On stage are two old desk chairs tied together, chairs on which Ted Kopout and Professor Phineas T. Out There will sit while Kopout interviews the professor on his network show, The Media Are Not Your Friends. The professor has been called in to help retrieve Chester Chicken Licken from Mars, where he has been taken by a couple of martians who fell from the sky.

In other words, the stage is set for another sight gag in Final Fast Food Frontier, a kids’ show performed by the Pros Arts Payasos/Clown Ensemble.

“Sit down, professor,” Kopout says. He draws his chair toward himself and sits down, pulling the chair out from under the professor, who lands on the floor on his backside, legs up in the air. Kopout sympathizes, helps the professor up. Now it’s the professor’s turn: as he sits down, he pulls the chair out from under Kopout, who goes down on his fanny. Standard sight gag. The kids and their parents roar with laughter. Gags like this one never get tired, especially when the players are in outrageous costumes, wigs, and clown makeup.

Nor do gags like the one preceding this one, in which the professor comes onstage at Kopout’s invitation and walks right by him with his hand outstretched. The two keep turning around and walking by each other, bent over with hands outstretched, right out of the Marx Brothers. The kids in the audience keep yelling, “He’s over there.” The gag gets a big laugh.

Not all the gags in Fast Food are visual jokes. The chicken advertised on the television commercial in the show is from Sam and Ella’s Poultry Shop. Professor Out There has degrees in “phrenology, scatology, physiognomy, and what you got for me?” The kids may not know the meanings of all the words, but they laugh because the words sound funny. The adults laugh louder.

The last ten minutes of this hour-long show include a “debate,” fisticuffs and all, over whether Professor Johnny Come Lately’s time machine has taken Professor Out There and Kopout into the future or into the past and whether the egg (a football painted white) they find in outer space was laid by Chester Chicken or whether he’s in the egg (which came first, the chicken or the egg?). If Chester is in the egg they’ve obviously gone back in time; if he laid the egg they’ve gone forward. It might seem like a pretty heavy routine for kids, but it works. They laugh; they groan with fear when the two professors throw the egg back and forth like a football, despite the fact that they yelled a derisive “It’s a football” when the egg was found.

The final sight gag, perhaps the best in the show, has Chester Chicken waxing eloquent over his egg, only to be transformed into a football player tackled by three brawny opponents. This last gag puts the whole show in perspective–it’s all absolutely nutty, the way clown shows are supposed to be.

Final Fast Food Frontier, presented as part of the Nights of the Blue Rider theater festival in late October, was conceived and performed by Lionel Bottari, Jean Parisi, Frank Melcori, and Douglas Grew, collectively known as the Pros Arts Payasos/Clown Ensemble. Payasos is the Spanish word for clown; a lot of this Pilsen-based group’s performances are bilingual.

The performance of Fast Food at the Blue Rider festival was probably the group’s most polished performance to date, but polish isn’t what they’re most concerned with. These performers work together because they share a certain view of the world, a view straight out of the 60s. They see clowning as a way of getting to the neighborhood kids–exposing them to art, teaching them a little, maybe helping them get a leg up. This is the sort of commitment that often burns out quickly, but the Pros Arts people have been at it now for about 14 years.

The three-block stretch of Cullerton Street that runs west from Halsted, the eastern edge of Pilsen, is more desolate and jumbled than many of the neighborhood’s streets, though there are plenty that resemble this one. It’s a street like so many on the near south side: more than 100 years old, with little evidence that anyone’s tried to bring it into the 20th century. The streets and sidewalks are in terrible disrepair, and everything looks forlorn, even the two new nicely landscaped little factory-built prefabs that were put up on Cullerton by the Pilsen Neighborhood Community Council next door to two burned-out shells.

There are a variety of buildings on this street: below-street-level houses that date back to the city’s presewer days, a school that was built in the 1880s and now looks dirty and neglected, ancient factory buildings, some of which have been renovated by artists, and an overgrown single line of railroad track that was probably abandoned with the demise of the Stockyards. There are spots here and there of renovation and new construction, but the overall atmosphere tends to resemble a Mexican barrio more than a Chicago neighborhood.

The Pros Arts Studio, home of the ensemble, is on Morgan Street just south of 18th Street, Pilsen’s main east-west thoroughfare, home to Mexicans and artists and a few holdouts from the days when the area was home to other ethnic groups. Pros Arts is a shoestring operation now. But it’s been around, going through various transformations, since 1978–giving visual-arts, theater, and dance workshops and clown shows, working with schools and senior citizen centers, organizing parades. Its barnlike studio has portable seating for 70 people, and the perimeter is crowded with musical instruments, paintings, masks, and other props. A lot of the stuff is junk picked up in alleys and on Sunday-morning trips to Maxwell Street, which is right up the road. Against one wall stands a chair designed to make it easy to hang upside down, at one time a much-heralded health gimmick. In the actual prop room and workshop behind the studio, there’s more junk, alongside costumes and props and all kinds of machinery, some of it useful and some of it kept for sentimental value.

This 100-year-old building that Lionel Bottari and his wife, Jean Parisi, bought in 1976 was once a tavern called One Grand Spot, with a dance hall behind and a whorehouse above. Bottari, Parisi, and their 16-month-old daughter Emma now live in the renovated upstairs quarters while the tavern serves as the prop room/workshop and the dance hall as the studio.

Bottari and Parisi paid $6,750 for the building, a steal even in Pilsen in 1976. They had been looking for a cheap place to live, and Bottari suggested that they move back to his old neighborhood (his family home is only a couple blocks away). Besides, he was working at the 18th Street Development Corporation and Parisi was teaching art at the Latino Youth alternative high school, a private school in Pilsen. It was convenient.

They moved into the dance hall space, installed a kitchen and bath and a space heater, and lived there while Bottari gutted and rebuilt the upstairs. The exterior of the building still looks the same; the original entrance through the tavern is locked. There’s a small paper sign tacked to the studio door that simply says Pros Arts Studio. In warm weather, the door stands open and neighborhood kids wander in and out. In the winter, warm clothes are required in the studio.

Parisi, 39, a short, slender, pretty, sharp-featured woman who regularly wears a headband that gives her limp brown hair some drama, is the director and cofounder of Pros Arts. She began her career as a sculptor, then learned modern dance, and in the mid-70s began teaching art in Pilsen, where she met fellow artist Ruth Bauman, also teaching at Latino Youth. Bauman had moved into Pilsen with the first wave of artists in 1971 and had developed a strong attachment to the community. She moved over to Saint Procopius, a parochial elementary school down the street from her house, in 1976, and in 1977 applied for and won an artist-in-residence grant from the Illinois Arts Council to stay at Saint Procopius. The grant also provided funds to bring in other artists to do workshops, so Bauman brought in Parisi.

After the program’s great success the first year, the grant was extended for another year. “The kids loved it and the school was ecstatic. We got some just wonderful work from those kids,” says Bauman. At the end of the second year, she decided to try to keep the program afloat independently. With Parisi, she established and incorporated Pros Arts Studio in space lent by Saint Procopius. With other local artists, they taught “dozens of classes,” Bauman says.

When the school needed the space back a couple of years later, Pros Arts was well enough established that it could afford to rent space in the community. While the art workshops were being given in a rented space on 19th Street, the group was beginning to give dance and clown classes in the Morgan Street studio. For a few years in the early 80s the organization was receiving annual grants of between $8,000 and $10,000 from the Illinois Arts Council, plus generous grants from the city Department of Cultural Affairs and other groups.

But times got hard. About five years ago, pressed for cash, Pros Arts gave up the 19th Street studio and has since concentrated all its activities on Morgan Street. Last year the group received only $2,865 from the Illinois Arts Council. Parisi says Pros Arts’ share of the funds has dwindled because there is so much more community arts activity in the city. And like all arts groups, Pros Arts has been hurt by cuts in arts funding.

In 1979, Bauman left art to go back to school to train to work with the elderly. She continues to be very active in Pros Arts, however, both as chairman of the board and as a participant in an occasional program. One program she took part in recently was something called a History/Mystery Workshop, in which Pros Arts takes a team of a dozen kids aged 6-12 to a senior citizens’ housing project to put together visual, literary, and dramatic creations with a dozen elderly people. The materials they use are the elders’ biographies and the kids’ fantasies, their dreams for the future. They question each other about their lives and their dreams under the direction of Pros Arts artists, among them Bauman, who says that she has since gone on to use the technique with the elderly people she works with regularly.

Bottari, 49, a man of medium height, slight paunch, and definite nearsightedness, has always been a mainstay at Pros Arts. With his great head of gray curly hair, impish grin, and confident, aggressive manner, Bottari is always ready to clown at the appropriate moment.

Also present from the beginning was Frank Melcori, 48, a small, rather shapeless balding man who has the air of a distracted intellectual but is in fact a painter, writer, actor, and dedicated clown, the straight man of the group. Nixon Live! The Future Is Now, his two-man show with accompanist Jimi Jihad, played most of last November at the Organic Theater mainstage–after having been performed at last year’s Bucktown Rhinoceros Theatre Festival, at Club Lower Links, and on cable TV.

Melcori’s clown, Parisi says, is a bumbling dimwit who often “goes way over the kids’ heads” but “makes it most of the time.” He often “leaves the script to do some wild thing to break everyone up,” she says. As I watched him in Fast Food, he seemed to pull the kids in faster than any of the less bumbling clowns.

It was Melcori who proposed that the group move into theatrical work. He had been recruited to the program as a visual artist, but decided that his talent as an actor and Parisi’s as a dancer would make a good combination, and soon they found themselves doing clown acts. Bottari joined them, and several years later Douglas Grew signed on. Grew had come to Chicago from Antioch College–where he studied drama, mime, and dance–to do performance art. For a few years he worked in local clubs doing one- and two-man acts. Then, in a series of sweet coincidences, he found what he now views as his niche, children’s theater–the only place his skills are still appreciated, he says. At 28, Grew–slight, always smiling, with a crew-cut–is the youngest member of the company. Melcori says Grew’s arrival “helped us a lot. We were older, getting a little burned out, and he brought new vigor and life to the group.”

Fast Food–the story line, dialogue, and sight gags–was developed by the group as they went along. Each rehearsal began and ended with the group tossing around a beach ball, and at the rehearsal I watched the ball tossing seemed to enliven their minds as well as their bodies; the ideas moved around almost as fast as the ball.

Only the story’s bare outlines were written down, and the group planned to keep each performance open to improvisation. In performance the sight gags, which often involve two or more players, have gone pretty much as planned, but the dialogue is always changing. And the wonderful gag that ends Fast Food was developed in a late rehearsal on Wednesday before a Sunday performance.

The clowning in the show starts even before the actual “play” begins. To draw the kids in and give them some idea of how live theater works, the players come onstage without makeup and still in the final phases of dressing. There is a pile of oversized sneakers on the floor that they clown their way into with the help of the kids. They get themselves onstage by a variety of means–falling, rolling, tumbling, and being pulled on feet first. One worries that the kids might start to think this is how all plays start, but then, of course, they probably don’t know there is such a thing as legitimate theater; for them, this is theater.

After the clowns are assembled onstage, they roam through the audience, talking to the kids, clowning around, and slowly getting into their shoes and makeup. There’s the gag about putting the shoes on the wrong feet, another about not knowing how many feet they have, and so on. They move into the play by inviting the kids to watch television with them, and then the show begins–with a staged commercial for fried chicken.

The show was first performed at a local street fair, and eventually the troupe will take it or parts of it back into the streets, as well as to the local library, Dvorak Park, churches, senior citizen homes, and community centers, as they have all their previous shows. Since 1978 the clown ensemble has written at least 20 different shows, some of them, like Fast Food, combining old tales with television and other pop culture, and others addressed to community problems. This Old Out House and This Old Sweat Shop are satires on the struggles of workers; the title of Art Is Inside Us All seems self-explanatory.

Fast Food got its start last year when the troupe was putting together its biweekly hour-long show for Chicago Access Network Channel 21, a cable station that gives community groups free airtime. Pros Arts does a call-in show every other Wednesday, during which, Parisi says, “the four phone lines ring steadily.” The show combines some clowning, some reading, and art instruction, and kids call in their questions and comments. Because the studio is very small, Parisi says, “clowning requires a good deal of ingenuity. Sometimes we just focus on parts of our bodies.”

The real meat of Pros Arts’ work is the Readers Theater program, in which they perform dramatizations of children’s books in primary-school classrooms, after-school programs, and summer camps in Pilsen. Last year they chose Where the Wild Things Are, William Steig’s Doctor De Soto, and Arnold Lobel’s “Frog and Toad” stories. These shows start out more carefully scripted than the clown shows, since they stick faithfully to the books’ words. On the other hand, they’re so geared to the kids’ responses that they’re much more subject to improvisation.

Since kids in Pilsen are almost all Mexican and many speak only a little English in their first few years at school, the plays are performed in a combination of English and Spanish. When translations of the books aren’t available, Bottari, who is fluent in Spanish, does the translation. (The other members of the troupe have picked up their Spanish along the way.)

The company uses the same technique for opening the Readers Theater shows as it does in Fast Food. Of course in the more intimate classroom setting there are fewer acrobatics, and the clowning focuses on small movements. How can I put this glove on? This way? All the fingers here? No? Oh, this way? The thumb in the little finger? No? Show me. And so on. The whole show can be highly spontaneous, depending on the class; the more the kids get into it, the more the clowns will improvise, Parisi says.

Pros Arts gives close to 60 performances during the school year, at six Pilsen schools. They are now well-known among the principals of these schools, and when they announce their programs the schools immediately sign up. Sometimes they do school-wide assemblies as well.

The idea of Readers Theater, Parisi says, is not only to bring live theater into the schools but also to help kids appreciate books more and, in turn, read more. “A few actually get interested in the arts, too,” Parisi adds. A few students at Columbia College she’s talked to credit their early experiences with Readers Theater as their inspiration to study theater. Has she any idea what long-term impact the company has on the kids in general? “No,” she says, “all we know is that they seem to love us. They are very happy when they see us in the street. They come up and talk and tell us they liked us in class.”

Ronald Clayton, principal of John Walsh School (one of the places the Readers Theater regularly visits), says Pros Arts has “done a wonderful job with our students. They’ve selected appropriate materials and they really reach the children. The kids just flow with them. They live in the community and the kids know them and they get all excited when they see them outside unloading their car.” The full impact on the kids depends partly on the teacher’s follow-up, Clayton adds, though he says he himself knows of some kids who have gone to the library to get the books they saw dramatized in class.

At the time I talked to Clayton, Parisi hadn’t told him of the teacher workshops the company plans to offer this year. Clayton’s reaction? “That would be wonderful.” The workshops, started experimentally last year, “will help [teachers] learn some new techniques for teaching reading,” says Parisi.

It’s an old saw that clowns are rarely funny offstage. “Laughing on the outside, crying on the inside” goes the expression, as if anyone deliberately making a fool of himself couldn’t be anything but a sad creature.

I could find no evidence that the Pros Arts payasos are crying on the inside. “We enjoy what we do,” Parisi says. And this group of people is often funny offstage: Grew and Parisi tend to save their clowning for their acts, but Melcori’s dry wit surfaces regularly, and Bottari clowns quite steadily. On the other hand, they are all very serious about their reasons for clowning: it is the best way, they believe, to reach the children of Pilsen and to enrich their largely impoverished lives.

Their evolution into a clown act was encouraged, Parisi says, by the fact that clowning is largely visual. They needed to overcome the language barrier in Pilsen, and “a clown is universal. We could be silent or only speak a few words. It was something that everybody could relate to.” On top of that, clowns are “free to work in the streets as well as in the theater.”

All four Pros Arts clowns are self-taught, and some are better than others. As a trained dancer, Parisi is best at acrobatics and body movements; her clown is a fussy lady. Melcori is a trained actor with an engaging voice but without the agility or control over his body that the others have. His clown is an absentminded-professor type, a middle-aged, dim-witted shuffler.

Grew combines a bit of everything, having trained as an actor, mime, and dancer, and having spent part of his childhood in Italy watching the famed trickster Pulcinella, one of the clowns he now plays. Bottari is the best all-around clown in the group. His only theatrical experience was in the guerrilla theater of the 60s, but he’s a natural clown, playing an abuelito, an old man searching for a bride, a lecher. His gestures and his ability to mimic and exaggerate are on a par with the best clowns.

But the reason this troupe brings off the clown show is that its members work together. They understand each other, complement each other, work off each other, melding into a strong unit. They are all, regardless of their individual talents, willing to make fools of themselves–to wear silly costumes, to appear inept and ridiculous, to fall into outrageous poses, to be pulled and pushed around and across floors, to be kicked in the behind, and to be the butt of jokes yelled at them from the audience.

They all work at daytime jobs, using their sick days and vacation time to perform and devoting their evenings and weekends to arduous rehearsals. They take income out of their grant money only when there’s enough of it left after paying for printing, insurance, and supplies; for the Readers Theater performances they usually pay themselves $100 apiece for each visit to a school. (This year they’re trying to start a practice of having the schools contribute up to half the cost of the program.)

“Back in the 70s,” says Melcori, whose participation in Readers Theater is limited this year because of the demands of his job as a paralegal for the Catholic Charities, “we were all individual artists, but our politics were kind of in the streets. I guess we haven’t changed much. It’s very political, standing for the idea that artists should have some relationship to their community.”

Of course they hope that someday the company will be a paying proposition, but the pay will have to come from foundations, arts organizations, the city, and corporations. They don’t expect their audiences to foot more than a token amount of the bill.

In 1979, in a series of happy circumstances surrounding a move from one studio to another, the Pros Arts company decided to celebrate the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead (Dia de los muertos). It is a day of feasting, dancing, singing, and making offerings to the dead, following a parade the night before to awaken the dead.

So Pros Arts made skeleton costumes and printed up copies of a drawing by Jose Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican printmaker who made the calavera, or skeleton, into the Day of the Dead symbol it has become. The group’s goal was twofold: “We would honor Posada by passing out prints of his work, and we would let people know of our new studio,” Parisi says.

They printed a calendar of their events and their new address on the backs of the Posada prints, and got a dozen friends together to march in a parade. Now the Pros Arts procession takes place every year on November 2, winding its way through the Mexican community and ending at Casa Aztlan, a community center at 18th and Racine, where an altar is set up, gifts for the dead are offered, and the parade participants, most of them kids, get pan muerte (bread in the shape of a skeleton).

A few years ago, Parisi started a Day of the Dead workshop to teach the kids in Casa Aztlan’s after-school program how to make costumes, noisemakers, and posters for the event. It’s held for two days before the parade. Just before the parade, Myrna Alvarez, director of the after-school program, brings the kids to the Pros Arts Studio, where artists paint their faces.

“The kids really enjoy it,” Alvarez says. “Most of the time they are told to keep quiet. For this, they are told to make enough noise to wake the dead. Rain or shine–it doesn’t stop us, we are out there. The kids love it.” This year about 50 kids participated along with a handful of their parents.

Out of Pros Arts’ $10,000 budget last year, Parisi allotted herself only $100 a month for her work as director–which includes bookkeeping, writing grant proposals, scheduling the group’s programs, and churning out promotional material. Space, light, heat (such as it is), and telephone are contributed by Bottari and Parisi. The props are all made by the troupe either from scratch or from junk picked up by Bottari (the group’s most accomplished garbage picker) or the others. The costumes are either made by the actors or are the products of thrift shops or Maxwell Street. As other costs go up, there is limited money for art supplies–for the mural the group painted with local kids a few years ago, for instance. There is no money to rent a studio in which to teach dance, theater, or art classes, activities the Morgan Street studio is already too busy for. But most important, the energy and time of the Pros Arts members is already being stretched to the limit by the Readers Theater, the television show, and the clown ensemble.

A project high on this year’s agenda is to put together a board of directors that can raise money. The boards the troupe has had over the years have been small, made up of artists and people from the community. But to find people who are adept at raising funds–and to find the funds themselves, of course–Pros Arts will have to go outside the community, something the group has been reluctant to do. New personalities on the board could drastically change the nature of the company. On the other hand, they could also mean survival and growth.

In October the troupe held its first-ever fund-raiser, inviting people from all over the city and asking artists to make hats that could be auctioned off. Twenty artists responded. Most of the hats were wild creations that in a more affluent crowd might have brought in a sum more sizable than the $546 Pros Arts took in. The Pros Arts crowd was mostly other artists willing to come out on a rainy night and negotiate the wooden bridge Bottari had built over the pond that had accumulated at the doorway of the old building.

It was a good party–lots of chips and guacamole, good music, beer and wine, and the good spirits of the hosts, who were in costume and clowned their way through modeling the hats. About $1,100 was raised, enough to pay for one of the troupe’s projects for a little while, and not a bad beginning for a group new to fund-raising parties. With a little practice, maybe Pros Arts will become as adept at fund drives as it is at setting up sight gags.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner.