His Cover’s Blown

District 24 cop Martin Preib says he’d rather his writing life stayed out of the spotlight. “I like to keep my two worlds separate,” he explains. “I don’t talk much about the writing on the job, even though being a police officer keeps me in touch with the city in a way I really like. I just want to write in the mornings, work in the evenings, and die in my sleep.” But his low profile’s going to be a little harder to maintain: last week the venerable Virginia Quarterly Review, which publishes Pulitzer Prize winners and Nobel laureates, announced that Preib’s essay “The Wagon” is cowinner of the Staige D. Blackford Prize for the best work of nonfiction published in the Review this year. “The Wagon” is a harrowing and resonant take on Preib’s body-transport duties with the Chicago Police Department–a gorgeous piece of writing.

Preib, a Chicago native, has been on the force three and a half years. Prior to that he was a reporter for a small-town newspaper near Detroit, a college English and classics major, and, for nearly a decade, a hotel doorman and reformer in the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. (You might have seen him outside the Allerton, or the Hyatt on Printers Row.) No matter what paid the bills, however, he’s always been a writer: he estimates that he’s written “thousands and thousands of pages,” mostly essays and mostly unpublished. He says he gave up on publishing a few years ago after spending three years on a piece about Walt Whitman and William Kennedy that editors praised but wouldn’t purchase (though it did inspire the Boston Book Review to hire him to do a Kennedy interview). “I just quit sending stuff around,” he says, adding that it’s an accident that this piece even appeared in print: it was passed by a friend of a friend to an editor at the VQR. Visit vqronline.org to see what stopped that editor in his tracks.

Reincarnated as a Woman

Chicago actor and director Dale Calandra was at a turning point in his life when his stomach started to hurt two years ago. He’d recently resigned as head of Oak Park Festival Theatre. A part-time teacher at Columbia College, Calandra had been an ensemble member at Wisdom Bridge and a founding member of Center Theater, where he’d run the Training Center for Young Actors, Directors, and Playwrights, and mounted a futuristic Lysistrata that some still regard as one of Chicago’s most memorable productions. Audiences saw him as Allen Ginsberg in Remains Theatre’s The Chicago Conspiracy Trial and as Fezziwig in the Goodman’s annual A Christmas Carol. But by May 2003, most of that was behind him; he was trying to figure out “what next?” when his temperature started to rise. “I thought it was the flu; I was going to tough it out,” he says. “But when the pain got worse, I decided it was appendicitis. I went to Saint Francis Hospital in the middle of the night and woke up ten days later.”

It turned out that Calandra had a rare intestinal infection, complicated by blood clots–“The same thing Alan Alda had,” he says. “By my third surgery my chances for survival had shrunk to 10 percent.” Doctors removed 60 percent of his small intestine, which had atrophied, and he spent six weeks at Saint Francis, then two more weeks at Northwestern University’s Rehabilitation Institute. During that time members of the Chicago theater community and other friends rallied to his side, raising enough money to keep him going for six months without having to worry about finances. “Everybody put their hand on my back and helped push me up the mountain to get well again,” he says. “That white-light energy surrounded me, and I slowly started coming back.” By the following February, when the touring company of Hairspray held Chicago auditions, Calandra was healthy enough to try out. He joined the company in August 2004, and “the rest is history,” he says. “I went from laying in a hospital bed to–a year later–singing and dancing across the country in a big red dress.”

Calandra is in Chicago this week as the standby for Edna in Hairspray at the Cadillac Palace Theater. He’s visited 30 cities with the show, and just signed on for another six months of touring. As one of only about ten actors in the world who’ve played Edna, he expects a good run with it; Hairspray is getting a permanent company in Las Vegas, and when the regional rights are released there’ll be additional opportunities. He likes the challenge: “I’m an actor playing a character–it’s not a drag role,” he says. “We’re not camping it up.” He eats five small meals a day and says he’s healthier than ever. His worst pain these days comes with plucking and shaving the spots where Edna wouldn’t be caught dead with big hair: eyebrows, chest, armpits. He’ll be appearing as the divine mom in the 7:30 PM performance December 13 and the 2 PM performance December 14.


You can’t get no Respect at the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts anymore, but no one’s saying why. Word is that Respect: A Musical Journey of Women, devised by (and originally starring) Vanderbilt University business school adjunct faculty member Dorothy Marcic, was doing OK at the box office when its Chicago run, which began last spring, was abruptly canceled Thanksgiving week. CCPA is offering refunds or tickets to Bark!, currently playing in its studio theater, and hopes to have a main stage replacement by the end of January. . . . Lookingglass Theatre Company recently landed a hard-to-come-by unrestricted grant: $150,000 over five years from the MacArthur foundation. Lookingglass’s annual budget is now $2.7 million; attendance in its cool but nearly invisible Water Tower Water Works quarters was 31,000 the first year and fell to 25,000 the second. Artistic director David Catlin says they hope to climb back to 30,000 this season.

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