“You know the saying ‘If these walls could talk’?” Javier Ayala asks. “Well, I think these walls do sort of talk.” He’s climbing the stairs that lead to the stage-left dressing rooms of the Chicago Theatre, where he’s manager of administration and tour operations. Every square inch of this stairwell and its stage-right twin is covered with the signatures of stars who’ve performed on the stage that, on this weekday morning, sits dark and quiet a few feet away. A staff member of the theater for 15 years, Ayala estimates the place contains some 10,000 autographs.
“The writing looks like graffiti, but if you focus, you’ll start seeing the names,” he says. “Here’s Steve Martin, here’s Martin Short. Charlie Sheen wrote ‘Please stop yelling.’ Right next to that Glenn Beck put ‘Winning!’ So sometimes they communicate with each other.” Seeing an earnest mural on the wall marking a David Copperfield show, Penn & Teller depicted themselves dropping a refrigerator on the head of their pretty-boy magician rival. The image makes Ayala smile. “Always the jokesters.”
For the 93-year-old Chicago Theatre, the autograph tradition is relatively young. In September 1986, after the building was saved from demolition and rehabbed, Frank Sinatra performed at the reopening gala. Backstage, next to his signature, Ol’ Blue Eyes wrote, “Have a super time. I just did!!!” Many marquee performers followed Frank’s lead: Julie Andrews, Burt Bacharach, George Carlin, Bill Cosby, the Eurythmics, B.B. King, Liza Minnelli, Bob Newhart, Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton, Smokey Robinson, Red Skelton. “This little scribble right here,” Ayala says, “is Neil Young.”
A disused door displays a relic from a 1993 Prince tour: a four-foot-tall purple-and-gold painting featuring the ankh the artist favored at the time over his name. On a wall in an adjacent security office, Conan O’Brien, during one of his three stops at the theater, drew a caricature of himself—freckles, tidal wave of hair, and all. Jay Leno, Brian Wilson, and all five members of the Kids in the Hall also left cartoons of themselves next to their autographs.
As with most wall scrawl, there are some lewd gestures, including a few penis doodles. But that doesn’t bother Ayala so much. “My biggest beef is when people write over other people,” he says. “Like here’s a terrific Sammy Davis Jr., and then some person wrote over it! They probably didn’t even know who he was.”
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