Beat Reporters

Philip Reed has written a newspaper play about two scheming reporters and the dump they work in–the dingy pressroom of central police headquarters at 11th and State. Nightside is set back in the 1970s, before high technology butted in where it had no business going.

“I guess they’ve even got computers in the pressroom now,” Reed told us. We sympathized. Desktop terminals aren’t very dramatic, are they?

“No, they’re not,” he said, then thought twice about it. “Hollywood finds them dramatic because they can do close-ups of the screen going click click click. But there’s nothing like the sound of a typewriter going fwack fwack fwack on a dried-out old platen.”

Platen? The typewriter cylinder, Reed informed us. “When they dry out, they make a noise like a machine gun.”

Reed, who’s 38, is a Los Angeles writer now. But he did hard time in Chicago, and Nightside, which just opened in the Victory Gardens Studio, is his memory of it. He gives us the midnight shift at the cop house: Bernie Spirko, who’s middle-aged, white, sour, full of low cunning, and out of favor; and Leonard Cauley, who’s young, black, ignorant, and on the way up.

Cauley is something of a contrivance. “It was a harder part to get right,” Reed told us, “partly because I didn’t have a model for it. In a funny sort of way, I was the young black guy. As my wife pointed out, all my plays have me in them at some point, and that’s always the worst character, and she’s right.”

Cauley is good enough. Bernie Spirko carries the play. If Spirko were a clumsy approximation or a Hecht-MacArthur-style send-up of the kind of bitter has-been he represents, we wouldn’t bother writing this. But on the page, at least (we haven’t yet seen the Victory Gardens staging), Reed’s Spirko is the harrowing article, right down to his age, which is 49, far too young for a reporter to think of retirement yet old enough for one to become a curiosity to his juniors, a kind of inside joke.

We told Reed that Nightside reminded us of another play–Mamet’s A Life in the Theater. “I was hoping you weren’t going to say The Front Page,” Reed replied.

Reed’s second reason for setting Nightside in the 70s is that the 70s were his time here. In 1976, Reed wandered into Chicago from Massachusetts with an English degree and an idea of trying journalism. He caught on at City News Bureau, screwed up, and was banished to the midnight shift at 11th and State. And there he met, one after another, Bernie Spirko’s type, “that dying breed of police reporter, and every newspaper has one, the character, the guy who goes to any length to get a good story.”

If you’ve spent any time in the business in Chicago we know what you’re thinking now. Walter Spirko! But no, says Reed, actually not. Walter Spirko was the Sun-Times’s morning man at 11th and State, but even when Reed knew him he was a lot older than 49. “And he was a gentleman,” Reed told us. Reed simply fell in love with the name, and years later in LA, writing a play he never imagined would find its way to Chicago, he used it.

Besides the name, Reed says that what he took from Walter Spirko was this story:

“I go to the front door and a cop stops me and says, ‘Hey! Police only!’ So I whip out this fake ID–deputy coroner or something. Cop looks at it and says, ‘Go on in. The lieutenant and sergeant are waiting for you.’ So I think, ‘Shit, Spirko! You really did it this time!’ But I get in there and there’s a reporter from the Times and one from the News. No cops–just reporters with fake IDs.”

Reed mentioned a couple of cop-house beat men from back then who contributed to Bernie Spirko in a much bigger way–he lifted Spirko’s fetish of spraying disinfectant on his telephone mouthpiece from one of them. They’ve since died in harness. “I just assumed Walter might not be around,” Reed told us. But he is. . . “Yeah,” said Reed. “And the programs were already printed. I might give him a call and tell him it’s not based on him.”

Reed wrote Nightside, his third play produced in LA, because a couple of actor friends were looking for something they could do together. Later he sent a script to Ernie Tucker, a friend who writes for the Sun-Times. Tucker passed it on to the artistic director at Victory Gardens, Dennis Zacek, who decided to put it on.

Reed was eager to explain how he got interested in theater. Just before leaving Chicago (for Denver’s Rocky Mountain News), he saw a play Alan Gross had written called The Phone Room. Reed was amazed. Gross’s phone room was just like the pressroom at 11th and State, he realized, both of them full of shameless schlemiels. “I had not really been crazy about the theater up to that point,” says Reed, “but when I saw a play like that I saw what theater could be like.”

That production of The Phone Room was directed by Gary Houston, a young, avant-garde theatrical figure of the 70s who doubled as a Sun-Times feature writer. Today, Gary Houston, just the right age for it, is playing Bernie Spirko.

“It’s really wonderful, seeing this play done in Chicago,” Reed said. “When you do it in LA, Chicago’s like a fictitious city. When you do it here, it’s the city right outside the door.”

Any Life Left in Chicago Times?

Will we ever see Chicago Times again? Maybe. The magazine that once promised us the most elegant writing in town suspended publication after the March/April issue, its 16th. The editor was exhausted and the owner/publisher was tapped out and as much as a quarter-million dollars in debt.

But Todd Fandell kept the office open and never quit trying to recapitalize. Now Fandell thinks he might be close to some money. On May 22, he signed a tentative agreement with a new holding company in Glenview called Venture Catalysts, Inc., whose founder, John G.B. Howland, wants in the business of forming limited partnerships to invest in magazines that need capital. Fandell says Chicago Times needs $2 million to get on its feet; and if he can just get the first $500,000 of that from Howland, he thinks other investors will put up the rest.

Howland’s track record is a magazine called Cashflow that he started in 1980 with 23 limited partners and sold in 1986–tripling their money, he told us. For all its topsy-turvy history, Howland believes in Chicago Times. “There’s a mission that they had, an editorial focus that they had with a great deal of merit to it,” Howland said. “I think it needed to be fine-tuned, and if it were fine-tuned I think there’s a place for the publication.”

A final deal is anything but certain. The big stumbling block is Fandell’s debts. If they can be rescheduled to everyone’s satisfaction, and if Howland can round up a syndicate, and if Fandell can then sign on those other investors he says don’t want to be first into the water, Fandell could finally find himself with what he likes to call “deep pockets.” He hasn’t had deep pockets since the Small Newspaper Group of Kankakee was putting up most of the money.

That happy state ended suddenly 16 months ago when the Small family, $2 million poorer, ousted Fandell as president and publisher. Fandell sued; some magazine consultants told the Smalls that salvaging Chicago Times would cost them at least $2 million more; and to get out from under this albatross the Smalls quickly gave the magazine back to Fandell.

Fandell borrowed plenty to keep going. He even borrowed his editor, Flora Johnson Skelly, who’s special projects editor at American Medical News. Skelly, with virtually no staff, put together the first issue during vacation from the News, then cut back to three days a week there while moonlighting at Chicago Times. The January/February issue, the next to last, carried one of the best magazine articles Chicago has seen. “Guilty Until Proven Innocent,” a study of penal injustice in Illinois by Skelly’s friend Rob Warden, received the national John Bartlow Martin Award for investigative journalism.

“I did five issues,” Skelly told us. “I usually say nine months. I could have had a baby.”

When Howland told us that Chicago Times needed fine-tuning, we asked him if he wanted to help turn the dials.

“If we got to that point, yeah,” Howland said.

Is sharing the controls OK with you? we asked Fandell. “I think it’s one of the trickiest things about this,” he said. “But if you want to run something and you don’t have any money, you don’t have a choice.”

Trend Spotter’s Textbook

Somebody at Chicago magazine isn’t minding the zeitgeist.

Two Sundays ago, the New York Times Magazine ran an excerpt from crack wind-sniffer Kevin Phillips’s new book, The Politics of Rich and Poor: Wealth and the American Electorate in the Reagan Aftermath.

“As the decade ended, too many stretch limousines in Manhattan, too many yacht jams off Newport Beach and too many fur coats in Aspen foreshadowed a significant shift of mood,” Phillips wrote. “Only for so long would strung-out $35,000-a-year families enjoy magazine articles about the hundred most successful businessmen in Dallas, or television shows about greed and glitz . . .”

A couple days later, the July issue of Chicago hit our desk. The cover story? “The 50 Richest Chicagoans.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.