That solid red dot on my answering machine is one of the most depressing sights I’ve ever seen. It should be blinking on and off with messages. The landlord should have called. The deal should be finalized. We should be building any day now. He was supposed to call last Friday. He was supposed to call yesterday. He hasn’t called. Nobody’s called. The lease was supposed to have been signed a week ago at the latest. I’ve still got the copy here in a manila envelope.
A few months ago it seemed like a perfect idea. We had our theater group together. We were going to find our own space, build our own theater, and our first show would be ready for Labor Day weekend. Now we’re talking about October 1. If the phone doesn’t ring soon, we’ll probably be talking about 1992. And if it doesn’t happen by then, it’ll be time to start thinking about graduate school.
Economically speaking, finding your own theater space and building from scratch makes sense. It’s not cheap to rent somebody else’s theater–even the dumpiest spaces in town cost a few hundred bucks a week. And if you want to do something fancy, you can wind up spending ten grand in a month. When you figure in advertising and sets and costumes and salaries (ho ho), you start thinking about Chapter 11 before you’ve completed chapter one. But we’d had a couple of successful shows, we knew lots of people in the business, we had loads of friends willing to work for free, and we had wealthy family members willing to support us in our endeavor. Never mind that they all thought we were nuts.
We started with the real estate sections of the newspapers. What we really wanted was about 1,500 square feet in a desirable area for about 700 bucks a month. Or less. We drove around the city looking for “For Rent” signs. We asked friends to keep an eye out. We asked bar owners if they had empty spaces in the back of their establishments.
We had it all figured out. Joe was a carpenter. He’d take care of all the designs and construction. His Uncle Dan was a general contractor and electrician who could help us out. I was a good businessman–at least I figured I could become a good businessman. I’d figure out the financing and arrange all the deals. Leigh had a friend who knew all about electronics and sound design. She’d ask him to set us up with good acoustics and a sound system. Brian worked on the Board of Trade. He’d try to find us some contacts. Steve was a master of public relations and organizational skills. He’d take care of the books and publicity. And Patrick was ready and willing to leave his job and work full-time. We were all ready to dive in.
The first place we checked out was on Division in Wicker Park, and it seemed like a dream come true. Located on the 1800 block near the Turkish baths, it had character. Most important, it was dirt cheap–300 bucks a month for 1,500 square feet of empty space underneath a couple of apartments. The place was run by a Chicago cop I’ll call Schmidt, who was fond of Rolling Rock beer and black-and-white checked trousers. He owned a lot of buildings, didn’t care what you did with them, and was ready to deal.
Officer Schmidt opened the gate to the place, and we walked in. It had been used for storage and was loaded with old magazines; there was glass all over the floor, along with a broken toy piano and the occasional mousetrap and rat turd. But we didn’t even mind the faint odor of urine that permeated the place.
“Yeah, this place would be all right for a theater,” Schmidt told us. And it looked like he was right. There was even a second section in the back that looked like a perfect place for a dressing room. The location was good. We were right near the Bop Shop and the Czar Bar, and just a hop, skip, and a jump from hangouts like the Rainbo Club and Urbus Orbis.
“I didn’t think of this place for a theater,” Schmidt said. “But, whatever you guys want to do with it.”
Joe had his tape measure and was measuring widths and lengths and heights. We’d have to install a bathroom, and we wanted an electrician to have a look at the place before we made a commitment, but we told Schmidt we wanted the place and would be ready to build whenever he had all the crap cleaned out of the joint. We set up an appointment so that Joe’s Uncle Dan, the electrician, could have a look.
Then we set out for City Hall to meet with the high-powered alderman whose ward we were planning to inhabit, the honorable Luis Gutierrez. We figured that if we got on his good side, he could help us out with questions we had about building permits, occupancy permits, and so forth. Over the phone we said we wanted to figure out how we could work to help the community. What we really wanted to know is if we had to grease anybody or pay anybody off in order to get our theater going.
Well, Alderman Gutierrez was out of the office that day, but we found a cheerful guy who knew a little bit about the permit game. We gave him our usual spiel: a theater could really help out the community, bring people of different ethnicities together through the arts. And, oh, just as a passing inquiry . . . did we need a building permit?
“Nah,” the guy said.
“Isn’t it illegal to build without a permit?” we asked.
“Yeah,” he said, “But I doubt anybody’s gonna bother you.”
“What if they do?” we asked.
“Well then, tell ya what,” he said. “If they give you any trouble for not having a permit, I got the name of a guy. You call me up, I’ll give you his number, and he’ll pull a permit for you for 150 bucks.”
Cool. We were pretty much set. As long as we knew who to give the 150 bucks to, we could start construction.
It was a pretty hot day when we came back to the place on Division Street with Joe’s Uncle Dan and his friend Dave to check out the electrical work. They were good guys, honest guys, no-bullshit straightforward fellows who were discussing Harbaugh, Anderson, and Trace Armstrong.
“Aww, this place is beautiful. Beautiful,” Dave sniggered as he stepped around some shattered glass and pointed a professional flashlight toward a wall where a piece of fake wood paneling had been attached. Behind the paneling, some sort of liquid was leaking out. Schmidt was sitting on a crate, drinking a Rolling Rock and scratching his crotch.
“Can I take this off?” somebody asked Schmidt. Schmidt nodded, and we took off the paneling to find some rusted metal pipes that led upward to the apartments.
“Beautiful. Beautiful,” Dave sniggered.
“This is all shot. This all has to be replaced,” Dan the electrician said.
“Why?” I asked. The answer to my question came when we heard a flushing sound from upstairs. Fluid suddenly splattered out of the pipes.
“You better get that fixed,” somebody said.
“Aww, I can fix that up no problem,” Schmidt said. “I can get some of that liquid-iron stuff, fix that up no problem. I was gonna have that fixed anyway.”
We pulled up some of the floorboards and followed the pipes down to a big pool of liquid. The once insignificant odor of piss now took on new importance. We looked for rats, but didn’t see any.
“You’re gonna have to do a job on that,” Dan the electrician said.
Schmidt was unimpressed. He dumped the remainder of his Rolling Rock into the cesspool below and then dropped the bottle down. Crash. Tinkle. Tinkle. He’d have it fixed in no time and he’d get back to us next week. He didn’t call back, and when we called him, he told us he’d already rented it out.
“You guys didn’t say for sure that you wanted it,” he said. “This lady already paid me full rent for the first year.”
We went back to the want ads and continued driving around the city.
I contacted a real estate agent I’ll call Madge. I told her we were looking for 1,500 square feet of space. No more than 700 bucks a month. Madge had an idea, the perfect place. It was a beautiful spot on Halsted not far from the old Steppenwolf, the Halsted Theatre Centre, and lots of restaurants. A parking lot was attached to the premises. We could open up a bar if we wanted–or a restaurant. It could be used for anything we wanted. A theater would be ideal. The only thing was that we’d have to spend a bit more than we’d intended. How did $12,000 a month sound?
Back to the want ads and aimless drives around the city.
We drove up and down Ravenswood, a street loaded with old factory and industrial spaces. Just off the corner of Ravenswood and Irving Park we found a place with industrial spaces for rent. It was one of those cool old buildings with an elevator gate you had to close yourself. There wasn’t a real estate agent around or a landlord, so we did a little exploring.
None of the places had names on the doors. On the first floor was some sort of mail-order record company lorded over by a B-movie heavy, complete with curlicue mustache, open shirt, hairy chest, chains, and beer gut. Upstairs, every door we opened seemed to lead into a sweatshop filled with foreign women slaving over sewing machines and shady characters peering over their shoulders. After being shooed out of a few of those establishments, we found a pleasant-looking woman who owned some sort of bridal-garment business. We told her what we were looking for. She couldn’t help us. We asked her if something illicit was going on in the building. Her expression hardened.
“I wouldn’t know what you were talking about,” she said, and showed us to the door.
We started cruising up and down Belmont. There seemed to be lots of “For Rent” signs in the antique row between Western and Ashland. We figured some of these could be had for a song. We peered into windows and wrote down phone numbers, but nothing seemed right. We wandered into a garage space on Belmont near Oakley that had a “For Rent” sign on it. No sooner had we inserted a foot into the entrance than a smiling tree trunk of a man in a black overcoat walked toward us and stuck out his hand.
“Bernie at your service,” he said, and shook our hands. He handed us a card. Another card in my wallet. He was a real estate agent. Naturally. We wanted a space–1,500 square feet, 700 bucks a month. He laughed at us and told us he’d call us if he found anything.
Next stop, Lincoln Avenue. There’s a certain section of Lincoln where everything seems to be going out of business–where Lincoln meets Southport and Wellington, where the imposing structures of the Athenaeum and Zum Deutschen Eck loom over the streets. There are shuttered restaurants and closed-down furniture warehouses, and the newest, fanciest place in the neighborhood is the Dianetics place. We’re not talking about the most desirable real estate in the world.
Brian had found a classified ad in the Reader for a really cheap warehouse space right on Lincoln. About 450 bucks for 1,200 square feet. Julian, which is what I’ll call the guy we spoke to on the phone, seemed cheerful and enthusiastic, and we agreed to meet him at the warehouse, which was right by the old Nelson Brothers outlet store.
By the time we met him, we had our entire spiel down and we were talking construction lingo. “We need 1,500 square feet of space. We’re doing all the build-out ourselves. We’ll want to have a look at the electrical and your service panel. We’re gonna need two separate exits, and we need 24-hour access.”
Julian was a runty guy in jeans and a faded red hooded sweatshirt. He didn’t have the key to the advertised space, but he took us upstairs to see 5,000 square feet of open space and a nice view of the street below. This was available for rent too. He was sorry he couldn’t show us the space that was advertised, but this one was pretty similar. Julian agreed to everything: 450? That was great. We might have to pay a little more, but nothing out of line. He had all the space we wanted. All we’d have to do if we wanted part of the big open third-floor space was build our own walls to block off our area. Then they’d start building bathrooms for us.
Julian talked to us a lot about theater. He didn’t go much, but he liked Second City–and his girlfriend had taken him to see Lend Me a Tenor, and he really liked that a lot. He gave us his business card, which had his name on it and the name of a real estate company. He was really sorry he didn’t have the key to the place, but he’d call a guy we’ll call Mike, his partner, right away. Mike would definitely have a key. We looked around the place; in the background we heard Julian talking to Mike.
“Yeah,” he said into the phone. “Remember the guys I was telling you about? Well, they’re here, but I forgot the key. Yeah, they seem like really nice guys. Really honest guys. I think we can really do business with them. I think this is something we’re really going to want to look into.”
Julian hung up the phone and told us the guy with the key would be here any moment. He apologized again and talked some more about theater. Had we seen The Little Shop of Horrors? We should do that show. That was a great show. We said we’d consider it and would give him and his girlfriend free tickets.
All of a sudden we heard the elevator door open, and Mike entered.
“I thought you were showing them the downstairs space,” Mike said.
“I didn’t have the key,” Julian explained. “But they like this space. You know what they’re gonna do? They’re gonna build walls here and here and take 1,500 feet of space.”
“Yeah?” Mike asked. “What’d you offer them on the space?”
We answered, “450, same as downstairs.”
Mike sneered. Julian agreed to everything; Mike agreed to nothing.
“I couldn’t do it for that,” Mike said.
“What could you do it for?”
He quoted us a price per square foot that we had trouble working out in our heads. Mike said he was no good at math. When we finally calculated that it worked out to about 800 bucks a month, we wondered why the price would be different from the lower floors.
“It’s like a high rise,” Mike explained. “The higher you go up, the higher the price.”
“We’re taking a section without a view,” I explained.
“Doesn’t matter,” Mike shrugged. “Higher up’s still more desirable. I couldn’t do it for any less than 800 a month.”
“What if we do all the build-out ourselves?” Joe asked.
“Oh, you’re gonna do the build-out?” Mike asked. We nodded. “Then I could probably do it for 650 a month, but I’d have to charge you for heat and AC.”
“What would that work out to?”
“About 150 or so a month.”
“Which means it winds up being–”
“Yeah, about 800 a month. I can’t do it for any less than that really. I’m losing money on the deal as it is.”
“Now, what about the bathrooms?” I asked. “Julian said you’d take care of building them.”
“Naturally,” Mike said. “As soon as somebody signs the lease for this place, we’ll start working on them.”
“Not before?” I asked.
“No. I’m not gonna start working on them till I’m sure somebody’s gonna rent the place. That’s how you do business. You go around anywhere in the city, they’ll tell you the same thing. That’s how business is done.”
“Well, it’s a little high,” I said. “Can we look at the place downstairs?”
“Sure,” Mike said, and we took the elevator down.
“This space is a little more raw,” Julian cautioned. When he opened the door, we understood what he meant. The place was a white, stark cardboard box of an area with peeling paint and pipes running up and down and all over the walls. It was also about half the size we expected it to be, a fact we pointed out to them.
“Maybe a little,” Julian shrugged.
They tried a different pitch. This was going to be a real artsy building. There was already a dance studio down the hall, and some photographers had inquired about the place for studio space. Naive as we were, we still didn’t buy this sales pitch.
Mike had a new thought. “You know what? We’ve got this other place that would be great. We can do it for cheaper–and it’s right in the Halsted and North Avenue area. If you want, we can have a look at that place right now.”
“Sure,” I said.
“Do me a favor though,” he said. “Give me five minutes before you get there. I’ve got to give “Chester’ a few minutes to let him know that you’re supposed to be there.” With that, he was down the stairs and into his Cadillac.
Julian warned us, “That space is a lot rougher than this one, but you might really like it. There’s already a space for a stage in there.”
We gave Mike five minutes to warn Chester, whoever he was, and drove off. The space was just a few blocks from Steppenwolf and the Royal George–a few blocks in the wrong direction. It was on North Avenue near Sheffield, not far from Sam’s Liquors. We pushed the red door open and were greeted by Mike and a large, hulking man in a black three-piece suit. No tie. Shirt open.
“This is Chester,” Mike said.
“How ya doin’, fellas?” Chester said. He shook our hands and strolled out the door.
The place looked like a set from a Mafia movie, the kind of joint where kidnappers tie their victims to chairs in the middle of the floor. It used to be some kind of embroidering factory, but it had been abandoned for some time. Half the windows were broken, and the glass was on the floor. Some of the windows had wooden planks over them that were held there with silver duct tape. The wooden floors creaked slightly as we walked over them. Some of the wood was so rotted that you could see into the basement through the holes in the floor. And if you looked through the holes, you could see several lights on.
“What’s downstairs?” I asked.
“Nothing,” Mike said quickly.
“Why’s there a light on?”
“Someone probably left it on.”
“It’s a rougher place,” Julian said. “But, see? Your stage is already built for you.” He indicated a large raised cement area with metal pipes all around it.
“It’s a little rougher than I expected,” I said. “Are there any animals living in here?” I eyed a large hole in the wall.
“No, not at all,” said Mike. “Chester takes real good care of the place.”
Indeed. It’s a popular place. When I drove by there at 1 AM one Tuesday, I saw a series of cars parked outside with their hazard lights flashing. One by one, men would go in alone, come out with women in scanty attire, and drive off nervously. Julian tried to call us a couple of times, but we didn’t return his phone calls. We wanted a building where only the space was for rent.
We checked out another place on Lincoln a bit north of the intersection of Lincoln, Southport, and Wellington, just a couple of doors away from the first place Julian and Mike showed us. The place was run by a guy I’ll call Arnie and his mom. Arnie told us he was moving out because he’d had a lot of luck with the space and was ready to move on. He wore a corduroy jacket with a big rip up the back of it.
We blew it off and stopped at a place in the 2200 block of North Clybourn.
“This is where it’s happening,” a real estate agent I’ll call Ray told us. “This is where the action is. This is the area that’s the hottest in the city.” Ray had a fancy car and red docksiders and a black “Members Only” jacket. Ray didn’t know when to shut up. The place he was showing us was basically a two-story house set back from the street with some cool-looking glass-brick windows. He was willing to rent us the first floor once he’d evicted the “girls” who were living there. After all, they were only on a “month-to-month” basis.
“I tell ya,” Ray said. “You guys, I don’t know. I don’t know what you’re planning on really doing with this space. But the price is right–and even though I can’t give you as much space as you want, the space is real flexible. And I don’t know, maybe you could work out a deal with the people around you for parking or restaurant deals. I don’t know. Free dinner for two? Two-for-one deals? I don’t know–however you want to work it. But you really want to look at this area because you’ve got real cheap rates. But in a few years this area is going to be hot. You’ve heard the words Clybourn corridor? Well, you know what I mean. That’s where this is. I mean, you’re not looking to buy, you’re looking to rent–am I right? OK, yeah I understand that the market’s not perfect–you should see the taxes I pay–but maybe a couple years down the road you might want to buy. See, the price I’m offering, a thousand bucks a month? It’s a real steal because I can’t afford to pay my taxes on that. And you’ve got maybe a cafe next door and maybe you can work out some kind of deal with him–maybe free dinner with theater tickets. I don’t know. However you want to work it. What were you looking to pay–700? I said a thousand, and I don’t think I could go that low. What about 850? Still too high? What about 800? Because I don’t think I could do it for any less.”
After Ray came up for air, we walked inside the house. It was dank and musty and very dark. In front of us was a clear plastic shower curtain that served as the main entrance.
“I’m coming in, girls,” Ray said. “They’re great girls–college girls.” We looked around for a moment. In front of the shower curtain were posters of naked men and women and two rather sizable stacks of porno videos. Beyond the shower curtain was a pirate’s cache of heavy-metal albums and posters of album covers by groups like Warrant, Queensryche, and Metallica. There was also an anatomically correct female mannequin on which the words “All Traffic Through Here” were scrawled with an arrow leading to its pubic region.
“You should meet these girls,” Ray told us. “They’re wonderful. Sweet kids.”
Ray kept talking to us about deals and the Clybourn corridor and how he couldn’t let this place go for under 750 bucks. That was the lowest he could possibly offer us. By the time we got back into our car, the price had fallen to 600.
And then one day it happened. It was like manna falling out of the sky, Providence doing us a good turn, Lady Luck winking at us and giving us a playful pat on the rump.
“We’ve found it!” Joe exclaimed over the phone. His voice was ecstatic. “The place is beautiful! It’s perfect!”
We’d struck pay dirt on Damen. After months of searching, we’d finally found the dream space in a well-traveled area near the intersection of Damen and Fullerton. Never mind that a few weeks earlier I’d almost been jacked up by a street gang hanging out in metallic blue Isuzus in the nearby Popeye’s Famous Fried Chicken lot.
The place had once been an abandoned factory. But now it was gorgeous. It had a parking lot, a freight elevator, CTA lines nearby, advertising space that could be seen from the Kennedy, room to expand. The whole place had been remodeled, sandblasted, tuck-pointed. Gorgeous. The walls were exposed brick, and the windows were glass brick. The ceilings were 25 feet high. All we had to do was build walls, build a stage, buy seats and lights, turn on the marquee, and put on a show.
The landlord–I’ll call him Barry–was a bit of a character, but he seemed like a salt-of-the-earth guy. He was about 50 years old, with a big bushy mustache and an improbably big, fluffy head of salt-and-pepper hair. He had made a fortune in the upholstery business and now owned quite a bit of real estate around the city. And he talked like a character out of a David Mamet play.
“Those motherfuckers,” he growled as we walked into his office. His office had pictures of his kids and his girlfriend, a cop, on the wall. There was a safe and a typewriter and expensive leather seats. No phone though. And that’s what was pissing Barry off.
“Those motherfuckers,” he repeated. Once he’d said it about five times, he proceeded. “They took the fucking phone. Every week it’s another fucking thing. Last week it was a copying machine. Fucking took it out in broad daylight. Fucking unbelievable. I rent to a telemarketing business. I know it’s one of their motherfuckers. People who work for them are the fucking scum of the earth. You know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna put a lock on the fucking door. A good one.”
Barry told us about his troubles with the city’s building department, which he said was constantly citing him for violations. Everything he ever did was up to code, he said, but he’d made a lot of enemies over the years and they wanted to cause trouble for him. He went over all the things that were wrong with the building and told us how he’d fixed them. He seemed on the level.
He told us he liked the idea of a theater. He thought it could work. If he didn’t think it could work, he “wouldn’t even fucking bother.” Anything we wanted to do was OK with him. He believed in us. He told us to come up with a list of questions and come back and we’d work out the details.
Speed, however, was of the essence because of his philosophy. “There’s only one thing that counts in business,” he said. “Action. A lot of people, they pussyfoot around. I say one thing. I say, ‘Make the fucking deal.’ That’s all there is. Make the fucking deal. Because life is too short. Life is too fucking short.”
We agreed to call him back the next week. He didn’t give us a phone number. He gave us his beeper number. We’d beep him, and he’d call us back.
We sprang into action. We set up more meetings at City Hall. We registered our company, the Shattered Globe Theatre, as a not-for-profit corporation with the state of Illinois. (It seems the only way to make money as a theater is to register as a not-for-profit.) We looked in the newspapers for people selling lights and seats and stage equipment. I went to churches and synagogues to see if they had any extra seats or pews.
We went to the library and Act I Bookstore to find plays for our opening season, and every Sunday our little theatrical posse met for brunch at the S & G diner on Lincoln at Southport and discussed what we were going to do with our theater. Through the haze of cigarette smoke we would argue about what would make exciting productions, and sometimes the arguments would get heated.
“We’ve got to bring in professionals. Acting teachers.”
“Fuck acting teachers.”
“You can’t say, ‘Fuck acting teachers.'”
“I’m saying, ‘Fuck it all. Fuck acting teachers.'”
“Well, you’re into that Meisner, Strasberg school.”
“No, I’m saying, ‘Fuck acting teachers. Fuck Meisner. Fuck Strasberg.'”
“You can’t say fuck everything.”
“Look. We all have to have a commitment, all right? Everybody here has been working their asses off, all right? And if we don’t have that commitment, we might as well forget the whole thing right now.”
“Guys, we have to discuss plans. Actual plans.”
“You know what we should do? You know how Metraform does The Brady Bunch? We’ve got to capitalize on that. We should do like The Real Live Dating Game or something.”
“But that’s not what we’re about.”
“What are we about? What’s our purpose?”
“That’s what we have to decide.”
“Our purpose is doing plays. Isn’t that a good enough purpose?”
“What about Ionesco?”
“What about Moliere?”
“Look, we’re a young theater group. We have youth on our side. We’ve got to do the things we’re good at.”
“We could do a late-night show, do a show about the Hardy Boys, except they’d be gay.”
“The gay Hardy Boys? What would you call it?”
“The Hard-On Boys?”
“Why don’t we do The Lady From Dubuque by Edward Albee. Has anybody read that?”
“I have. I couldn’t get through it.”
Play titles were tossed around. Adaptations of works. After-school programs. Original works. Late-night shows. Even Shakespeare.
“Fuck Shakespeare,” somebody said. “I’m sick of him.”
Everybody pretty much agreed.
We beeped Barry, and he called us back. I picked up the phone.
“This is Barry. Who’s this?”
“This is Adam.”
“The guy who wanted to use your space as a theater.”
“Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. What’s up?”
After Barry blew us off a couple of times, we finally met him. When we got to the parking lot of the building, we found him asleep in his car. When he woke up, he told us about the graffiti that was now on the side of his building.
“This little motherfucker,” Barry said. “I caught him spraying this shit. I grabbed him. I said, ‘Listen here, you punk.’ He got away from me, so I ran after him. I says to myself, ‘I’m gettin’ too old for this shit.’ So I find these black guys, all right? I tell these black guys, ‘Here’s 20 bucks. Go get that guy.’ They just took the money and split, those black guys.”
There’s a certain way south-siders can say the words “black guys” and make them sound like the worst racial slur known to man. But we weren’t interested in Barry’s political correctness. We wanted his warehouse space. And he agreed to everything we asked him for. We could have access to the elevator at all hours. Our patrons could park in the lot. He’d build a second fire exit for us. He’d give us access to the first-floor bathrooms. We talked about a June 1 lease. He agreed to the date and said he’d talk to his lawyer and have one drawn up. We should beep him in a week, and he’d set up a time to show us the lease.
We began a statewide scavenger hunt for lights, seats, and other random pieces of stage equipment. We sneaked into the Palacio theater on Sheridan, which has been shuttered for years and is a reputed crackhouse. We looked around but couldn’t find anything. We went into lighting-equipment places like Grand Stage and couldn’t believe the astronomical figures they quoted us.
Then we got lucky. Leigh found an ad in Trading Times for a cheap lighting-dimmer pack and dimmer board. The dimmer boards and packs we’d seen cost upward of three grand, but this guy out in Bolingbrook was willing to part with his for 600 bucks. And Patrick and Brian had found an eccentric character I’ll call Al who had every piece of theatrical equipment you could possibly imagine, and he wanted to sell us all of it.
Al came over from Eastern Europe in the 20s and has been working as a set designer and actor ever since. He had a gray mustache and ears that protruded from the side of his head like handles of a coffee mug. He really wanted to see our theater space so he could tell us what he had that we needed. We beeped Barry, and he called us back.
“This is Barry. Who’s this?”
“This is Adam.”
“The guy who wanted to use your space as a theater.”
“Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. What’s up?”
Al, Joe, Brian, and I went over to the space on Damen, and Barry let us in. Al was thrilled with the location and the place itself, but he had some questions. He looked at the walls worriedly.
“Now, what are you going to do with this place?” he asked Joe.
“Well, we’re going to run pipes along here for the lights.”
“How’re you gonna do that?”
“Well, this wall’s our wall, so we’ll drill into it–”
“It ain’t your wall, Mister,” Al warned us, waving a finger. “Once you put it in here, it ain’t yours anymore, because it ain’t your wall. You don’t drill into nothin’, you hear me, Mister? You don’t drill into nothin’, cause maybe this guy’s a smooth operator. If he kicks you out of here and decides to raise the rent, you want to get out of here quick and take everything you have with you.”
Barry looked on, unamused.
“You want to make everything removable because if he decides to raise the rent on you, you want to get out of here quick, you hear me?”
Barry went to make a phone call.
We made an appointment to check out Al’s warehouse near the corner of Cortez and Noble, where he stores all of the items he’s amassed over the past 50 years. We met him out front.
“Come in, boys,” he said. Al is slightly hard of hearing, but he was livelier than any of us.
We strolled into his wonderful theatrical junk shop. He had old backdrops, globes, complete sets from La Boheme, Fiddler on the Roof, and West Side Story. A huge mock-up of the Tribune Tower, another of the Water Tower, and another of the Eiffel Tower. Huge walls of painted bricks, platforms, banners, screens. A huge champagne glass that spat out soap bubbles when you plugged it into the wall. A marquee with hundreds of lights that flashed on and off. He had made everything himself.
“How much, Al? How much?” I asked, indicating the marquee.
“You tell me,” Al said.
“I don’t know–300 dollars?”
“Three hundred dollars? What? Are you kidding me? I put each one of those lights in there myself. You couldn’t sell that thing for under a thousand bucks. What are you giving me with the 300 dollars?” he laughed and repeated it. “Three hundred dollars.”
We walked up the rickety stairs to more dusty rooms filled with pieces of material. I took some of the scrim and weighed it in my hands.
“What do you want with that schmatta?” he asked. Al had a tendency to lapse into Yiddish even though he wasn’t Jewish.
“How much, Al? How much?”
Al was planning to take a trip around the country before “they stick me in the ground,” and he wanted to sell off as much of his stuff as possible. He was a great salesman, peppering his sales pitch with stories of pogroms he had witnessed in his youth. He tried to sell us everything in the place.
“Look at this. Have a look at this. This is a red-brick drop. You could do anything with this. You could do a street scene with this. This is a standard drop. Here’s some masking. You can make a proscenium stage with this. I think you might want some of this, some of this pipe. You can do a lot with this pipe. You can hang anything from this.”
“Actually we have a place where we can get pipe like this wholesale.”
“For how much?”
“A buck a foot.”
“A buck a foot? You gotta be kidding me. A buck a foot.”
“Thick like this?”
“I’ll tell you what. You show me a place where you can get big thick pipe like this for a buck a foot, and I’ll eat that pipe. I tell you, I’ll eat that pipe. How about these flats? Ready made. I built them myself.”
“You bet they’re sturdy. I built them myself. Look at that. Solid. Look at this couch. Reupholstered it completely. That’ll look great in your lobby.”
“You said you had lights.”
“Follow me, boys.”
Back downstairs we went, into a room filled with Fresnels, ellipsoidals, and scoops.
“Do they all work?”
“What do you mean, ‘Do they all work?’ What do you think I’m doing? Selling you junk? What are you giving me with ‘Do they all work?’ You gotta be kidding me.”
We committed to buying the lights and a schmatta, and came back the next day to pick them up. Al’s head was bandaged and the bandage was dark red.
“Look at this,” he said, and pointed to his head. “Part of the ceiling fell on my head. I don’t have a phone in here. I had to bandage it up myself. I coulda been dead. That’s not funny, Mister. I coulda been knocked out. Nobody would’ve known. I’da been dead.”
He had all the lights set out for us. We’d decided overnight that we didn’t need as many lights as we’d asked for. We asked if we could leave a few behind.
“Nothing doing,” Al said. “We had a deal.”
“We just decided we didn’t need them.”
“I don’t understand you fellas,” Al glowered. “I offer you everything you need for a theater, and you look at it like it’s garbage. You look around at this, you look around at that. You don’t want any of it. You just want a few lights and a schmatta. I could sell any of this, but I figure I want to help you guys out. I’m not trying to sell you junk, but you don’t want any of it. And frankly, it’s beginning to piss me off.”
“A lot of this material is outdated.”
“Outdated? What do you mean outdated? All you need is an imagination. You can use the drops I have for anything, any show. You want to put on Fiddler on the Roof? You can put on Fiddler on the Roof. All you need is a little imagination. Nothing doing. Either you buy what you said you were gonna buy, or it’s no deal.”
Once we agreed and took the lights and gave him the cash, Al became a good deal more sociable. He started trying to sell us more backdrops and ellipsoidals and scoops. We declined. He called the next day to make sure we weren’t interested in the red brick backdrop. We told him we’d call him if we needed anything else. We told him we wouldn’t be able to buy anything more until our lease was signed anyway. He asked when that would be. We told him it would be soon, and called up Barry to find out when. We beeped him a couple of times, and he called us back.
“This is Barry. Who’s this?”
“This is Adam.”
“The guy who wanted to use your space as a theater.”
“Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. What’s up?”
He told us to come down to the space, and we did. When we got there, we found him splitting the contents of a bottle of rum with a childhood buddy of his, a guy named Joey, an air-conditioning man who didn’t know too much about Chicago theater but wanted to know if the Mill Run theater at Golf Mill was still open. I told him it hadn’t been open for years.
We shot the shit with Joey and Barry for a while. Just as we were about to discuss the lease with Barry, we were interrupted by a slim black man who was carrying a walking stick.
“Excuse me, fellas,” the man said as he approached us. “Can you tell me the way to get to Arkansas?”
“No,” Barry said coldly.
“I’m trying to get to Arkansas. Could you help me out?”
“Nobody’s drivin’ that far south,” Barry said.
“Well, can you tell me which way to go?”
“Just keep walkin’ that way,” Barry said, and pointed south. The man walked toward the train tracks south of the building, then started to follow them. It looked like he was walking to Arkansas the long way. He was headed northeast.
“People like that,” Barry snarled. And we all nodded as if we knew what he meant. Then we discussed the lease. Barry told us he didn’t have one made up, but since we knew everything we wanted to put in it, we should have our lawyer draw it up and he’d look it over. That sounded all right, so I enlisted the aid of a relative, who agreed to do it. We agreed to meet with Barry in a week.
So, we had lights and a dimmer board and pack, we had a lead on a sound system, and we were close to having a lease. It was time to go back to City Hall.
This time we were in Alderman Terry Gabinski’s ward, so we went to his office to enlist his help. Unfortunately, he was in the hospital, so we dealt with his assistant. He didn’t know much, but he was helpful. He told us our building was zoned M3-3 for manufacturing. Under possible uses, we found a listing for a “theatrical community center.” OK, we’d be one of those. We’d put on plays, and if we were required to do crafts for neighborhood kids we would comply. We went down to get a building permit.
The woman at the building department sent us to a person at planning, who sent us to a person at building, who asked if we had obtained a building variance. We explained that we didn’t need a building variance because our building was already zoned for a theatrical community center. She asked if we had a change-of-use permit. We told her we didn’t need one because ours was a permitted use. She told us we needed one anyway. So we waited in a line to get one of those forms. Meanwhile I decided to check out the code violations that had been filed against our building. I filled out a Freedom of Information form and received an eight-page readout of all violations in the past ten years. But Barry had told us about them, so we weren’t overly troubled, foolish though it may seem.
We went back to apply for a building permit and got the application, but it couldn’t be processed until our plans had been approved by a licensed architect. As we walked out into a hallway to discuss how to find an architect, we said something to the effect of “Wow, can somebody help us with all this bureaucracy?” Whereupon a couple of “permit expediters” swooped down on us and told us they could help “push our permits through” if we paid them in the neighborhood of $35 to $100 an hour. We decided to eschew this approach and get our plans approved by an architect. We dropped by Alderman Gabinski’s office and made an appointment for a date after he was supposed to be out of the hospital.
Sure, there’d been some hassles, but everything seemed to be going our way. All we really needed now were seats. And Joe had heard that the Dance Factory, on West Armitage, was selling about 600 seats bought from a theater that had closed down. They were selling for ten bucks a throw. We had a look and found a series of relatively nice royal blue theater seats sitting in an unused room.
“Where did these come from?”
“A porno theater,” shrugged the FM DJ who runs the dance club. He had long black hair, a pool cue in his hand, and a radio voice.
“They seem a little dusty,” I observed.
“Judging from where they come from, it’s not the dust I’d worry about,” he quipped. “Just look out for those stains.”
I decided to think about it for a while.
A week after we met with Barry, we got the lease from our lawyer. It was all set to go for the first of the month. We called up Barry to make an appointment to give him a copy. I beeped him and got a call back.
“Yeah, this is Chico. What do you want?”
“You just beeped me. Where do you want it sent?”
“I think you have the wrong–”
“Nah, you beeped me. I call you back. Are you callin’ from a hotel?”
“You a businessman?”
“You know Tony?”
“You know Chino?”
“Then how the fuck’d you get this number?”
Once I dialed the right beeper number, I got a call back from Barry. Once I’d reminded him who I was and why I was calling, we made an appointment to show him the lease.
“Those motherfuckers,” Barry said as we entered the office. This time the phone was there. Now the calculator was missing. “Look at this. They take a fucking calculator. They take a fucking Bulls jacket. Those people are the fucking scum of the earth. I got a fancy leather jacket–they don’t touch that. They go for the Bulls jacket. Those people, I’m telling you.”
We gave him a copy of the lease and helped him secure his office with a board on a window and a metal plate on his door. He looked over the lease with his gray tinted glasses and nodded and muttered “mmm, hmm” over and over. He put the lease down.
“This is what we talked about. This looks fine,” he said. “I just gotta show my lawyer, and you boys should be in business. That’s what I like. Somebody who has a deal in mind and makes it. That’s what I say. Make the fucking deal.”
All we needed was a signature. He’d have it ready for us before the first of the month. We began to make arrangements to buy all of the appropriate building equipment and set up a work schedule. We opened an account at the hardware store. We thought up catchy names for the building. We decided on our two opening shows. We told our friends. They were all willing to hammer and paint and screw and nail.
The first of the month passed.
We beeped Barry. He didn’t call us back.
The first of the next month passed.
We beeped Barry. He called us back. He’d been busy, but he was just about to have it ready. He also had some construction work he wanted done. Did we have time to build him a shelf for an air-conditioner?
“I tell you, it’s been a rough couple of months,” Barry said. “But, I want to get you guys in there. I’ll call you by the end of the week and it’ll be set. This Thursday at the latest.”
That was a month ago.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kevin Kurtz.