Wrigley Field: Memories, behind the scenes

It’s always fun to go behind the scenes at a favorite venue. I did that recently at the grand old Auditorium Theatre and yesterday I had a “backstage” tour of grand old Wrigley Field, now celebrating its 100th anniversary.

SCORE, a business nonprofit for which I volunteer, had its monthly meeting in the United Club at Wrigley. We heard from Cubs’ owner Tom Ricketts on the day his new plan for renovating Wrigley was announced. His talk was about business, but mostly the business was baseball.

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He made a good case for his renovation plan. The rooftop owners are not happy with it, of course, but I have trouble being sympathetic with them. For years, people dragged lawnchairs and coolers up to their roofs to sit and watch the game. That was fun and cool. But when they started selling tickets, building “bleachers” on their roofs, and forming corporate entities, they lost my sympathy. Some even tore down old three-flats and built faux old buildings that are just an excuse for a huge seating area on the roof. Yes, they have a 2005 revenue-sharing contract with the Cubs, but it still amounts to selling a service owned by another entity. The Cubs’ position is that the contract legally permits them to make any renovations, including adding large signage, etc., as long as the city approves.

“Hey, Rooftop Owners! Shut Up, Already,” is what Al Yellon has to say about this at his website, bleedcubbieblue.com.

David, our tour guide, walked us up to the bleachers for a little history of the park and a great view of the scoreboard, one of only two manual scoreboards in the majors. (The other one is at Fenway Park, which celebrated its 100th in 2012.)

Then we walked down to the visitors’ locker room (tiny and in its original 1914 size and shape), up to the press boxes, and then back down to the stairs and corridors, lined with portraits of famous Cubs and Wrigley scenes, to the Cubs’ locker room. David provided anecdotes and history tidbits all along the way. Finally, we went out to the visitors’ dugout on the first base line and found out what it felt like to sit on that dugout bench.

The last time I was at Wrigley Field was for the Bruce Springsteen concerts in September 2012. As I stood in the lower boxes, about where I sat for the second concert, I looked out toward center field, wishing there was a concert stage there.

My first visits to Wrigley Field were when I was 7 or 8 with my mother and neighborhood moms and kids. We would go to Wrigley on Ladies’ Day, when tickets were 25 cents for “ladies” and kids were free. We rode the streetcar from our far northwest side Montclare neighborhood and took a picnic lunch. I loved the excitement of being in the ballpark and the fun of the long streetcar ride with my friends.

When I was 12, my father bought tickets for us to go to Opening Day at Wrigley Field. But it turned out he wasn’t able to take the day off after all, so Mom and I went. It was cool and drizzly but it was the first time I had a box seat and it was great. Mrs. Shannon, my seventh grade teacher, didn’t think opening day was a good excuse for my parents taking me out of school. She was snippy with me for weeks. I guess it would have been better if my mother had just sent a note saying I was sick.

I have lots of other Wrigley memories, including taking German colleagues to a game in 1988 when I was working at A.T. Kearney, the management consulting firm. They thought baseball was a very odd, slow game. Before we went to the game, I wrote an essay to orient them titled “Baseball in Chicago.” I’ve revised it over the years, and since it’s now more than 2000 words, I’ll spare you. This is part of the introduction; remember it was written in 1988.

Baseball fans in Chicago are divided geographically. The White Sox play in Comiskey Park on the south side; the Cubs play in Wrigley Field on the north side. If you live on the south side, you grow up a Sox fan; if you live on the north side, you are a Cubs fan. Any deviation is considered treasonous.

Sox fans tend to be vicious, however, while Cubs fans are generous and benevolent. A Sox fan will cheer when the Cubs lose. A Cubs fan will only cheer a Sox loss if they lose to the Cubs.

All Chicago baseball fans dream of a “subway series,” a World Series between the two Chicago teams. At any time during any season when both teams are in first place in their divisions, even if it’s only for one day, Chicago fans and sports columnists will say wistfully “this may be the year.” The two teams now play each other every season in the Crosstown Series.



Chicago storefronts: Great new theater

I’ve seen five plays in the last two weeks. Most of them are provocative and well-produced gems from small theater companies, generically called storefronts, although they may well be in warehouses, church basements, behind restaurants or in old neighborhood centers. They’re by far the best theater bargains in Chicago and often demonstrate quality superior to the more high-profile theaters. Here are my theater picks for today.

Vatzlav at Trap Door Theatre

NSBvatzlav_webYes, I’m always raving about this company, which produces plays mostly by eastern European dramatists. I like the bitter edge of these plays, their black humor and their historical references and precedents. Their current show, Vatzlav by Slawomire Mrozek, pokes fun both at capitalism and authoritarian governments. Vatzlav, a former slave, is saved from an ocean disaster when he lands on a magical island where inexplicable things happen. The inhabitants include a blind old man named Oedipus, a youth who turns into a bear, a roving ukulele player, and the rich couple who own the island. Don’t try to make sense out of it; just enjoy it. The set is simple and the costumes as usual are brilliant and colorful.

Playwright Mrozek died last August in France. He was often referred to as the Polish Ionesco and his work is compared to that of Czech playwright Vaclav Havel. Vatzlav runs thru May 24 at the Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W Cortland.

Director Beata Pilch, whose bio says she was born in the Polish district of Chicago, is founder and artistic director of Trap Door. The company has been invited to Poland to work with Teatr Witkacy and they’re raising funds for the trip. You can donate here.

The Doll’s House Project: Ibsen Is Dead at Interrobang Theatre Project

NSB-IbsenHenrik Ibsen’s The Doll’s House, published in 1879 and premiered in English in 1889, is now considered a groundbreaking piece of modern drama. It explores gender politics, scandals and marital relationships, and it brought realism to theater, when most were staging traditional costume drama. Calamity West’s new play is inspired by Ibsen’s but it’s not an adaptation. Nora in the original is the first dissatisfied housewife—84 years before Bette Friedan’s book explained the problem to us.

In the new version, Nora is a stay-at-home housewife, dominated by her successful husband Torvald, who doles out her allowance sparingly and monitors her activities. Her main job is recreational shopping. So far, like Ibsen. The new play is set in Manhattan in 1989 on the day the Berlin Wall fell. An old friend of Nora’s arrives to visit and the play veers away from the Ibsen version. The memories and tensions between Nora and Christine are the highlight of the play, while Torvald and the neighbor doctor circle around them and spar over Nora’s affections. The performers are excellent and director Jim Yost keeps the 90-minute play snapping along. The script still needs some work; there are parts that are slow and some of the dialogue seems dated.

The idea of Nora as a rich stay-at-home wife was dated in 1989, unless you moved in the circles of high-powered lawyers, financiers and consultants. In those worlds (where I worked as a marketing minion in those years), the rich stay-at-home dabbler wife was the standard. I met dozens of them at partner meetings. I couldn’t figure out how they spent their time. Recreational shopping, most likely.

The Doll’s House Project runs thru June 8 at the Athenaeum Theatre.

Cock at Profiles Theatre

NSBslide_cocksCock is a play title you very rarely find in a review headline. I’m hoping that’s because of fear over internet anti-obscenity filters, rather than puritanism on the part of copy editors. The play by Mike Bartlett is a love triangle and a power play among three characters: John, a bisexual who is fighting to discover his identity; M and W, his lovers, who battle each other and John himself to determine the course of their lives.

The setting is London in the present but the set mimics a small arena where cock-fighting might take place. The floor is covered with fake gravel; the arena is surrounded by a low iron wall.  The characters frequently take positions at opposite sides, as if about to face off. In the first half, new scenes are signaled with a bell like the start of a new boxing round; after blackouts, the characters open new scenes in attack pose. The set design and the production vigorously directed by Darrell Cox make clear that the title refers to several meanings of the word, including adult male chickens and gunlocks, in addition to the male anatomy.

The actors create an intense atmosphere, which is enhanced by the intimate space. (The audience sits in tiered wooden stalls with cushions provided at the door.) The semi-comfortable seats and the tension among characters mean that 80 minutes is about the most one can tolerate of this drama that forces John to, finally, make a choice.

Cock runs thru June 29 at Profiles Theatre, 4139 N Broadway.

The Way West at Steppenwolf Theatre

NSBwaywest_large_nowplaying2Mona Mansour’s play seems to celebrate America’s pioneer spirit and our western expansion, but ends up in personal bankruptcies in 21st century Los Angeles. The family members—a mother and two daughters—have each in her own way found a way to financial ruin. Mom just quit paying her bills, is ignoring her illness, and believes everything will be ok. The older daughter has taken time off from her job in Chicago to help her mom sort thru her records and file bankruptcy. Her younger sister cares for her mother and has gone from job to job; she is in much the same financial shape as her mother. The older sister at first seems like the responsible one, but after she loses her job (learning about it by voice mail), everything falls apart for her too.

The story line is right out of 2008 and could be stronger with a more tightly edited script. The unfortunate musical interludes with western songs by the mother, accompanied by her daughters on guitars, are strange breaks in the action that just don’t work. (The wagon train and  campfire projections behind the performers only increase the silliness.)

The Way West runs two hours plus intermission and can be seen thru June 8 in Steppenwolf’s downstairs theater. It’s one of the few times in my 20+ years as a Steppenwolf subscriber that I’ve been disappointed by a production.

More theater news: Expansion project for The Den Theatre and The Hypocrites 

The Hypocrites, one of my favorite small theaters, will be leaving their claustrophobic basement space at Chopin Theatre and moving into a new space nearby on Milwaukee avenue that’s being taken over by The Den Theatre. The Den, another of my faves, currently has several performance spaces at 1333 N Milwaukee over a large empty retail space. They’re taking over that space and it will be the new home of The Hypocrites. It’s a great story for Chicago theater and for the Wicker Park neighborhood. You can read more about it in my article at Gapers Block.

Beauties and beasts: A mixed bag of culture

Kind of a Chinese menu of a post today. A little theater, a little film, a little TV and some fine music.

Jean Cocteau on stage

The Artistic Home has mounted a riproaring family sex story at its venue on Grand Avenue. This Jean Cocteau farce is Les Parents Terribles—it’s two hours-plus of high-speed theater. Very funny, very well acted. My Gapers Block review is here. The play runs until April 13.

In the course of writing the review, I thought about Cocteau’s other work. His 1946 film, La Belle et La Bête, is unforgettable and visually arresting. Here’s the trailer so you can check it out. It happens that the lobby of my apartment building has a giant framed poster of Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bête, so I am reminded of it every day.

Wondrous Japanese animation

thewindrisesAnimated film has not been one of my interests, since I always connected it with dreadful cute animals. But recently I’ve been educated in the beauty and sophistication of animated film and I’ve seen three films lately by the Japanese master, Hayao Miyazaki.

My film group had a discussion on Miyazaki this week and it was fascinating because several of the members are anime, animation and Miyazaki experts. His current (and final, he says) film is The Wind Rises, which just opened in local cinemas. His work is always beautiful, rich in hand-drawn detail, and sophisticated in its use of Japanese history and mythology (most of which I probably miss because of my own education gap).

His other films are mostly works that would be of family interest, but The Wind Rises is quite adult in plot and character. The leading character is Jiro, who is enchanted with flight and idolizes an Italian aviation engineer. He grows up wanting to design beautiful airplanes that carry people—but he ultimately designs the planes that are used in World War II, specifically to bomb Pearl Harbor. (There’s kind of an Oppenheimer effect at work here. Oppenhemer and the other Manhattan Project physicists designed the atomic bomb and then were chagrined at the results.)

War is an underlying theme in the film but not the main topic. In addition to Jiro’s engineering work, there’s a love story; his fiancée suffers from tuberculosis. The film is beautiful and gets many four-star reviews. (Seeing the “rising sun” logo on the airplanes was slightly unsettling for me, a child of that wartime period.)

I recommend this film highly and would also recommend Spirited Away (2001) and Princess Mononoke (1997) as two of his more typical films. He uses strong female characters and in each case blends in Japanese history and mythological symbols. His films are enchanting and I have a list of four or five more on my list to see.

Women of Letters

The Australian literary salon known as Women of Letters is bringing its project to revive the lost art of letter-writing to Chicago. Women of Letters will be performed with local writers and artists on Friday, March 21, at the Mayne Stage. Here’s my Gapers Block preview. Sounds like good literary fun and I’ll report on it back here.

 Chicagoland: My favorite city on TV

CNN, apparently trying to become something more than just another cable news outlet, has just started an eight-part series called Chicagoland (Thursdays at 9pm CT, with several reruns). The first episode ran last night and so far Mayor Emanuel looks good—perhaps a little too good. However, given the principals involved, I believe the series will be fair and well done—and I hope I’m not wrong. The production has the Sundance/Robert Redford imprint so I’m expecting quality.

The first episode had some great footage of Chicago but the story was depressing. The reporting focused on murders and gang activity (with an emphasis on Fenger High School) and the city’s closing of 50 public grammar schools, almost all of them in African-American and Latino neighborhoods. We saw parents and teachers protesting the closings and CTU president Karen Lewis telling us what she thinks of Rahm Emanuel.

Of course, I’ll watch the other episodes, even though I know the story probably doesn’t have a happy ending. But to make up for that, I have a special Chicago musical treat for you, even though someone who shall be nameless remembers it as a song “I used to listen to in college while stoned.”

The song is “Lake Shore Drive” by Aliota-Haynes-Jeremiah. It was a big hit in 1975 and rereleased on CD in 1998. If you love the song, you can download it on iTunes and put it on your iPod, so it’s always with you, despite what the person quoted above calls “a jarring piano line.” If you’re not a Chicagoan, you may think that the LSD mentioned in the lyrics and shown in the visuals refers to a drug …. but to Chicagoans it refers to the drive that runs along the lakefront from Hollywood Avenue to 66th Street. The Lake Shore Drive Wikipedia page is a nice history of its construction, use and appearances in popular culture.

And now for some related posts….

On the subject of animation: One of the five sort of obscure movies I recommend is Richard Linklater’s 2001 Waking Life, an amazing approach to animation–and philosophy.

For some thoughts on J. Robert Oppenheimer, see my review of the current play being mounted by Saint Sebastian Players.

Labor Day agenda: Food, art and street signs

A few things on my mind today, some of which you might want to think about too.

Bakery love

I’m fond of the fruits and vegetables from the farmers’ market but I’m also a superfan of good bakeries. I discovered logoa new one today and you should try it. It’s Blue Sky Bakery at 3720 N Lincoln, just north of the Addison stop on the Brown line. Street parking should be pretty easy too. I bought some delicious berry scones and an apple-brie croissant baked in a muffin cup.  Mmmm-mmm. Lots of delicious-looking cookies and cakes too.

There’s another reason why you should visit Blue Sky Bakery.  They provide employment and training for homeless and at-risk youth.  So those deliriously luscious baked goods are also helping bring about social change.  CBS Channel 2 did a story on Blue Sky recently. Check it out.

Borders at Solti Park

I wrote about these intriguing figures earlier this week in my Art Around Town roundup.  Here’s another photo.


Photo by Nancy Bishop

Theater pick

Simpatico by Sam Shepard runs until September 15 at A Red Orchid Theatre. It’s a terrific show with a gripping first act so get a ticket if you possibly can.  That may not be easy because (1) the play has gotten four-star reviews and (2) it’s showing in the tiny A Red Orchid Theatre on Wells Street. The theater describes it like this:  “High society meets low life in the slippery netherworld of thoroughbred racing. This tragic-comedy explodes when a simple phone call threatens to undo years of blackmail and false identities.” The small tough cast features Michael Shannon and Guy Van Swearingen. It’s sold out but a standby ticket line forms one hour before each performance.

Reading list

The Mexican Girl by Jack Kerouac.  I confess that every once in a while I look at the obituary page if I’m reading an actual newspaper, to see if anyone interesting or important died.  One day last week, there was a gem of an obit.  The woman who inspired the character Teresa or Terry in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road died at 92. The wonderful part is that she didn’t know the identity of the young man with whom she had a brief affair in 1947.

The short story, The Mexican Girl, was excerpted from the manuscript of On the Road and first published in The Paris Review in 1955.  The review paid Kerouac $50 for the story.  It was a big hit and resulted in the whole book being published by Viking Press in 1957. I thoroughly enjoyed rereading the story–it starts on page 74 of my edition of On the Road.  If you can’t find yours, you can listen to an audio version of the story recorded in 2003.

Chicago street signs

Chicago has a lot of weird and amazing engineering achievements. Reversing the flow of the Chicago River, sending it downstate rather than into Lake Michigan. Raising the grade of the city and all its buildings by five feet to lift the city above the mud and sludge of the unpaved streets.  My favorite bit of reengineering, however, happened in 1909, when all the streets in the city were renumbered with State and Madison as the zero point.  State Street became zero for east-west streets and Madison for north-south streets.


Hear that, Manhattan? In Chicago, you know exactly where an address is going to be because you have memorized the arterial streets in each direction. Every good Chicagoan does that.  You know if you are going to the 2700 block of Halsted Street that it will be a block south of Diversey, which is 2800.  In New York, you have to ask what the cross street is because streets are haphazardly numbered as they were built in centuries past.

Patrick Reardon did a nice story on this in the Tribune this week.  The story marked the occasion of officially naming the corner of State and Madison streets as Edward Brennan Way, in honor of the private citizen who devised the plan and fought for its acceptance by the City Council.

This weekend: Chicago

Summer in Chicago is drawing to an end, but there are great outdoor and indoor activities in my city this weekend.

Festa Italiana

bg-1-141469Summer is the time for street and neighborhood festivals.  This is one of my favorites.  It’s in little Italy, the old Italian neighborhood near the UIC campus. Festa Italiana runs through Sunday on Taylor Street between Racine and Ashland. There’s food from all the great Taylor Street restaurants and entertainment ranging from Italian-surnamed crooners to new bands such as This Must Be the Band, Acoustic Generation and my favorite band name, Inbound Kennedy.

The highlight of the festival, for some, will be the meatball-eating contest.  Personally, I’m grossed out by food-gorging displays.  The winner will be the person who eats eight meatball-slider sandwiches in two minutes. (That is disgusting.)

Lill Street Art Festival

The Lill Street Art Center (which started out on Lill Street) is celebrating its 10th year in its Ravenswood location, at the corner of Ravenswood and Montrose. The opening reception tonight will celebrate Best Served Hot: Ceramics for the Coffee Ritual, cosponsored by Intelligentsia Coffee. Saturday will include an open house and block party.  Lill Street Art Center offers classes, a gallery and studio space for artists in ceramics, metalsmithing and jewelry, painting and drawing, printmaking, textiles, glass,  digital arts and photography.  I treasure a few pieces of ceramic jewelry from Lill Street.


smalldvdIn honor of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, you should watch the documentary about Bayard Rustin, the strategist and activist who organized the march.  He was a key adviser to MLK until he was asked to leave (or was pushed out) because of his political past (socialist) and sexual orientation (gay). The film is Brother Outsider (available on DVD and streaming). It’s an excellent view of Rustin’s background, leadership and his activist life after 1963.  President Obama will award a Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rustin posthumously.  It’s bloody well time.

The Huffington Post has a good article on Rustin by Peter Dreier, E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics at Occidental College.

Anna Karenina, the gorgeous Joe Wright version of Tolstoy’s tragic  novel with a script by Tom Stoppard, is showing occasionally on HBO right now.  If you haven’t seen it, do.  It’s creatively staged–and staged is the right word because much of it is set in an old theater.  The railroad scenes, as ice-encased trains arrive in Moscow or St. Petersburg, are not to be missed.


Have you been to Big & Little’s? It’s a fine place to stop for a fish taco, a fried oyster or shrimp po’ boy (my favorite) and many varieties of  burger and sandwich choices.  Also foie gras & fries or truffle fries.  Yum. Delish. Not fancy.  Big & Little’s is at 860 N Orleans, just north of Chicago Avenue. There’s a tiny parking lot and you can sit inside or outside (as I did today) or carry out.  Cash only.  It’s been featured on the Food Network’s Triple-D (Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives) and on Chicago’s Best on WGN and on Check Please on WTTW.

Wish I was at the Jersey Shore

brucenoir_bkgnd_only250I often wish that and I occasionally go to that neighborhood we call Springsteenville: Freehold, Asbury Park and West Long Branch, New Jersey. This is one of those weekends. There’s a Bruce Noir Film Festival in Asbury Park. The five films being shown are those he’s mentioned in interviews or in songs.

Since I can’t be there, I’ll find another way to watch them. The films are:

        — Gun Crazy (1950; on which Springsteen based his song “Highway 29” from the Nebraska  album)

— Badlands (1973; based on the Charles Starkweather murder spree story, which Springsteen tells in the song “Nebraska”)

— Out of the Past (1947; a Robert Mitchum film about a private eye)

— Atlantic City (1980; a Louis Malle film with script by playwright John Guare, starring Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon)

— Thunder Road (1958; Robert Mitchum plays a bootlegger trying to save the family moonshine business from big-city gangsters; lots of great road footage as Mitchum drives a “tanker,” a car modified to carry alcohol in the fuel tank)

Weekend focus: Chicago

It’s Air and Water Show weekend

8_14_2008Chicagoist_airshowI can hear the airplane acrobats flying very very close to my roof.  If you come to the lakefront for the show, take public transportation.  Traffic will be bad before and horrible after the show each day. And parking is impossible in that neighborhood. Trust me.  It’s my neighborhood and I know.

Photo by Runaway Wind from thechicagoist.com.  For five reasons to go even without the  Blue Angels, see DNAinfo.com


The Act of Killing. This is a new documentary about the genocide in Indonesia in the late 1960s. It’s not your standard-issue genocide doc.  No blood.  But it’s a very surreal, gripping film — I’ll write more about it later.  It’s showing at the Music Box for a few days.  This film will generate lots of buzz, heated conversation, and certain award nominations

Twenty Feet from Stardom. This great music doc about female backup singers is showing at Landmark Century Centre for at least another week.  I wrote about it recently.  It’s a grand, joyful story about these terrific performers whose voices made all the difference for many big-name musicians. But they never really got the credit or success they deserved.  This film showcases their personalities and their voices.

Picasso Baby. Another plug for this intriguing performance video by Jay Z.  It will only take 12 minutes of your time to find it and view it.  And it will make you think about performance art and celebrity.


Invasion is showing at Silk Road Rising in the Methodist Temple building on Washington and Clark.  It’s an imperfect but thought-provoking play about Arab-American identity and assimilation.


Don’t miss the Peter Maass article on Edward Snowden and how documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras “helped Snowden spill his secrets.” As she went about her work, she was subjected to incredible surveillance by the US government. The article is in tomorrow’s New York Times Magazine and has been available online for several days.  It’s an excellent article with examples of how journalists are pressured by their own governments. Poitras has been working with Glenn Greenwald, who broke the Snowden story in The Guardian.

Weekend focus: Chicago

What’s better than a gorgeous summer weekend? Here are some things I’m checking out and you can too.

imagesFarmers markets on Saturday.  Corn,  tomatoes and peaches, yes.

Movies. Lots of things in theaters, but if you’re staying home, I strongly recommend two political films that are streaming on Netflix and Amazon.  Brother Outsider: The Story of Bayard Rustin, is a biopic about the little-known civil rights and gay activist who was a force in  organizing the MLK 1963 March on Washington. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing still holds up as a story about race relations and attitudes in Brooklyn. My film group discussed it this week (Hi, CFLXers!) and found it still very potent.

Community events. Ginza Festival at Midwest Buddhist Temple.  Japanese food (grilled teriyaki chicken is a specialty), artisans and entertainers (taiko drummers, classical and folk dance). Saturday and Sunday.

Theater.  I recommend Slow Girl at Steppenwolf — a thought-provoking, quiet play with terrific performances by William Petersen and Rae Gray.  Also Inventing Van Gogh at Strange Bedfellows.  Here’s my review of the latter.  And I recommend Rooms: A Rock Romance at Broken Nose Theatre.  I loved that one.

I don’t recommend Belleville at Steppenwolf.  I know it got great reviews, but to me it was tedious. And the knife thing?  Really.  That was Chekhovian overkill.

Want to argue with me about anything?  Come on.  You must disagree with some of my opinions.  Comments, please!