By Jack Helbig
Tom Palazzolo is bent over a lithography stone, painstakingly adding details to a portrait of himself as Pan, a crown of leaves in his tousled hair, a voluptuous bunch of grapes in one hand. An ethereal woman hovers in the background, looking a bit distracted.
Palazzolo’s trying to get his mischievous leer just right when I walk into the studio. He lifts his head and swipes a stray mark across the face. “Oh, shit.” Then “Jack!” he says, immediately recovering. He shows me his various proofs, analyzing them in a fake Chicago accent.
“You see, dis is what we artists like to call myth-O-logical sym-BO-lism,” he says. “You see, I am what you would call a satyr and dis lady here…” He snorts lasciviously. “Dis lady is da nymph I am about to sa-DEUCE. Just like in real life, eh, Jack? Heh-heh-heh-heh.”
For the better part of four decades, Palazzolo has been making movies around town, and he’s been celebrated for his good-natured cinema verite portraits of local wildlife. These humorous documentaries treated such diverse topics as a senior-citizens’ picnic (Enjoy Yourself–It’s Later Than You Think), a massage parlor (Hot Nasties), antiwar demonstrations (Love It/Leave It), patriotic parades (America’s in Real Trouble), a tacky wedding shower in the northwest suburbs (Ricky and Rocky), and stranger rituals on Rush Street (I Was a Contestant at Mother’s Wet T-Shirt Contest). His films have been both praised and denounced as slack and unrestrained, but they’re undisputedly funny and insightful. They’ve brought Palazzolo one-man shows at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Pacific Film Archive, Facets, the Film Center, and the Chicago Historical Society. They’ve been studied at the annual Robert Flaherty International Film Seminar in Boston, and screened at the Leipzig, New York, and Cannes film festivals.
Yet, like many of his films, Palazzolo’s career could almost be described as a happy accident. When he first moved here in 1960, he wanted to study painting at the School of the Art Institute. His interest in filmmaking came later–he didn’t even know how to operate a movie camera until 1964 (some would say he’s still learning), and when he finally did make films, his technique developed from his work as a photographer. While Palazzolo’s reputation as a filmmaker grew, he continued to paint, though he didn’t exhibit this work and not many outside his immediate circle even knew about it. All that changed this month, with the opening of his show “Tom Marches On! Four Decades of Paintings, Prints, and Photographs by Tom Palazzolo” at the Jacqueline Ross Gallery in Pilsen.
Now 61 years old, Palazzolo says, “I always tried to knock out at least a few paintings a year, just to, um, keep my foot in.” He’d long kept an easel beside his Steinbeck editing table. “When the Steinbeck got too hot, I would turn it off and paint for a while.”
Growing up in a working-class neighborhood in north Saint Louis, Palazzolo showed an early talent for drawing. A big fan of the funny pages, he’d spread out the Post-Dispatch and try to imitate them. “I loved Dick Tracy and Fearless Fosdick, all of the characters in L’il Abner. I really liked drawing the Schmoos.”
By the time he was in the first grade, Palazzolo could draw all of the Disney characters. And by the time he was in high school, he was recognized as the class cartoonist. Beaumont High had a tradition of publishing caricatures of teachers and students in the school paper and the yearbook. “They would supply the photo and I would draw a funny body to go with it.” He was especially fond of visual puns. The writing teacher, for example, is drawn with one long hand and one short hand. In case no one got the joke, he dutifully labeled each hand.
“My model was Mad magazine, which had just started publishing a few years earlier. I loved Mad magazine. My father hated it and thought it was filth. He found a stack of them under my bed and threw them out.
“My folks hoped I would go to work for Disney. They saw my pictures of Disney characters and thought this was wonderful–‘Tom has a profession.’ Can you imagine me bent over those cells, painting in the same drawing again and again and again?” He laughs. “My mom also wanted me to become a priest.”
His father, the son of Italian immigrants, had to quit school in the seventh grade. “First he worked at the railroad yards, and later he worked for the gas company, where he stayed the rest of his life.”
His mother was third-generation Irish. Tom was her eldest child. His brother Lynn is four years younger; he now sells automobile paint in Saint Louis. His brother Bob, who’s six years younger, worked most of his life for a grocery chain and today restores vintage cars. When Palazzolo was 16, his parents had a daughter, Janis, who now works as a computer programmer in Texas.
“Where we lived, it had to be the most typical neighborhood in Saint Louis,” he says. “It was mostly Irish Catholic. We lived in a four family flat, very small. Our neighborhood had a theater, a drugstore, a Woolworth’s.” There also was a small stadium, where, Palazzolo says, “all kinds of events were held: drum and bugle contests, football games. It was there the circus would play.”
The neighborhood’s most unique feature was an old quarry. Palazzolo says it was literally in his backyard. “It was easily eight square blocks. After dinner my friends and I all used to climb down into the quarry to explore, build forts, play Indians, run wild. We liked to dress up like Indians. We had feathers. It was like a little Lord of the Flies, except we didn’t beat up on people. We had our own fort we dug into the dirt, and we would put our clothes there and change into loincloths. We would make spears out of tall weeds.”
The quarry was used as a landfill, and Tom and his friends would root through the trash for treasure–his first encounter with the notion of found art. “I had collections of things pulled from the garbage. My friend Tony had the best collection of vials of blood from hospitals. There were no restrictions–they would dump any kind of garbage in there. It was fun to be wild and run around naked.”
Palazzolo was no less wild at school, which made him the object of the nuns’ strictest discipline. “I was an altar boy,” he says, but that was the extent of his compliance. “I remember one very Irish nun rapping me on the head and telling me in this thick accent, ‘You’re a very bold boy, Thomas.'”
He was praised for his drawings. “I would be in charge of decorating the bulletin boards for Easter.” But most of the time he found it hard to concentrate. “I wanted to be outside, in the fresh air, in the quarry.” Once he was caught having a snack before lunch. “I pulled out a hard-boiled egg from my bag, cracked it, and started to eat it. I didn’t know the nun was behind me. She smacked me on the back and I pretended to choke to death.” He collapsed, and the nun began frantically saying prayers. “After a minute or so I spit out the egg, stood up, and put my head down on the desk.” He laughs. “You know, I think that nun gave me a free ride the rest of the year.”
Palazzolo muddled through school, repeating the fourth grade because he was such a poor student. He dreaded high school. “The nuns were bad enough, but at the all-boys Catholic high school there was the prospect of having a priest hit you. There was even a rumor that one of the priests insisted on getting into a boxing ring with you. Consciously or not, I ended up outsmarting my parents.”
When it came time to register, he says, “I waited in a very long, slow-moving line, and when I got to the front of it I found I had to bring my birth certificate. I walked home slowly, got my certificate, and then slowly returned. When I got back, I was told it was filled. Boy, was I disappointed! I had to wear blue jeans, not a shirt and tie and slacks, and I was going to have to go to school with girls.”
Palazzolo found the atmosphere at Beaumont High much more to his liking. “It was a great sports school,” he says. “It was such a powerhouse the year I graduated, they won the state championship in baseball, basketball, and football.” He played football for a while, “but in those days the helmet you wore was a little leather cap. I quickly realized you could get hurt playing football.” He devoted himself to basketball instead.
The art department was uninspiring. “The classes were taught by sweet old ladies, very nice, very conservative. They were used to high school students not being very serious.” Not that he was particularly serious. “I always had this silly streak. You’ll see that in the pictures of me–always cutting up.” Still, he took pride in his attention to detail. “I was always told to reduce the busts on the women I drew for the newspaper or the yearbook.”
Anxious to improve his skills, Palazzolo entered the “Draw Me” contest. “On the matchbook covers it would say, ‘Draw Me. Send in your picture of Victor Borge and win a correspondence course in art.’ I drew his picture and sent it in. I got a letter back that said, ‘You didn’t win, but if you send in $300 we will send you these books and classes.'”
Palazzolo wrote back saying he might be interested. A few weeks later a representative from the school showed up at the front door. “He was almost a parody of a salesman. He drove up in this Cadillac with fins. His car seemed bigger than our house. This guy was like a preacher. My sweet parents were very nice to everyone, and they invited him in for coffee. I remember he was sitting under this picture of the Last Supper and in the middle of talking he dramatically raised his spoon, in a real Christlike pose, and he said, ‘Do you realize that an artist designed this spoon?’ We were mesmerized. We made the down payment then and there.”
Every month Palazzolo would get a different assignment, “like draw the handsome man or draw the gnarled tree,” he says. “You would send it in, and they would put an overlay on it and grade you.” He recalls having particular trouble with the gnarled tree. “I guess I didn’t have enough gnarls.”
His interest began to flag after a year–“I got tired of them not liking my gnarls”– and he sold the three big books that came with the course to a neighbor kid for $25. “My father was very upset.”
After graduating from high school in 1957, Palazzolo went to work at a nearby McDonnell Douglas plant. “It was a terrible job,” he says. “I worked in the mail room. I had a three-wheeled bike and I delivered mail throughout the factory. It was noisy. I saw how factory work ground people down. And if anything could scare me into academics, that job would.”
He worked at the plant for a year, long enough to save money to go to art school. He settled on the Ringling School of Art, which had been recommended by a teacher who knew he didn’t have much money. “It was the cheapest school in America,” Palazzolo says, “less than $100 a course.”
Founded by John Ringling, the famous art collector and circus owner, the school was located in Sarasota, Florida, the winter home of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Ringling had a reputation as a party school, according to classmate Bernie Beckman, now a painter and teacher in Wellington, Maine. He remembers outdoor classes and a lot of intramural sports for an art school.
Palazzolo threw himself into extracurricular activities. “Tom was involved in sports down there,” Beckman recalls. “I’d always see him out on the court with the boys, really scrapping around there with the basketball, always fast on his feet.” Palazzolo’s memories also are of life outside the classroom: “All these beach parties.” He laughs. “And girls everywhere. I felt like Frankie Avalon.”
Both Beckman and Palazzolo studied commercial art, painting circus people who came to pose for the art students. “They would come in costumes,” Beckman says. “There was a trapeze couple, and there was an East Indian who would pose in various yogic positions–very limber.”
“One of my favorite subjects,” Palazzolo says, “was a catcher on the trapeze who had retired because he had dropped too many people. He had this real look of despair about him.”
Palazzolo began to imitate the style of circus posters and banners–the sometimes clumsy and always bold pictures of various sideshow acts, such as aerialists leaping through the air or lion tamers holding a half dozen animals at bay with a whip and a chair.
Beckman recalls being taken aside by a teacher who told him he “had a lot of talent and should go to the Art Institute–that was the best school he knew. I had a teacher back in my hometown who had studied at the Art Institute. And her advice and this advice pulled me up to Chicago.” Beckman applied and was accepted.
Palazzolo applied too but was promptly rejected. The following year he traveled to Chicago anyway, determined to talk his way in. With his paintings under one arm, he schmoozed a counselor and got accepted.
In the fall of 1960 he moved into Beckman’s apartment on Superior Street near Holy Name Cathedral. “I didn’t want to go to mass in some little neighborhood church,” Palazzolo says. “I wanted the best, the one with the most direct connection to God.
“I used to drop into the cathedral on my way home from school. If I had a sin that was embarrassing, I would go to the Spanish-speaking priest because the other priests were getting to know me.”
Beckman tells a different story. “I would go to mass at the cathedral and I would never see him. He told me he was going at a later time. I found out later he wasn’t going–he was just telling me he was.”
By the time Palazzolo arrived at the School of the Art Institute, he wanted to become a fine artist. “I came to study at the feet of masters at the Art Institute,” he says, with only a touch of sarcasm. What he found was a school still under the spell of abstract expressionism. “All of the best students were doing this–” He imitates the broad strokes of someone doing a Franz Kline knockoff.
“At that time, we were sort of outsiders,” Beckman says. “Uninvited guests.” He recalls that Palazzolo consciously rebelled against the prevailing style. “He was really questioning abstract expressionism as the school-think. He was interested in a more social, representational form of painting. I would later see him getting interested in the social realists, Gustave Courbet; he was a fan of Edgar Degas and Manet’s directness, the reportage quality of this work.”
Palazzolo would wander around the city, observing and sketching. His own neighborhood, then somewhat down-and-out, was a perfect setting for a flaneur with beat pretensions. He was fascinated by the poor retirees, the street people, the young couples scraping by. And he loved poking around the Illinois Central railyards just east of the Loop.
In fall of 1961 Beckman and Palazzolo moved to a larger apartment near Hubbard and Clark; though only a bit south of their last place, the new locale put them deeper into the heart of threadbare Chicago. “There’s nothing like the romance of being a poor art student living in a place where they turned the heat off every night at nine o’clock and turned it on at six in the morning,” Palazzolo says.
“The new neighborhood was a strange mix. There was an upscale restaurant, Ireland’s, which was very nice. And all these SROs, like the Capital Hotel at the northeast corner of Hubbard and Clark. And worse than that, there were places where small rooms had been converted to cubbyholes with beds in them.
“There were a lot of interesting characters and little storefronts, little strange stores. I remember one store that did nothing but fix books. The Moler Barber School–for 50 cents you could go in and have some student barber butcher your hair. Everyone was friendly as hell. They let me come in and photograph and film. You couldn’t do that in an upscale place–especially with the bad haircuts I had.
“There were burlesque houses scattered all over the neighborhood. There was a burlesque house where the Quaker Oats Building is now. I went in only a few times, and the girls were really nice. They said, ‘Oh no, don’t buy us a drink.’ They would sit with you and you had to buy them expensive drinks. They always told me, ‘Don’t come in here–get a real girlfriend. Get a little wine and cheese and get a girl.’ It was sweet. Everyone was sweet back then.
“All of the crazy parades would start in that neighborhood. There would be nothing happening and then in the spring you would hear these bands playing at six in the morning and there would be another crazy parade–usually an ethnic parade or a patriotic parade.
“And there were all these interesting used book stores with all kinds of old mystery magazines. There was a feeling like you were living in the 30s–it didn’t feel like the 60s at all. The buildings were old, the merchandise was old. It was wonderful.”
At the ABC Bookstore on Clark, Palazzolo found some old publicity photos of second-rate vaudeville acts. He began to base his paintings on these photos, but his professors weren’t enthusiastic. They said the paintings were too representational–and cartoonish.
“Ringling had been much more figurative,” Beckman says. “Tom found the doors were not opening the way he wanted them to.” Beckman believes these restrictions drove Palazzolo into photography and eventually film. “I remember him talking about how his teachers were unfair. It seemed like he was one man against so much. He was pretty strong, but he had several teachers who had studied in Europe and had come back dedicated to abstract art. That’s why he picked up a camera.”
The first professor to encourage Palazzolo also was a photographer. Ken Josephson was still fairly new at the school when Palazzolo signed up for his class in the fall of 1963. Palazzolo had practically no experience with a camera. “His mother and father weren’t picture takers,” Beckman says. “He seemed to have come to photography through Courbet and Degas. He was always talking about how Degas was interested in photography–the way he put figures off to the side, the offbeat framing.”
Josephson remembers Palazzolo as an “energetic” student. “He worked very hard to understand photography. He photographed derelicts, people on the street. He was attracted to the grittier areas of city life.
“But his technique hadn’t caught up with him yet. You could see all these spots on his prints from dust and debris. I pointed them out to him and he would say, ‘What spots?’ About a year later he came up to me and asked, ‘What are all these spots all over my prints?'” Josephson laughs. “He finally saw them.”
Palazzolo first experimented with filmmaking in Josephson’s class. “I had inherited some equipment,” Josephson says, “including a Keystone 16-millimeter camera. Newsmen used them in the 40s and 50s. It had a large key on the side, and you had to wind it up.
“I was talking with Tom one day and the subject of motion pictures came up. No one was using the camera, so I said, ‘If you’re interested, just take it home and work with it. And here are the instructions.’ He came back a few days later and said he had gotten very poor results. The exposures were off. He couldn’t understand why. I said, ‘Did you follow the instructions?’ He said, ‘I really don’t like to do that. I’d rather do trial and error.'” Josephson laughs again. “That was his beginning as a filmmaker.”
Palazzolo says Josephson also introduced him to the world of underground and experimental films. “Ken Josephson pointed out that the public library had a nice collection of short films. I would go over and check out the films and look at them. The English did some wonderful documentaries, little short films. There was one about a band practicing in a pouring rain.” He fondly recalls another documentary, Oh, Dreamland by Lindsay Anderson, about an amusement park. “That gave me the idea that Riverview would be an interesting place to film.”
He also remembers a “hilarious” documentary on Hugh Hefner–1962’s The Most by Gordon Sheppard and Richard Ballentine. “They did a tremendous send-up of him. The film begins with a shot of him driving his Jaguar, tooling down Michigan, and he misses every light. They capture Hugh making all these pompous statements. They have a climactic party scene where there are all these middle-aged men partying with these young women, and by the end the old men are sleeping and the women are dancing with each other.”
Palazzolo began to imitate these films. His first effort was, he says, “a clumsy little attempt to capture the crazy goings-on on State Street.” One shot showed a Salvation Army soldier collecting money at Christmas. “They put a key in his back, and he pretended to be a windup soldier.” He followed that with a silent documentary about a youth-oriented event called the Young World’s Fair at the International Amphitheatre. “I concentrated on the young people dancing and the cynical looks of the older men trying to sell them merchandise.”
At around the same time Palazzolo met a college student named Marcia Daehn. She loved photography, but her father thought she should study something more practical, so she was majoring in mathematics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Every summer she’d take a course in photography at the School of the Art Institute and waitress in the museum’s restaurant. The restaurant was adjacent to some galleries, separated only by glass. When Daehn wasn’t taking an order, she was supposed to stand next to a wall, her hands behind her back.
Her section looked out on a particularly quiet gallery where Palazzolo worked as a temporary security guard. She says he began to flirt through the glass. First he held up notes asking for the time; soon they covered other topics. Once he wrote “You have a nice smile,” and she was touched. Daehn says they didn’t begin to date seriously for several more years but that summer was the start of their relationship. They married in December 1968.
By that time Palazzolo’s films had found a larger audience. One of his early breakthroughs was Pigeon Lady, a 1966 portrait of an elderly woman who wandered around Palazzolo’s neighborhood dropping bread crumbs for the birds. Roger Ebert called it a “masterpiece” and “one of the most moving experimental films I’ve ever seen.”
Another early film was O, a trippy montage of circus acts and street scenes, under which Palazzolo played a suggestive sound track. “It won the big prize at the Bellevue [Washington] film festival,” he says. “It was a big festival–I won $1,000.”
Even though he had started to build a reputation as a filmmaker, his professors at the Art Institute weren’t impressed by his class work. As part of his final critique, he collected found objects he thought could be presented as sculpture. “I had a coupling device, some decaying bricks. And a lot of my photographs were of decaying things.” He also included some of his paintings of circus and vaudeville performers. “After the professors looked at each student’s work they would go into a room and discuss it.” In Palazzolo’s case, they were flummoxed–he’d been attending classes from 1960 to 1966. “They came out and said, ‘I am sorry. I know you have petitioned for a degree in painting, but we are going to deny that.'” They awarded Palazzolo both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in photography.
“I was just happy to get out of school,” he says. “I was short some academic subjects, but I had taken so many art classes they gave me a break. I really don’t know how I graduated. I had a ton of incompletes I was constantly making up. I had to cut so many classes just to make a living. I remember looking at my transcript and every second line is an incomplete. I think I made up most of them.”
When I first met Palazzolo in the fall of 1980, he was huddled over an editing table in the basement of the School of the Art Institute, where he was then teaching film classes. He was editing footage of the Indianapolis 500 that he’d shot with Chicago Filmmakers’ Brenda Webb earlier that year.
“My plan is to make as many films as I can as quickly as I can,” he told me. “If one film doesn’t work out, I have another one in the works, and another in the pipeline after that.”
For more than 15 years, Palazzolo had made films that way–always shooting, always editing, cranking out one work after another. He often felt his films were never complete; parts of one would sometimes turn up in another, frequently with surprising results: a recent screening of 1966’s America’s in Real Trouble contained footage from 1972’s Ricky and Rocky.
Beckman says that during these years Palazzolo was always hustling. He would do almost anything to pay the rent or to get film stock. “There was an office at the Art Institute where they would find short-term jobs for students. Tom got to know the woman who ran it very well. She would send him out on these caricature jobs at birthday parties. He would draw these big heads on small bodies and he would entertain the party while he was doing it. He loved that.”
The mid-60s were a heady time for underground filmmakers. “There were big audiences for the films back then because they were vaguely sexy,” Palazzolo says. “People would turn out for shows that had a vaguely sexy title where you might see some nudity.”
Time ran a cover story on underground films that focused on filmmakers living on the coasts, but it still helped to legitimize the efforts of Palazzolo and his friends, who formed the Floating Cinematheque, a film society that met in different people’s apartments. The idea behind the name was that the work they showed was so subversive that each screening was a clandestine operation–and the best way to keep these meetings secret was to constantly move the location. There were also regular Monday night screenings at Second City, curated by a trio of exhibitors who went by the name Aardvark. “The films were so popular,” Palazzolo says, “they would have three showings a night.”
These films still faced the Chicago Police Censor Board. “One or two of my films were censored,” Palazzolo says. The film that caused the most trouble, he says, was He, a whimsical documentary about a “funny, eccentric guy” who liked to do nude handstands on the ice in the midst of winter. “Really, my film was more about his little dog who was worried about him.” The board was bothered by a full frontal shot of the naked man. Palazzolo says he was called to answer for it before the city’s Motion Picture Appeal Board. “That was the ultimate scariness. They had a battery of Catholic lawyers who cross-examined me mercilessly. I said since I was an art student I wasn’t shocked by nudity.” The board apparently accepted that explanation, if grudgingly, and the film wasn’t deemed pornographic, though, Palazzolo says, he was given a verbal reprimand.
He says the police once raided a screening of underground films at the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ in Lakeview–the organizers had failed to get their films approved. “The police broke into the thing while my film O is on, and they took the film away. There was no nudity in it, but there is a provocative sound track where a woman makes orgasmic sounds lifted from Luciano Berio’s avant-garde work Visage, which consists of his wife singing very guttural sounds.”
But the general audience for experimental films was short-lived. “There wasn’t much competition then from theaters or musical groups,” Palazzolo says. With the adoption of the Motion Picture Association of America’s rating system in 1968, local censorship boards mostly became a thing of the past. This, Palazzolo claims, “killed underground films.”
“Suddenly exhibitors brought in all these raunchy art films, and it turns out that the art meant nothing to audiences, double exposures meant nothing, weird sound tracks meant nothing.” Audiences wanted nudity. And that’s exactly what they got in films like I Am Curious (Yellow) and I Am Curious (Blue).
“I remember people lined up around the block to see I Am Curious (Yellow),” Palazzolo says. “When that happened, we started getting five people a night to our underground film showings.
“That was the equivalent to the great crash. It was easy to believe that people liked the art in our films, but it turned out they wanted the little T and A we would slip in.”
Just as the underground movement was losing steam, the government stepped in to validate Palazzolo’s films.
In 1968 positive press persuaded the United States Information Agency to ask Palazzolo to tour the Middle East, Ceylon, India, and Turkey for three months. He’d screen his movies as a poster boy for American creativity. Yet the invitation precipitated a crisis in his life: he wanted to take Marcia Daehn, but she couldn’t accompany him unless they were married.
He talked it over with Daehn, and at first she didn’t take him seriously. “Tom always said he would never get married,” she recalls. Eventually she accepted, and the two were married just before the trip. But the tour didn’t turn out to be as romantic as he had made it sound. Palazzolo put in long hours showing his films and talking about them. “And on his day off,” Marcia recalls, “he was such a nice guy he would end up watching films made by local filmmakers.” She says there were still signs of the previous year’s Six-Day War. “There were all these destroyed airplanes at the Lebanon airport.”
The two also ran afoul of the locals. Palazzolo says he was walking around Amman, Jordan, taking photographs, when he snapped a picture of a pair of militiamen. “Several hours later three or four militiamen appeared at the center where I was showing my films, demanding that I come with them. They suspected I was a spy.”
Palazzolo talked to the militiamen, who finally agreed everything would be fine if he would hand over his film. “Tom opens his camera,” Marcia recalls, “and there is no film in it.” She laughs. “He had forgotten to load his camera. He turns to me and says, ‘Did you take the film out of my camera?’ I said, ‘No, I did not take the film out of your camera.’ That made me feel like he wanted to make me the scapegoat. And all that made the militiamen more suspicious. They thought we’d passed the film off.”
After much discussion, a call to the militia headquarters put Palazzolo on the phone with their leader. “He had a proper British accent. I explained what had happened, that I’d forgotten to load the camera. And he said, ‘All right.'” They were allowed to go back to their room. “But,” Marcia says, ” we were told not to leave the hotel without an escort.”
Soon after the bottom fell out of the underground, Palazzolo changed his style of filmmaking. Through most of the 60s, he had relied on a simple Bolex camera, later adding sound or music to his silent footage. Then he started seeing the early cinema verite documentaries of such filmmakers as Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker. “They were using newer equipment–this new technology that made it easier to make sync-sound films. It was a new place to go.”
Then he met Jeff Kreines, a 16-year-old dropout from New Trier High. Kreines was already making documentaries with an old newsreel camera. He says one of his early films “consisted mostly of interviews with people on State Street, including a cheerleader, perennial mayoral candidate Lar Daly, and a man who believed that too many things have been invented.”
Palazzolo saw that film at the Chicago Public Library in 1972, while judging a contest for student filmmakers. Some of the other judges hated Kreines’s work, Palazzolo says, “because he was not nicey nice to people. He would make fun of people who weren’t nice.” Over these objections, Palazzolo successfully lobbied to give Kreines an award.
At that time Kreines was a volunteer projectionist for the Magic Lantern Society, which regularly showed underground films at the Museum of Contemporary Art. “They were showing a series of films by underground filmmaker Robert Nelson,” Kreines says, “and Camille Cook [who ran the Magic Lantern Society] threw a party for Nelson in her home in the southwestern suburbs.” He went to the party but felt out of place, a teenager among adults. Then he ran into Palazzolo, and the two hit it off. “I was about to get my first sync-sound camera and tape recorder,” Kreines says, “and Tom had never made sync-sound films. He saw this young kid with all this gear; I saw this guy who knew how to make films cheaply. It was perfect.”
Palazzolo’s memory isn’t much different: “After I gave him the award, I gave him the opportunity to work with a master using all of his equipment. I didn’t even know how to operate a tape recorder.”
“I always wanted to make cinema verite films from the get-go,” says Kreines, “and growing up in Chicago–and working the projector in Stan Brakhage’s classes at the Art Institute–the only filmmakers I knew were underground filmmakers. I thought the way to make cinema verite films was like an underground filmmaker. I didn’t realize at the time that the most famous cinema verite films were paid for with network news department money.”
Two weeks later Palazzolo and Kreines were working on their first documentary together: Pets on Parade. Palazzolo says it was “about a pet parade in La Grange–it was light, a little weekend thing. You get the kids marching with their goldfish.”
A month later they made Ricky and Rocky. After 27 years, this simple documentary–about a wedding shower in Harwood Heights–remains charming and funny, in a lightly mocking, slightly campy kind of way. Palazzolo got invited to the shower by Ricky’s uncle, who worked at an editing house in the old Cinema Processors building. The guests wear the tacky trailer-park fashions John Waters loves to mock: polyester, beehive hairdos, and cat’s-eye glasses. Even the most mundane gift is greeted with oohs and aahs. “The Osterizer got the loudest applause,” Palazzolo says.
After they finished the film, Palazzolo sent a copy to Ricky and Rocky. “I wasn’t there when they showed the film, but I heard they enjoyed it,” he says. “I even heard they laughed at the same points where the hipper, artier audiences laugh.”
Over the next few years Palazzolo and Kreines made eight films. Kreines even spent the summers here after moving to Massachusetts to work and study at MIT, the de facto capital of cinema verite filmmaking (it boasted a faculty with such documentary pioneers as Leacock and Ed Pincus).
Always a cheap filmmaker, Palazzolo perfected the art of pinching pennies. He had to–he and Marcia were now raising children, and they had a mortgage to pay on a house in the suburbs. He would trade favors for breaks on the cost of film stock and for deals on developing. He and Kreines also wasted little film.
“Ricky and Rocky was shot on a ratio literally of 1.2 to 1,” says Kreines. “I think we used everything. We shot the whole film [about 15 minutes long] on one and a third rolls.” Palazzolo’s methods amazed Kreines. “You weren’t supposed to be able to go out and make a film for $400,” he says. “I think Ricky and Rocky cost about $250.”
On their shoots, Kreines and Palazzolo divvied up duties. Kreines would shoot the sync-sound footage because he owned the camera and knew how to operate it. Palazzolo would act as an advance man, schmoozing the subjects and helping them relax. He would later shoot silent footage with his Bolex. When it came time to edit, the two would split the duty.
Their films proved popular on the festival circuit, gaining lots of attention in the press. Among these were Mr. Tri State, about a muscle man contest, and Practice-Wedding, which documents a wedding rehearsal. “We did film a lot of what anthropologists would call working-class rituals,” Kreines says. “But we weren’t thinking of them that way.”
Palazzolo’s collaboration with Kreines ended in 1976, when Kreines and his girlfriend, Joel DeMott, decided they wanted to make films together. Their best-known work, Seventeen, a documentary about high school life, was made in the early 80s. Palazzolo next teamed up with another former New Trier student studying at MIT–Mark Rance.
Rance had known Kreines in high school. While at Boston University, he became interested in film and sought out Kreines at MIT. “Jeff asked me two questions,” Rance recalls. “What do you think of interviews in documentaries? What do you think of zooms?” He says he gave the same answer to both questions: “I hate them.” Kreines approved.
After Rance transferred to MIT, Kreines introduced him to Palazzolo. “I inherited Tom from Jeff,” Rance says, “or he inherited me from him.”
Their first documentary was about a nudist colony in northern Indiana: 1975’s Sneakin’ and Peakin’. Palazzolo didn’t want to film the subject in a straightforward manner, so he and Rance decided to sneak in. “We crawled through the woods,” Rance says. “I had a gel filter in the camera that slipped out of its holder. If you look at the film, you see it’s a touch overexposed and the top of the frame is bluer than the rest of the frame.” Everything they filmed that day ended up in the final product. “The film was shot with what Tom had in his trunk that afternoon. I think it was three rolls.”
Rance found Palazzolo’s rough, guerrilla style refreshing. “He was full of ideas full-time. Almost this Jack Kerouac mentality–jabbing away, trying to do one thing or another, very anti-money. I learned from Tom that the rules could be broken and you’d still have a good film. Tom was of a mind that if it works it works–and if it doesn’t we’ll still make a film out of it.”
They worked together for four years. During that time, Palazzolo also made documentaries on his own, filming a wet T-shirt contest at Mother’s on Division, a gay pride parade, and the lunch rush at Jerry’s Deli, where the proprietor routinely raged at customers who were slow to order.
Rance and Palazzolo’s best-known efforts were a pair of documentaries collectively known as The Nazis of Marquette Park. Part one followed Frank Collin and his tiny band of Nazis during their 1976 demonstration against black families moving into Marquette Park. Part two documents the group’s decision, two years later, to march in Skokie and the media hoopla that surrounded the resulting dispute. At the time, some criticized the ever-affable Palazzolo for palling around with Nazis. But he says he treated them like any other subjects, despite not sharing any of their political beliefs. When the films were screened at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Collin showed up with a few friends–out of uniform. Palazzolo eventually gave Collin and company their own copies of the films, which they reportedly liked to watch with the sound track to Star Wars playing in the background.
“I even rented for Collin a copy of Triumph of the Will, which he showed to his neighborhood. Collin liked it, but I heard it was a little long for the others.”
This openhandedness is classic Palazzolo–he’s been known to do just about anything for his subjects. But during the filming of the first Nazi documentary, Rance alone went to their headquarters. “Tom believed they would be more likely to open up to me because I was blond and blue-eyed,” Rance says. These films were later shown at Cannes.
During the shooting of Bean’s Bachelor Party, Rance stayed up all night at a south-west-side stag party. “Tom left around midnight, and I kept shooting until six in the morning. We got some good footage, but I only had six rolls of film. I had to parcel them out.” He ended up accompanying a group on an unsuccessful beer run at 4 AM. “I also got a guy telling a story about his brother fucking his girlfriend while she played pinball: ‘He just lays her over the machine and while she’s playing he just gets behind her.’ I’m sorry Bean’s Bachelor Party isn’t better, but like Ricky Leacock once said, if you’re really good at it, you miss 50 percent.
“I learned from Tom to loosen up and be less precious about art. When I look at Tom’s work I think, yeah, it’s uneven. So what? There’s a lot of it. Enjoy it. The early stuff– moving from this Jack Smith avant-garde stuff to cinema verite–it’s a nice trajectory. There is something to find in all of his work–a theme, a character, a shot.”
How did the MIT filmmakers react to Palazzolo’s low-budget take on cinema verite?
“You have to remember that MIT was the home of diary films and of absolute purist cinema verite. It was a very small world and pretty much everything outside of those boundaries was not considered. Tom never quite fit in–his work never even came onto their radar.”
Like Kreines before him, Rance eventually moved on, focusing on his own work. He’s now the director of Los Angeles’s FilmForum cinematheque. For a time Palazzolo made documentaries on his own. Occasionally he worked with others, most notably Allen Ross, a founder of Chicago Filmmakers. The best film to come out of this later period is 1980’s Nonna, a humorous portrait of Palazzolo’s scrappy Italian grandmother. There’s priceless footage of her harassing a Kroger’s manager to part with the best bananas, which she is convinced he hordes in the back of the store.
But fashions were changing in independent film. Hip, funny documentaries were on the way out. Serious meditations on the nature of film and perception were in. “We were suddenly into the minimal period,” Palazzolo says. “The intellectuals were taking over. There was a lot of serious work by people like Michael Snow. Everyone wanted to be minimal. I wanted to be me.” He suddenly sings, “I want to be me!”
In the early 80s independent filmmakers were dealt a near deathblow by video and by the rising cost of film, which some trace back to the Hunt brothers’ attempt to corner the market in silver. For years independents were a flea on the back of a much larger animal. An entire industry existed–film labs, editing houses, equipment suppliers–to minister to the needs of industrial filmmakers and TV news departments. When video started replacing film in news departments and in the making of training films, laboratories closed, and the price of film shot up. Filmmakers switched to video in droves, but not everyone made the transition.
Palazzolo didn’t make the jump. Instead he decided to make a different kind of film–narrative movies drawing on the talents of local performance artists. This was a much slower way to work, and to date he’s made only two narrative films–Caligari’s Cure (1982) and Added Lessons (1991). Both tell loosely autobiographical stories.
Caligari’s Cure is an odd film, a fictionalized account of Palazzolo’s boyhood hanging out at the quarry and marauding through the neighborhood. But it also contains entire scenes, situations, and characters lifted from the expressionist horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The silent classic tells of an evil hypnotist and the young man he destroys by making him a zombie. The horror at the center of Palazzolo’s film is the accidental death of one of his friends, who shot himself playing with a zip gun he’d made. The boy wanders zombielike through the film, while various Caligaris–unfeeling, foolish, or ineffectual authority figures such as doctors, parish priests, and baseball coaches–make things worse for the surviving boys.
On its surface, the film is quite comic. Palazzolo’s cast–Carmela Rago, Heather McAdams, Ellen Fisher, Andy Soma, and others–emphasize the most humorous and ironic sides of the story. The film is so awash in bright colors it looks like one of Palazzolo’s paintings.
Added Lessons builds on its predecessor by relating Palazzolo’s adventures as an art student in Chicago. The performance artists in this film–James Grigsby, Michael Kalmes Myers, and others–share the stage with students from Palazzolo’s film classes at the Art Institute. Filmed on location throughout the city, Added Lessons is even more surreal than Caligari’s Cure.
These narrative films were not as well received as his documentaries. Accustomed to career-boosting puff pieces, Palazzolo got scalding reviews for Added Lessons. He had continued to make short documentary films–one about the making of a TV commercial for Deel Ford, another about a Labor Day picnic in East Chicago, and an amusing look at a Chicago campaign stop of third party presidential candidate John Anderson. But during this time Palazzolo put his focus back on painting and lithography.
While working on Caligari’s Cure, he began to sketch prospective scenes. Or he sketched ones he’d already shot. He then made prints and paintings from these sketches. And he published an art book–written in collaboration with me–based on Caligari’s Cure.
He spent more time in his studio and darkroom, learning new techniques and polishing up old ones. But he didn’t show this work. Interestingly, much of it plays off images in his older films. He began making silkscreens from 1966’s Venus and Adonis, specifically the moment when Venus rises from the waves at North Avenue Beach. He created a series of lithographs depicting scenes in Caligari’s Cure: the mother of the film’s protagonist stands menacingly in a doorway, a young woman sits paralyzed in the glow of a TV set. He’s also painted large works based on these lithographs.
While shooting Added Lessons in a Pilsen loft, he met photographer Joe Davis. Years later Davis told art dealer Jacqueline Ross about Palazzolo’s noncinematic side. Palazzolo showed her one of the paintings he’d made from a vaudeville publicity still and she wanted to see more. “They came out to my house,” Palazzolo recalls, “and I dragged out all of my work.”
Dragged may be the operative word, because many of his paintings and prints were stored carelessly. One of his largest works, a wall-size version of Venus, was folded in a one-foot square and shoved into a corner. When he unfolded the painting, he discovered it had been damaged. Nevertheless, Ross was impressed enough to offer him a show.
“I thought, what an opportunity to get off my ass and stop feeling sorry for myself,” Palazzolo says. “Then I spent the summer running all over hell and back getting pictures to show.”
Over the years he’d sold or given away dozens of paintings. Most hadn’t aged well. In characteristic fashion, he began to work on them again, touching them up or adding new flourishes.
Stepping into the gallery is like stepping into his mind. On the walls are mementos of his 39 years in Chicago. There’s the Tattooed Lady of Riverview. There’s the Pigeon Lady. There’s Charley the Chicken Man, who hung around Maxwell Street with a bird on his head. Along one wall are paintings of forgotten vaudeville acts: the Three Little Sisters, the Apache Dancers, Kodel the Magician. A painting of Aunt Jemima is displayed beside a photo of the city’s parade for the Apollo 11 astronauts, memorialized in his 1969 film Your Astronauts. In the middle of the gallery, dominating the room, Venus rises from Lake Michigan. The work–smudged and cracked and more than a little rumpled–looks ancient, as if it had spent the last 200 years squirreled away in a dank monastery.
A few of the paintings are signed Tom Chicago, others simply Tom, or, in one case, Toom. But they’re all pure Palazzolo. Some are messy, some are great, but each contains something special–a quirky detail, a gesture, or brush stroke bearing a strong comical idea that hangs in your memory long after you leave the gallery.
Palazzolo began his career by reacting against abstraction, choosing instead to embrace the world. Now he finds autobiographical details slipping into his work.
“In the 80s I started doing things about me,” he says. “Me going to confession, examining my feelings as a child. The paintings became less pop and more expressionistic.” He suddenly bursts into song again: “I want to be me! What else can I be? Jack, instead of a cover story, can we do a musical of my life instead?”
“Tom Marches On! Four Decades of Paintings, Prints, and Photographs by Tom Palazzolo” runs through October 9 at the Jacqueline Ross Gallery, 1900 S. Halsted. Regular hours are 2 to 4 Tuesday through Friday, noon to 4 Saturday and Sunday. This weekend the show will be part of the 29th annual Pilsen East Artists’ Open House; hours are 7 PM to 11 PM Friday, September 24, noon to 7 PM Saturday and Sunday, September 25 and 26. For more information on the exhibit, call 312-226-2828.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.