On December 13, I took a long drive to Des Plaines to pick up relatives of my friend Perry Kanlan, a showbiz-adjacent eccentric known as Dancin’ Man. The time on the road gave me the chance to reflect on the circumstances of my relationship with him. I formally met Perry in 2011, when my friend Lavon Pettis pitched him as a subject for a Reader article, but at that point I’d already been noticing him for years—backstage at a Rudy Ray Moore show in 2002, I mistook him for a vintage-style pimp among the gaggle of gaudily garbed sexagenarians angling for some face time with Dolemite. It seemed I’d known him for longer than a decade, but at the same time I still felt like I’d gone too quickly from interviewing a motormouthed cowboy on the roof of Marina City to bearing the responsibility of helping his family take him off life support.

Making friends through work is pretty standard, and as a writer it’s not unusual to keep up with people you profile. And when you connect with a subject in need, it’s reasonable for that person to reach out for help—just as it’s reasonable for writers to impose boundaries. 

I sometimes have trouble drawing those lines. Maybe I’d feel differently if I were John Conroy, changing the lives of Burge police-torture victims, or a journalist at the TRiiBE, amplifying the voices of activists to help them toward their goals. What I offer my subjects is more modest: I share untold stories of unjustly obscure artists. I don’t have the tools or the clout to spark career revivals or improve their financial situations. So if these folks, who I happen to like, call me up for a ride or need help with a doctor’s appointment, that seems fine. 

That said, this particular trip felt like a lot.

I told Perry Kanlan’s story in my Reader profile in 2011. He constantly carried a copy of that issue—along with a Walgreens photo envelope filled with snapshots of him with the likes of Michael Jackson, James Brown, and Kathy Sledge—to convince literal gatekeepers at festivals, clubs, and casinos to let him in unticketed. Born in 1943 into a well-off Jewish family on the north side (his uncle owned Admiral Tool & Die), he soon landed in Bruno Bettelheim’s Orthogenic School for emotionally disturbed children due to his autism and bold behavior. After years of clashing with Bettelheim, teenage Perry ran away, hitchhiking across the country and settling into a cowboy gig on a Wyoming sheep and cattle ranch. 

Perry’s family eventually tracked him down, convinced him to return to Chicago, and set him up with a room in Hyde Park. He became fascinated with the music and the women at the nightclubs on the south side, where his acrobatic dancing, wild fashion sense, and fearless lack of boundaries earned him attention. By the mid-60s he’d become Dancin’ Boy, earning modest pay and tips opening for, or jumping onstage with, acts such as the Jackson Five, Curtis Mayfield, and Chaka Khan. 

Perry Kanlan in his glory days—that white suit looks like something he might've bought when <i>Saturday Night Fever</i> became a hit in 1977.
Perry Kanlan in action. Like most of the photos from Perry’s collection, these are undated, but the white suit looks like something he might’ve bought when Saturday Night Fever became a hit in 1977. Credit: Courtesy Jake Austen / From the collection of Perry Kanlan

In 1970 he partnered with Phillip “Blue” Weaver, a Black dancer known for spectacular James Brown moves, and they became Night and Day, a top act on the social-club circuit. Kanlan briefly went to Hollywood, where he appeared as a quickly dispatched henchman in Moore’s 1975 movie Dolemite. Upon returning to Chicago, he drove a cab, mostly to take people (including himself) to clubs—he’d dance until closing, then drive folks home. 

Perry Kanlan with James Brown and with his partner in the dancing duo Night and Day, Phillip “Blue” Weaver, whose moves were inspired by Brown’s. The latter photo is from 1970, and the woman in red is identified only as “Zelda.” Credit: Courtesy Jake Austen (left) and Philip "Blue" Weaver (right) / From the collection of Perry Kanlan

Perry received marginal support from his mother and her siblings, and he managed to sublet an apartment on the cheap in the iconic Marina City towers on State Street, filling every inch of his pie-slice-shaped unit with clothing racks and records. He was still living there when I interviewed him in 2011. 

In the 21st century Perry lost his gymnastic moves, but he stepped up his fashion game to maintain visibility (and renamed himself Dancin’ Man). By the 2010s his parents’ generation had passed on, and his support dried up. He moved into subsidized housing, scrambling to keep himself in cowboy boots and costume jewelry. But he never stopped being Dancin’ Man, which I know because he frequently needed a ride to a club.

The most interesting thing about Perry, as every associate of his will attest, is that pretty much everything he said, no matter how fantastic, turned out to be true. His cowboy daydreams actually materialized. If he claimed to have met, shared a stage with, or slept with a celebrity, eventually receipts popped up. But that’s not to say Perry didn’t live in a fantasy world. His “career,” especially in latter decades, often consisted of getting onstage uninvited and unpaid at someone else’s show. He knew everyone and would connect artists and venues, promoters and casinos, hustlers and hustlers, often to their benefit—but his belief that these deals would gain him fame or fortune was an illusion. 

No one in Perry’s circle shook him into reality, mostly because he surrounded himself with fellow dreamers living on the fringes of showbiz. His good friend Rektify, aka K-Rek (who helped find Perry housing when he was facing the streets), has the surreal claim to fame of being hype man to Flavor Flav. Longtime running buddy Tony Wilson, aka Young James Brown, is a gifted impersonator who’s currently confident about the prospects of his jukebox musical featuring 3D-effect digital avatars of stars (when we last spoke, he was trying to convince his pal O.J. Simpson to appear digitally). And I suppose that as a sporadic music writer, puppeteer, and zine maker, I’m right there with them.

I once accompanied Perry to a psychiatric evaluation. The doctor declared him delusional, concluding that Perry’s true tales of pending meetings with R&B stars were made-up. But as badly as he misread the symptoms, his diagnosis was spot-on.

Perry Kanlan's sister, Laurel Phillips, at the memorial for Perry held at the Promontory on Monday, February 28
Perry Kanlan’s sister, Laurel Phillips, at a memorial for Perry held at the Promontory on Monday, February 28 Credit: Gonzalo Guzman for Chicago Reader

In December, when I arrived at the longtime home of Perry’s sister, Laurel Phillips, and her 50-year-old son, Adam, I pulled up alongside a dilapidated Mustang GT and waited for them to come out. 

I stayed outside because they’d said the home was cluttered, but it had looked fine years earlier, when I’d visited to help Laurel with Perry’s medical paperwork. That previous trip had been the first time I’d met Adam, but that hadn’t stopped him from greeting me loudly and warmly when I walked in. He was shirtless and cooking a single crudely peeled but otherwise uncut potato in a frying pan as if it were the last food in the house, creating a jarring contrast between his mile-wide grin and the Great Depression vibe of his culinary endeavor. The small apartment contained at least two tabletop arcade video games, which along with the Mustang were the fruits of a long-squandered settlement from one of the two times Adam had been severely injured as a pedestrian by a drunk driver.

Two photos of Perry Kanlan on horseback
As a young man, Perry Kanlan worked on a Wyoming ranch, and he never lost his love of horses. Credit: Courtesy Jake Austen / From the collection of Perry Kanlan

Adam was just as upbeat on the drive to the hospital to speak with Perry’s doctor. He and Laurel aren’t exactly housebound (they frequently visit nearby casual dining spots, and can hold forth endlessly on the magic of Golden Corral or the Olive Garden), but since the Mustang’s demise they rarely leave their suburb. Laurel had been the point person for all Perry’s medical matters, but in the four months her brother had been hospitalized in Chicago, she hadn’t been into the city.

As I drove south on I-90, the mother-and-son duo were like wide-eyed tourists, marveling at digital highway signs, rejoicing at classic IHOP architecture, and booing any antenna they suspected of spreading 5G. (Like Perry, they’re wary of cell phones and don’t use computers or email.) Adam, like Perry, talks nonstop in a loud, bold voice, jokingly pining for the days of video arcades, hair metal, and Kentucky Fried Chicken signs with spinning buckets, and his mom cosigns it all. 

It’s nice to see two people get along so well. They bounce off each other like a comedy team, and their best shtick is their sudden swings from nihilistic kvetching to sunny optimism (their DJ neighbor terrorizes them with loud music . . . but he’s so talented!). Their COVID commentary during the drive is another perfect example:

Adam: All this because someone ate a bat. . . .
Laurel: C’mon, it was from a Chinese lab!
Adam: China is gonna get us all—they’re so bad.
Laurel: But so smart.
Adam: Yeah, and they do manufacture parts for my video games. You gotta love ’em!

We got to Uptown and parked outside Weiss Memorial Hospital, where Adam was born and where Perry now lay. I was concerned for Adam on the walk, because despite the cold he was in the same outfit I’d usually seen him wearing: a Khalil Mack Bears jersey he’d gotten on clearance, baggy black gym shorts, and no jacket. But he insisted he was fine, and we focused our attention on the task at hand. 

Perry Kanlan's nephew Adam Phillips, son of Laurel, at the memorial for Perry held at the Promontory on Monday, February 28
Perry Kanlan’s nephew Adam Phillips, son of Laurel, at the Promontory memorial for Perry Credit: Gonzalo Guzman for Chicago Reader

Perry, who’d been using a walker since his years of leaps and splits had caught up with him, had been found unconscious in his apartment in August, his weight dwindled to a number no adult human’s ever should. He’d been diagnosed with cancer, hospitalized for months, and unresponsive for weeks. Today the doctor needed Laurel to decide if Weiss should continue measures to prolong his life artificially or send him to hospice. The doctor spoke kindly and calmly, making it clear that he would abide by Laurel’s choice.

Because of COVID, only one of us was allowed to visit Perry at a time. Because of a medical complication, we could only see him through a window. Laurel went first while still weighing her decision. I went next. I had visited Perry once in the hospital when he was still alert, and it hadn’t been pretty. As I’d entered, nurses were giving him a sponge bath, and his emaciated body was more crooked than ever. I’d stayed an hour, though it was hard to spark a conversation. Perry was in a bad mood, uncommunicative, and in physical pain. But he was still Dancin’ Man. When an ad with Cedric the Entertainer came on the TV, Perry perked up, boasting about meeting him. 

Eight weeks later, I watched him through the glass, Perry center stage again, facing the window in the hospital-bed equivalent of sitting up. He looked peaceful. And just as on my earlier visit, his hair looked incredible. Perry’s flowing raven locks looked like they belonged on a cover model for a romance novel, with not a touch of gray and not a strand out of place. I suppose it’s possible that the hospital has a beautician touching up coma patients for visits, but it’s equally likely that Perry just magically looked good whenever the spotlight fell on him.

When I emerged from my visit, Laurel had made her decision. After signing some papers, I took her and Adam back toward their home. The ride was kind of beautiful. The Dancin’ Man’s sister began to remember vivid details of her childhood with Perry. She recalled his love of trains (he’d sometimes convince conductors to let him operate the controls); his glorious moments of defiance; his genius for navigating the country as a penniless teen using charm as currency. In these memories, she mostly seemed to find peace, but her mood turned when she recalled his difficulties at the Orthogenic School.

Perry Kanlan as a young man, and in one of the many colorful leather jackets he owned
Perry Kanlan as a young man, and in one of the many colorful leather jackets he owned Credit: Courtesy Jake Austen / From the collection of Perry Kanlan

Laurel’s take on Dr. Bettelheim and the O-School, like Perry’s sense of reality, seems accurate but not strictly factual. She said Bettelheim had committed suicide after being outed as a fraud. But revelations about his faked credentials came out mostly after his death in 1990 at age 86; though he did commit suicide, he was likely motivated by ailing health. 

Laurel believes that Bettelheim’s experience as a Holocaust camp survivor led him to run his school like a Nazi concentration camp. Former pupils have recounted harsh and abusive treatment, including writer Tom Wallace Lyons (his 1983 novel about it, The Pelican and After, included a roommate character based on Perry) and the anonymous author of a convincing letter to the editor that the Reader ran in 1990. But the Nazi comparison seems like a stretch—and even Lyons dedicated his book to Bettelheim “with gratitude and affection.” 

Laurel also says Bettelheim was terrible to her mother, which I have no trouble believing. A foundational element of his philosophy was that emotionally cold “refrigerator moms” were the cause of autism.

We stopped at Outback Steakhouse for lunch. Watching Adam interact with the server was something of a revelation. Like Perry, Laurel and her son have an unusual energy that people react to positively. Adam should be a restaurant server’s nightmare: he’s loud, he barks repetitive jokes, and he makes a mess eating with his fingers. But everywhere I went with him and his mom, the staff lit up in their presence. 

A couple weeks earlier, when we’d visited the Zelda Ormes Apartments where Perry had lived, looking for important papers and a Rubik’s Cube pendant that Adam coveted, it was an explosion of positivity. The building’s supervisor loved Laurel’s haircut, and Adam complimented the assistant on her resemblance to TV reporter Dorothy Tucker. There were hugs all around. They charmed the building’s custodian as we surveyed Perry’s disaster of an apartment. Perry had worn holes in the upholstery of his couch by sleeping on it, because his bedroom was stuffed floor-to-ceiling with outfits. His living room was filled with a thousand records, though he’d pared that collection down dramatically—it was less than half the size it’d been when his belongings were in my basement after his eviction from Marina City.

Three photos of Perry Kanlan in nightclubs with equally sharply dressed women
Nightclub photos of Perry Kanlan. No one seems to remember what the trophy is for. Credit: Courtesy Jake Austen / From the collection of Perry Kanlan

Shortly after Perry passed away, it was another lovefest when we visited Alcala’s, the western-wear superstore on Chicago Avenue where Perry had spent so much time and money. Robert Alcala treated Laurel like a long-lost friend. We visited because Alcala’s, amazingly, still has a layaway program in the 21st century. Perry had so many items on layaway, now never to be bought, that the shop returned more than $500 to the family.

Some doctors have told Adam that he’d suffered brain damage from his accidents. He always seems sharp, though, and his obsessions and behavior feel eerily similar to Perry’s. Adam has a penchant for delivering the day’s weather report in a lengthy spill of meteorologist jargon that recalls Perry on a verbal roll.

Adam knows he’s a charmer, and he boasts that he can win anyone over. This skill set embroiled him in one of the oddest chapters in the Dancin’ Man saga that I was around to witness. 

A bombshell decades Perry’s junior had moved into his bed, though he was the opposite of a sugar daddy—he was penniless, squatting at Marina, and hoping for a miracle to pay his back rent. Soon after moving in, the seductress introduced Perry to a gentleman who paid some of that back rent and promised riches—in exchange, he wanted Perry to connect him to his famous friends, to whom he would pitch a pyramid investment scheme that involved (I believe) a Christmas-themed animal movie. After Perry’s showbiz cohort proved too savvy for that pitch, things got even shadier. The interloper convinced Adam to use his people powers to entice the Phillipses’ broke neighbors to blow their savings on the scheme. It was pretty jarring to hear Adam recall a former friend’s downfall in his signature upbeat voice: “Ah, his marriage was going to end anyways.”

Perry Kanlan with Flavor Flav; with Tito Jackson, Katherine Jackson, and his friend Rektify; with an unidentified dancer; and with legendary radio DJ Herb Kent, the Cool Gent
Perry Kanlan with Flavor Flav; with Tito Jackson, Katherine Jackson, and his friend Rektify; with an unidentified dancer; and with legendary radio DJ Herb Kent, the Cool Gent Credit: Courtesy Jake Austen / From the collection of Perry Kanlan

Perry passed away in hospice on Christmas Eve. He was 78. Jewish aid organization the Ark, which hosted the Passover seders he attended, arranged his burial. By that time, though, things had fallen apart at the Phillips home. Both Laurel and Adam had contracted COVID, and Adam was hospitalized with life-threatening heart damage. Laurel’s case was less severe, but she’d become incapacitated after a dolly of milk crates fell on her at a Walgreens. Rabbi Shlomo Tenenbaum at the Ark had to reach me through the Reader to get in touch with the family. I connected them, but despite Jewish tradition—which calls for no embalming and a quick funeral—the graveside service had to wait until the Phillipses recovered.

On January 18, I picked up the pair to take them to Waldheim Cemetery in Forest Park, where Perry and Laurel’s mother is also buried. I’d half-joked with Adam the night before that he should wear his best shorts, and he answered seriously that he only had shorts. When I showed up, the only modification he’d made to his uniform was a thin winter coat and a custom T-shirt made by a neighbor that featured Jim Newberry’s beautiful Reader cover portrait of Perry. Laurel wore the same shirt, easily visible because the only coat she owned would not zip. Fortunately the weather cooperated—as Adam put it, it was “partly sunny, mild and balmy in the 40s, with cloud-filtered sun.”

Perry Kanlan in an elaborate beaded and fringed leather duster, cowboy hat, and denim shirt
This Jim Newberry portrait of Perry Kanlan appeared on the cover of the Reader on November 11, 2011—the issue that contained Jake Austen’s profile of Perry. Credit: Jim Newberry for Chicago Reader

Moments after the cemetery clerk gave us directions to the plot, a gleaming 2022 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid pulled up. The clerk told the driver to follow us. At the gravesite, Laurel was overwhelmed to be reunited with a long-lost cousin who’d seen the funeral notice. While they embraced, the door to the Lincoln swung open and Charles Reynolds emerged from the car in a Black Diamond mink coat and a leather Louis Vuitton COVID mask. 

In recent years Charles had been Perry’s first call when he needed a ride or had a scheme. The two had become close, bonding over their mutual love of western wear, R&B, and Dancin’ Man’s one-sided stories. Because so many of the characters in Dancin’ Man’s orbit live in aspirational realities, I made the call to never research his background, but Charles (aka Sir Charles) seemed to have more resources than the rest of the crew. I knew he had something to do with concert promotion and had a notion of involvement in on-air radio; he’s spoken of handling transportation for Tyler Perry’s Atlanta productions. Charles also works at Taylor Funeral Home.

As Charles offered the family his condolences in a golden broadcaster’s voice, Rabbi Shlomo took me aside. He explained that he’d read my Reader article, and that while he was sorry he’d never met Perry, he felt like he knew him. He asked if I’d written the recent Reader story about Chicago hip-hop veteran P-Lee Fresh (that was Leor Galil’s work). The previous week he’d presided over Fresh’s funeral.

Because only five mourners were present (excluding the rabbi and Susan Winkelstein from Chicago Jewish Funerals), I was by default a pallbearer, helping carry the cardboard box bearing my friend’s alarmingly light body. The top of the box identified its contents with one of those Avery label stickers you can run through an office printer, and I thought Perry would’ve been pleased that it said “Dancin’ Man.” Remnants of snow were melting atop the wet soil, and my dress shoes sank deep into mud as we approached the grave. As the groundskeepers began lowering the casket, Charles asked them to pause. He went graveside, took out his phone, and seemed to start a stream via Facebook Live. Though the rest of us were 15 feet away, I could make out what he was saying: he was delivering a stage intro for Dancin’ Man’s last show.

“Ladies and gentlemen, you could have been anywhere in the world right now, but I thank God for you being here with us at the gravesite of our dear friend and brother, known worldwide for his God-given talent in dancing and his flair for dressing. You would know him as . . . Dancin’ Man!”

Left: Perry Kanlan with an unidentified woman (possibly "Gigi") at south-side nightclub the Burning Spear, owned by the late Pervis Spann. Right: A card made out to "Nancy Boy" (as opposed to "Dancin' Boy") by the Jacksons, with a photo of Tito, Perry, Jermaine, and an unidentified person at far right.
Left: Perry Kanlan with an unidentified woman (possibly “Gigi”) at south-side nightclub the Burning Spear, owned by the late Pervis Spann. Right: A card made out to “Nancy Boy” (as opposed to “Dancin’ Boy”) by the Jacksons, with a photo of Tito, Perry, Jermaine, and an unidentified person at far right. Credit: Courtesy Jake Austen / From the collection of Perry Kanlan

The rabbi said prayers, and everyone offered remarks. We cut short Adam’s thoughts on the recent closure of Gullivers Pizza by promising to gather at the cemetery-adjacent Portillo’s after the service. Laurel focused, with tangible bitterness, on the family members who’d cut Perry off, but she poignantly concluded that they’d missed so much by not understanding what was special about her brother. 

Charles told a story about Perry asking for a delivery of socks and toiletries, even though Charles was scheduled to fly that day to a meeting with Sean Combs. When he pulled up, Dancin’ Man was waiting curbside, as he had perhaps been for hours, and insisted on getting in the car and accompanying Charles on his trip (thus the toiletries). Since the flight was private, Perry didn’t need a ticket, but when they arrived at the meeting Charles was anxious about his friend’s lack of credentials. As Charles left Perry with security to try to make arrangements, the Dancin’ Man was, as always, recognized and briskly ushered in.

Rabbi Shlomo concluded the service by recalling that as he was preparing his remarks the previous evening, he’d received a check-in call, apropos of nothing, from his friend Ruby Harris, aka the King of the Blues Violin. They’d been bandmates, playing klezmer at weddings, but due to the pandemic it had been more than a year since they’d played and months since they’d spoken. When the rabbi mentioned that he was eulogizing Perry, Harris lit up, recalling the times he’d driven Dancin’ Man home after blues gigs at the Joynt and the Redhead Piano Bar. That coincidence was too much for Laurel, who burst into joyous tears, rejoicing in “this miracle!”

There was one more surprise before we headed out to track mud into Portillo’s. Charles went to his car, disappeared behind the open trunk, and emerged wearing a magnificent lime-green ostrich-leather three-quarter-length coat with seafoam-green fox-fur accents and voluminous fur lapels (that converted into a hood). The coat, he explained, was supposed to have been Dancin’ Man’s Christmas present. Perry had put it on layaway ages ago, and Charles had paid the balance to surprise his friend. When Dancin’ Man didn’t make it to Christmas, Charles decided to honor him by wearing it after the burial, keeping it on for the rest of the day. Sir Charles changed to a matching mask, and we went to remember our fallen comrade over dipped Italian beefs.

Perry Kanlan's friend Charles Reynolds at the funeral, wearing a seafoam-green three-quarter-length leather coat he'd intended as a Christmas present for Perry
Perry Kanlan’s friend Charles Reynolds at the funeral, wearing a coat he’d intended as a Christmas present for Perry Credit: Jake Austen

I ended up cleaning out Perry’s apartment mostly by myself, partly out of practicality (the cramped home would not accommodate a crew) and partly out of stupidity. My major miscalculation was that I’d seen the pared-down record collection and assumed Perry had also cut back on clothing. In fact, his closets, racks, and drawers burst with more fab fashions than ever. 

I found more than 100 pairs of ornate cowboy boots, in almost as many colors, materials (there was lots of snakeskin), and sizes. (“If he liked a boot that was too big, he’d stuff the toe,” Alcala told me.) Perry’s costume jewelry was stored in individual plastic bags and kept in drawers according to a filing system beyond my comprehension: pendants, rings, watches, and belt buckles, variously studded with plastic diamonds and shaped like guns he’d never held, logos of teams he’d never rooted for, or the trappings of gambling games he’d never played. I tried to put them all in one large canvas bag, but I could barely lift it. After I divided the booty into three containers, they easily weighed 25 pounds each. I can’t even guess at the number of suits, dusters, pairs of crisp jeans, cowboy shirts, and colorful 90s-style leather jackets that had overtaken his nonfunctioning bedroom.

Images of the colorful cowboy boots, suits, and jackets that filled Perry Kanlan's apartment
Perry Kanlan’s apartment was so full of fabulous clothes that he couldn’t sleep in his bedroom. Credit: Jake Austen

When packing up Perry’s records, I realized he had consolidated judiciously. Though he’d owned stacks of 70s, 80s, and 90s soul and dance records, those were gone. All that remained were classical and soundtrack recordings. The classical LPs were meticulously sorted by composers, and the soundtracks were even more artfully arranged—not only by genre (sci-fi, comedy, et cetera) but also chronologically within each genre (particularly impressive was a near-complete run of James Bond vinyl in order of release). I knew Perry had liked to watch old movies (he’d been excited when Jackie Stewart, my wife at the time, began hosting silent films on TCM), but I’d never heard him play a record. 

The way those records were organized made me reassess my assumptions about the solitary time of Perry Kanlan. On occasion, he must have put on his favorite opera or Morricone score, enjoying the artistry in a way I’d never seen him do at a concert—on those occasions, he was always laser focused on getting onstage.

I pulled out some Mel Brooks records for my son, an LP of an I Love Lucy radio show for my daughter, and some early Black cinema soundtracks for Jackie, then loaded 19 punishingly heavy boxes into a truck. Eventually I sold the haul to Dusty Groove.

Charles and his funeral-home teammate Benny helped haul the rest of Perry’s massive collection of stuff to a storage space Charles had rented, where it would stay until his wife could figure out how to donate everything. Out of respect for Dancin’ Man, Charles paid Laurel for dozens of boxes of clothing he did not want, to keep his friend’s beloved vines from ending up in a dumpster. Laurel and Adam didn’t have room to keep much—though they did take the Rubik’s Cube pendant, which had eluded us in December but which I’d luckily found. 

Perry Kanlan with Bootsy Collins and George Clinton
Perry Kanlan with Bootsy Collins and George Clinton Credit: Courtesy Jake Austen / From the collection of Perry Kanlan

Between Charles’s purchases, the proceeds from my trip to Dusty Groove, and the layaway refunds, the Phillipses got a modest but respectable amount of money. If Alcala’s bought back boots, or if CHA apartments allowed estate sales, or if the Phillipses had been able to sell things through eBay or on consignment in vintage shops, it might’ve been more. Still, it was nice that perennially broke Perry had managed to leave a small inheritance to the relatives who loved him most.

My main focus in cleaning out Perry’s home was to make sure his photos were preserved. I was thinking about other Chicago stories—Henry Darger’s paintings being discovered just before his death, or Vivian Maier’s negatives being rescued from the trash—but this one had a major difference. Perry’s photos were his most valued possessions, but by the standards of capitalism they’re worthless. These poorly composed, cheaply processed snapshots couldn’t be less like Maier’s revered work, and there will be no fights over their ownership. A beautiful coffee-table book of Perry’s photos would be fascinating, but it’d break even at best. If a gallery wanted to exhibit Dancin’ Man’s photos, it’d be cool, but there’d be nothing to sell, no money to be made. 

Investment value isn’t the only reason to preserve something, though, and Perry’s photos should be archived somewhere—not only because they were important to him but also because he was an important artist. His art was dressing up in brilliant, magnificent outfits, dancing until no part of his body worked, and stealing the show from some of the greatest performers in history. Like Christo’s lithographs of his diagrams for wrapped monuments or Vito Acconci’s ink prints of the bites he inflicted on himself, these crappy photos are not Perry’s art, but they represent his art. Perhaps more than my Reader articles or the fallible memories of the other people who knew him, they may be what keeps his art alive.

Perry Kanlan on a trip abroad in a replica of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" jacket and on the nightclub circuit in a bubblegum-pink suit
Perry Kanlan on a trip abroad in a replica of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” jacket and on the nightclub circuit in a bubblegum-pink suit Credit: Courtesy Jake Austen / From the collection of Perry Kanlan

On February 28, Perry’s birthday, there was a low-key memorial at the Promontory, the music venue where I work. Charles bought food, and I scanned and edited about 400 of the photos (maybe a quarter of the total) for a lengthy slideshow. People could have a few drinks and share stories. 

The scanning was a beast, because I was anxious about finding the best images. I hit pay dirt when I opened a black plastic bag whose neck had been twisted so many times that I just knew its contents were extra important. It held Perry’s only childhood photo and the jewels of his collection—Polaroids from the early 70s, taken by club photographers, of Perry and a parade of stunning women. I’d delegated the task of inviting memorial guests to Laurel and to friends of Perry’s I knew, but as I scanned the photos, I saw so many people I wished I’d had time to contact and add to the list—Tina Turner impersonator Dorothy Roberson, the Reckless Records clerks, Screamin’ Rachael, the Underground Wonder Bar team. I could only do so much, though. When Blue and Young James Brown (aka Tony Wilson) showed up early and chided me for not personally inviting them, I felt I’d reached my Dancin’ Man limit. But when Wilson programmed the scrolling disco LED display on his COVID mask to thank all the attendees and Robert Alcala started passing out tiny cowboy hats, everything seemed right in Perry World.

Perry Kanlan with Kathy Sledge of Sister Sledge at Market Days in 2009
Perry Kanlan with Kathy Sledge of Sister Sledge—and onstage during her set—at Market Days in 2009 Credit: Courtesy Jake Austen / From the collection of Perry Kanlan

Lavon Pettis and Young James Brown opened the service with a skit about trying to have a conversation with Dancin’ Man while he endlessly rambled on about Lola Falana and Kathy Sledge. Then the mourners took turns endlessly rambling on—but in a good way. 

Laurel shared countless anecdotes about her childhood with Perry, railed against Bettelheim, and reminded everyone how special her brother had been. Pettis pointed out that Dancin’ Man’s ability to connect people, even though it never lifted him to where he wanted to go, made money for her and a lot of other folks. And best of all, Blue, who refused to acknowledge that Perry had ever graduated from the name Dancin’ Boy, told long, detailed stories about performances, encounters with stars (including funny memories of James Brown and Joe Tex), sexual conquests, paydays, and a treacherous tour of the southern chitlin’ circuit the two of them had survived. Charles Reynolds, with his funeral-home background, was reverent and dignified. And Robert Alcala recalled how Perry’s informal salesman job (breathlessly talking customers into buying boots and jeans in exchange for store credit) made him one of the most beloved figures in the store’s long history.

Perry Kanlan's friend Charles Reynolds and his wife, Sedell, at the memorial for Perry held at the Promontory on Monday, February 28
Perry Kanlan’s friend Charles Reynolds and his wife, Sedell, at the memorial for Perry held at the Promontory on Monday, February 28 Credit: Gonzalo Guzman for Chicago Reader

But nothing in the Extended Dancin’ Man Universe stays normal for long. After the speeches a group of memorial crashers came in, happy to find a bar serving on a Monday. Considering how close Charles and Perry had been recently, he was unsurprisingly keyed-up emotionally, and that may account for what happened when he thought one of the crashers was looking funny at his wife. An explosion of cursing and threats filled the room, and he had to be held back. Charles has told tales of keeping the peace at funerals for slain gang members, so his outburst surprised me, but cooler heads prevailed and the potential repast brawl evaporated.

That drama was in notable contrast to the serenity of an hour before. Rabbi Shlomo, coming to pay respects to a man he’d never met and in some ways knew only through the Reader, turned away from the dais to admire the photos of Perry Kanlan doing the worm at Market Days, charming a 70s flamenco dancer with his moves and his Travolta suit, and riding a horse into the sunset. After moments of silence he said earnestly that these photos should be in the Motown Museum or the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Another attendee told the family that a statue of Dancin’ Man would be erected at the DuSable Museum.

Vintage snapshots of Perry Kanlan, including one in the sort of peacock wicker chair that often served as a nightclub photo booth
Vintage snapshots of Perry Kanlan, including one in the sort of peacock wicker chair that often served as a nightclub photo booth Credit: Courtesy Jake Austen / From the collection of Perry Kanlan

Those things will not happen. But I did buy some sturdy boxes to preserve the photos. I will continue to scan a few envelopes full of pictures each week until I get through the whole pile. And I will work to make sure they get into an archive somewhere.

And at that point, I guess, I’ll have answered the last of my friend’s many calls. And though it has definitely felt like a lot, it’s been worth it.


Who is Dancin’ Man?

Perry Kanlan has shared stages with James Brown and the Jackson Five, and he’s a familiar face to generations of south-side clubgoers. How did he get there?

Spoon’s last dance

For six decades, Fletcher Weatherspoon has been a pillar of Chicago’s African-American social-club scene. On Mother’s Day, he handed down his crown.

The Woman on the Right

An uncaptioned photo in the Numero Group’s recent book about south-side nightlife in the 70s set Jake Austen on the trail of this story about one crazy week in the life of longtime promoter Helen Wooten.