest weren’t in the mood for love: according to organizer Shane Bugbee, police swarmed into the theater taking photographs and asking each vendor to produce a temporary business license for that location. John Laurie, owner of the record store Laurie’s Planet of Sound, was among those fined for not having the proper license; he maintains that police did what they could “to cause trouble and to close the show down.” Also fined were about a dozen artists and zine publishers who Bugbee insists were there only to display their wares. “We were able to get through about 95 percent of what we had planned for the evening,” says Bugbee, “but the cops definitely put a damper on things when they started putting cameras in people’s faces.”

Bugbee suspects the mayoral election prompted the raid, but a police department spokesman says there was no raid in the technical sense of the term. According to the city’s revenue department, police rarely show up unless they’re responding to a complaint, but once they’re on the scene, protocol dictates that they check for the appropriate licenses.

And no one in the neighborhood could have missed the Court of Porn: Bugbee says transvestites were entering and exiting the theater all evening, and a bus parked in front of the theater wore a sign trumpeting “the world’s biggest gang-bang.” The bus arrived carrying a group of porn stars from California, including “Houston,” a woman who according to Bugbee holds the world record for most sex partners in one day (621 to be precise). Bugbee, who publishes the underground newspaper Chicago at Night, concedes that he lacked some of the necessary paperwork, but only because the venue had been moved from the Charybdis Gallery after he learned that police might raid that site. He’s scheduled to appear in court March 5 for failure to display proper licenses–a court of law, that is.

Tough Luck

Richard Kelley has closed his Tough Gallery at 415 N. Sangamon. One of the city’s only commercial spaces devoted to conceptual sculpture and installations by local artists, it featured work by Adelheid Mers, Jo Hormuth, and M.W. Burns, among others. Since Tough opened in 1991, it’s been more a hobby than a job, and Kelley says he no longer has time for it: “I’m overcommitted in other areas right now and haven’t been doing a tremendous job of running the gallery, which isn’t fair to the artists.” Kelley calls the gallery scene “pretty abysmal” and blames the second-city syndrome. “Artists here think you’ve got to go to New York to be successful, so the best always seem to migrate there.”

Tough’s demise means the end of Uncomfortable Spaces, an alliance of galleries that also included Beret International Gallery and Ten in One Gallery (a fourth, MWMWM, closed in 1996). For several years the trio shared promotional costs and exhibited together at art fairs in Chicago, New York, and Madrid. Joel Leib, who started Ten in One in the late 80s, plans to close this spring or summer and relocate to New York’s Chelsea district. “The more demanding the art you sell, the more you need to be in New York to do business,” he says. Ned Schwartz of Beret International plans to stick it out in Wicker Park, but like Kelley he holds down a full-time job, as a parole officer. “The gallery suffers because I’m not there to promote it,” says Schwartz. He also wishes local collectors would buy more conceptual art. “The number of collectors who pay attention to what I do is deplorable.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Tim Fiori photo by Jim Newberry.