Potpourri, farrago, mishmash & hot dogs–my pop culture week

Farrago, potpourri, mishmash. Whatever you call a week of variety, that was my last week. A few tidbits and capsule reviews.

Cirque du Soleil: Kurios — Cabinet of Curiosities

The kid (he’s now 17) and I went to opening night at Cirque du Soleil with some friends. The Big Top (or le grand chapiteau) is set up on the United Center parking lot. Cirque du Soleil hasn’t been in Chicago for a few years and the show has been re-created or reimagined for a new audience, as my friend Kim reported when she interviewed the director, Michel Laprise, for Gapers Block. All the amazing acrobatics and gorgeous pageantry and choreography are still there but it’s done with a “steampunk” theme, suggesting late 19th century industrial machines with a whiff of fantasy. The costuming suits the theme and the period too.

Cirque du Soleil's Kurios, Grand Chapiteau by A1 Federation - via Wikimedia Commons

Cirque du Soleil’s Kurios, Grand Chapiteau by A1 Federation – via Wikimedia Commons

We loved the Acro Net, where a giant net stretches across the stage and operates like a trampoline. The performers bounce, dance, jump and leap, sometimes all the way to the tent’s peak. The Rola Bola man balanced on a board, first atop a ball, then several balls and finally a hill of balls and spools–and still he balanced. The Invisible Circus was very clever, with all the lights and contraptions operating as if someone was using them, but not a soul was in sight–except for the circus announcer who described what was taking place. I could go on and on. It’s an amazing show. Whether or not you’ve seen Cirque du Soleil before, try to see this one. And take a kid or a kid at heart.

Hot Dog Festival at the Chicago History Museum

Next day we wandered over to the south end of Lincoln Park for the Chicago History Museum’s Hot Dog Festival. The hot dogs were great; I had a Chicago classic with all the trimmings layered in the proper order*. The kid had a dog plus fries and then went back for a Godzilla dog, which is the equivalent of two or three regular ones. We shared an ice cream because I ran out of dog dollars.


This is a perfect Chicago hot dog. Photo courtesy Vienna Beef.

In addition to great food, there were bands and a speakers stage. We got there early so we could hear Bill Savage, the Northwestern pop culture professor, discourse on “Ketchup: The Condiment of Controversy.” He discussed the nature of hot dogs (“the ultimate democratic street food”) in other locales, concluded that Chicago is rightly considered the hot dog capital of the world, and described how hot dogs and their peculiar Chicago condimentry came to be. He took a poll of his audience. Seventy percent of us agreed that ketchup on a hot dog is an abomination, but ketchup is ok for kids under 10. Bill’s conclusion was Chicago is a great democratic city and Chicagoans are free to do as we please, and if that means ketchup on a hot dog, that’s ok. I respectfully disagree.

* The layers have to be: mustard, neon green relish, chopped onions, tomato wedges, hot sport peppers, dill pickle wedges and finally celery salt.

Two nights at the theater

My two most recent reviews were (1) brilliant satire and (2) a flashy musical. Guess which one I liked best?

The Boy From Oz is the new show by Pride Films & Plays at Stage 773. It’s the story of Australian musician and entertainer Peter Allen, who was married to Liza Minnelli for a while, was a great hit as a cabaret performer, but never was a huge success in the US. At least his music was never a huge success–and since there was nothing melodic or hummable about his music, that made sense. The production is very well done, with some good performances from both the actors and the dance ensemble. Great costumes and choreography. So my review is: It’s a pleasant evening with a lot of talent and energy wasted on boring raw material. See my review here. The play runs through August 30. See it if you like gratuitous singing and dancing.

Katy Carolina Collins as Mash in SFB

Katy Carolina Collins as Mash in SFB

Stupid Fucking Bird is Aaron Posner’s play that kinda/sorta deconstructs Chekhov’s The Seagull. Sideshow Theatre is staging it now at Victory Gardens/ Biograph and you can see it through August 30. You need to see it. The script is witty and the characters are sort of based on Chekhov’s except their angst is contemporary rather than 19th century. It’s a case where A loves B who loves C who loves D who flirts with E who is the lover of F. (I’m quoting my review.) Plus there’s a playwright who wants to invent a new kind of theater and when he succeeds in getting a play produced complains that he will now have to put up with being criticized by perfect strangers in addition to family members. Some nice musical interludes throughout the play with Mash (Masha in Chekhov) on the ukulele.

Movies with musical themes

Madame Marie's booth on the boardwalk, September 2012.

Madame Marie’s booth on the boardwalk, September 2012. Photo by Nancy Bishop.

Baby It’s You is a 1983 film directed by John Sayles. It’s a little indie film about Jill, a Jewish girl with dreams of college and a theater career (played by Rosanna Arquette), and her boyfriend, the Sheik (Vincent Spano), a well-dressed greaser who loves Jill and Sinatra. They are not going to walk off together into the sunset because Jill is not interested in marriage and babies and that’s the only relationship that Sheik can see for them. It’s a good film–I gave it 4 stars out of 5 on letterboxd.com. Two great things about the film are the music (plenty of Springsteen songs) and the trip that Jill and Sheik make to the Jersey shore. We see how Asbury Park looked 30 years ago when the Casino and the Palace were in much better shape; Madame Marie’s was there too and it still is. She died in 2008 but family members still tell fortunes in her booth on the boardwalk.

CBGB is a movie that I really wanted to like. It’s a 2013 docustory about the iconic punk rock club on the Bowery and its owner, Hilly Kristal (played, incongruously, by Alan Rickman). It was fun to see actors play the great bands that started there, like the Dead Boys, Television, Blondie, Talking Heads, Iggy Pop, the Ramones and Patti Smith– but the producers ruined the effect by playing polished studio recordings of those bands while the actors lip-synced. The music totally missed the raw, rough edge that it should have had. It’s not a very good movie–unless, of course, you loved the memory of CBGB.

One more thing ….

An exhibit of photos of rock star legends by Chicago photographer Paul Natkin was on display at the Ed Paschke Art Center in Jefferson Park. One Saturday afternoon, he sat surrounded by his photos and talked about his career, shooting some of the greatest musicians of our time, and how photography has changed with the digital revolution. His talk was fascinating and he was kind enough to talk to me later and answer a question about artists’ rights for one of my SCORE clients. Natkin’s work was shown in a more comprehensive exhibit a few years ago at the Chicago Cultural Center. You can check out his website.

Wisconsin road trip: Art, architecture and, of course, food

It was a crisp, sunny October Friday. Three of us (all former architectural docents) gathered at a hotel parking lot in Deerfield and headed north for Racine, an epicenter for devotees of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture (in case you thought Oak Park was the only place to see his work). We had an afternoon reservation to tour the S C Johnson world headquarters, most of which was designed by Wright. We had all seen the best-known Administration Building (1939) before, but now the Research Tower (1950) and Fortaleza Hall (2010) also were open for public tours. (All photos by Nancy Bishop, except the Great Workroom photo, which is a WikiCommons image.)

Starting from Deerfield, it was only about an hour until we reached Racine. Our friend Donna had already zeroed in on a lunch spot, the Kewpee Sandwich Shop. Their specialty was plain but delicious burgers and cheeseburgers (or double versions of each) plus French fries—and best of all—real old-fashioned malteds and milkshakes. The Kewpee Sandwich Shop is a throwback, with an art-deco exterior and wall tile bannered with kewpees. Its history can be traced back to a Kewpee Hamburger chain founded in 1923. It was a great lunch.

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We were a little early for our tour so we drove around Racine hunting for a famous FLW house. We found the Thomas P Hardy house at 1319 S Main St. Wright designed it in 1905. A renovation was completed in 2013.

The tour begins at the S C Johnson tour center in the Golden Rondelle Theater, originally built as the S C Johnson pavilion at the New York World’s Fair of 1965-65. After the fair, the Rondelle was dismantled and shipped back to Racine, where it was redesigned by Taliesin Associates, the firm formed by Wright’s apprentices after his death.

Our tour group had a brief orientation and then walked to the Administration Building, setting of Wright’s Great Workroom, an high-ceilinged open office space furnished with Wright-designed office furniture. Our tour guide, Edsel, was well-informed and answered even our most docent-ish arcane questions. (I hate it when a tour guide makes mistakes and I have to decide whether to correct them or not.)

We then walked over to the Research Tower, designed by Wright for the Johnson R&D department to develop products like Pledge furniture polish and Off insect repellent. The building is built in floor stacks with a central utility core but hasn’t been used in many years, since changes in fire safety codes make its use impossible. The 15-storey building has only one tiny elevator so workers and visitors climb 29-inch-wide winding stairs to get to the lab floors that are open—and frozen in time, as if the Johnson chemists were on a lunch break. The office and lab supplies and papers on the desks and lab tables are as interesting as the architecture.

The final stop on the tour is Fortaleza Hall, designed by Foster & Partners (the photos on the firm’s website are spectacular). This 2010 building includes expansive space for historical exhibits about the company plus an area known as the Commons for employee amenities. In the building’s main hall is a replica of the twin-engine Sikorsky amphibian plane that Sam Johnson flew to Fortaleza, Brazil, in 1998, to find Carnauba palms for Johnson wax products.

If you go to Racine, you should also visit Wingspread, a magnificent 14,000 square-foot home that Wright designed in 1936 for H F Johnson Jr. You can book a tour at the website. We toured Wingspread on an earlier visit.

Leaving the S C Johnson area, we took a drive along the beautiful lakefront, with park and recreation areas. It’s close to the Racine Art Museum on Main Street in downtown Racine. RAM is a small museum in a modern building with well-designed exhibits and a gift shop stocked with a fine array of art and design products.

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On the second level of RAM, we toured two excellent exhibits. Wayne Higby’s ceramics have a strong southwestern feel in palette and form. I particularly liked the landscape pieces that reminded me of the mesas in southwest Colorado. Wendy Wallen Malinow’s glass sculptures have a vivid playful look.

The gift shop yielded small purchases for all of us. I’m especially fond of the clever windup toys that I know my small grandsons will enjoy. Patience, kids, I’ll be there at Thanksgiving.

It wasn’t quite time to go home yet. We had more food stops to make. We decided to head for everyone’s favorite Danish bakery, O&H Bakery, to check out the kringle. As a former Wisconsinite, I’ve had them before. (You can buy them in Chicago; Treasure Island usually carries them.) We thought buying them at the source might be great, but in fact, they were disappointing. My cream-cheese kringle was just too sweet and the pastry wasn’t flaky. The croissants were fine, however.

Last stop was the famous Brat Stop in Kenosha, to have a quick supper before heading south. And to buy some fresh bratwurst to cook at home. I did that next day, along with a small batch of the family Bohemian sauerkraut. Excellent combination.

A trip to Racine is a great day trip or an overnight stay. You can visit the S C Johnson headquarters and Wingspread as well as RAM. S C Johnson tours (limited to 20 people) are free but reservations are required. See tour information here. Note that you can take photos of the building exteriors but interior photography is not allowed.


Steve & Rob on The Trip to Italy: Sequel without equal

A sequel that’s at least as good as the original? I wouldn’t have thought that possible, but I wasn’t going to miss The Trip to Italy, the latest road trip by Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Their first culinary journey film was The Trip (2010) in which these two hysterically funny, highly literate British comics traveled and ate in restaurants in the north of England. The pretext was that Rob was asked to take on this assignment for The Observer and his girlfriend was not able to go, so he asked his old friend Steve. The highlight of these films is not the food, although there are food porn scenes and clearly these two enjoy eating and drinking fine wine.

The-Trip-To-Italy-movie-posterNope. The highlight is their interaction, banter and constant dueling impressions of famous actors. In The Trip, they outdid themselves in imitating Michael Caine at many stages of his career. In The Trip to Italy, they try to outdo each other in the best Brando, De Niro, Pacino, Bogart and Eastwood impressions. In one hysterical scene, they imitate Tom Hardy and Christian Bale in their unintelligible dialogue from behind the Batman mask. However, that is outdone by the impressions of the various James Bond actors, culminating in the bawdiest joke you will ever hear about a kumquat.

Coogan and Brydon also show their British loyalty by retracing the paths of their favorite Romantic poets, Byron and Shelley, posing in front of their plaques and statues and quoting them at length. Oh, and they drive a new Mini convertible, but that is homage to what Michael Caine drove in the 1969 caper film, The Italian Job. (Better than its 2001 remake, but both are very funny.) Another lovely moment is the two singing along to Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, the only CD Rob brought along. (First they have to debate how to pronounce her first name and whether her father was named Alan and really wanted a son.)

Coogan and Brydon are laugh-out-loud, snort-thru-your-nose funny. The 108-minute film is mostly improvised and director Michael Winterbottom may only need to plot out the itinerary and turn these two madmen loose. They travel down the Ligurian and Amalfi coasts, stopping in half a dozen places to dine and visit. The scenery is gorgeous, from the seacoasts to the streets of Rome to the glories of Capri.

There are some serious points in this lightly fictionalized film. The two leads play themselves, but their backstories are fictionalized. In the film, Coogan has a teenaged son who joins them briefly and Brydon has a wife and young daughter. Occasionally, they will stop their banter and mourn the problems of being aging men. While watching a table of young people drink and chat, Coogan notes that he probably would have gotten a smile from at least one young attractive women. “Now they just look straight through you,” he laments.

Here are the trailers for The Trip to Italy (2014) and The Trip (2010). The former is in theaters right now and the latter is available on Netflix streaming and other sources.

Both Brydon and Coogan are well-known comics and actors in England, but you may not be familiar with them. Coogan played the journalist Martin Sixsmith in Philomena, where he helps the character played by Judy Dench to seek out the child she was forced to give up for adoption when she was a teenager living in an Irish convent.

24 Hour Party People

24hourpartypeople-posterMy other favorite Steve Coogan film, however, is 24 Hour Party People from 2002. Taking place in 1976 through 1992, it’s the story of the birth of the punk rock scene in Manchester, England, set off by a legendary concert by the Sex Pistols. The concert audience was only 42 people, but was one of those events that hundreds claim to have attended.

Among those rocking with the Sex Pistols that night were four young musicians who were inspired to form the band Joy Division. Tony Wilson (Coogan), a Granada TV presenter, was there and decided it was his mission to bring this new kind of music to a larger audience. He founded Factory Records to record it and later opened a club, The Hacienda, to present it. The Hacienda became part of the rave and drug culture and eventually closed down for lack of revenue. The two-hour film is mainly the story of Joy Division, which later became New Order, and other Manchester bands.

I just watched the film again on YouTube and it’s as good as it was the first time I saw it. Click on this link and see it in its entirety.

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Hanging out at O’Neill’s: Long Day’s Journey at the Critics Institute

Think of it as grad school in a bottle. Two weeks of 20-hour days filled with discussions, theater productions, review writing and critiquing, and never, never enough sleep. That was my recent two-week sojourn as a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut.

The Mansion at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center

The Mansion at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center

The center is located in a beautiful part of rural Connecticut, on the shore of Long Island Sound. So there were a few brief opportunities to visit the beach, or, more likely, to see it from a distance as we sat under a tree for one of our discussions. We stayed in a college dorm nearby and got shuttled back and forth to campus. The O’Neill Center is quite large, with two theaters inside and two outside. The “mansion” is home to the O’Neill’s administrative offices and the kitchen and cafeteria where everyone ate (no ratings for the food). Another large home houses more offices and meeting rooms. There’s also the favorite Blue Gene’s Pub, a cozy tavern that was busy every night. Our morning meetings (before the heat set in) were usually held in the Sunken Garden, under the trees with a view of the ocean. In the afternoons, we met in the Founders Room or another meeting room. (All photos by Nancy Bishop.)

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The Monte Cristo Cottage, O’Neill’s childhood summer home, is in New London, a short drive from the campus. The house was the setting for his masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey into Night. We spent part of a day there, touring the house and talking about theater—and feeling some of the eerie O’Neill spirit.

Many other theater conferences were going on at the O’Neill at the same time. The National Playwrights Conference, the National Music Theater Conference, and Theatermakers (a six-week intensive for student playwrights, actors and directors). The National Puppetry Conference had just ended and the Cabaret and Performance Conference was about to begin.

Chris Jones, chief theater critic of the Chicago Tribune, is the new director of the institute, and he has added some new features to the workshop. For instance, one lovely Saturday evening, we went to Mystic, where we split up into smaller groups to have dinner (and write restaurant reviews when we got home). We saw a movie one night for the purpose of discussing the adaptation of a work from stage to screen. (See my Jersey Boys review.)

My 13 fellow Fellows were theater and arts writers and a few graduate students, mostly from the northeast but also from Dallas, Phoenix and Louisville—and three of us from Chicago.

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Our days were filled with talks by visiting theater critics and other theater experts and sessions where our reviews were critiqued by Chris, the visitors and each other. It was a fabulously invigorating experience. Our nights were spent going to the theater and then writing reviews about what we had seen, for submission by early the next morning. Did I say never, never sleep?

I’ll give you an overview of some of the sessions we had with visiting critics and theater folk.

Michael Phillips, the Chicago Tribune’s chief film critic, is a former theater critic for the Tribune and several other papers. He talked about his favorite film and theater writers and gave us some valuable insights on writing reviews. He also talked about the art of adapting a work from stage to screen.

Dan Sullivan, Jones’ predecessor as director of the NCI, was a theater critic for the LA Times and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. We read the Tennessee Williams short story (“Portrait of a Girl in Glass”) that later became the play, The Glass Menagerie, and Dan talked about the structure of the play and its first reviews in 1944.

Josh Horvath, a sound designer from Chicago, was at the O’Neill Center to handle sound design for one of the O’Neill productions. He described who handles what in the sound area during a production, and the difference between orchestration and sound.

Jeffrey Sweet, playwright, who worked for years in Chicago, is author of Flyovers, The Value of Names, The Action Against Sol Schuman and Class Dismissed. He also is author of the new history celebrating the O’Neill’s 50th anniversary—The O’Neill: The Transformation of the Modern American Theater (Yale University Press, 2014).


Waterford Beach Park at the O’Neill Center

Matt Wolf, theater critic for the International New York Times and formerly for the International Herald-Tribune. He’s a Yank, based in London, so he regaled us with tales of the London theater scene. He also was an excellent person to work with on critiques of our reviews.

Linda Winer, theater critic for Newsday, and formerly critic for the Chicago Tribune, provided a wealth of information about the role of the critic.

William Grimes writes for the New York Times, where he was chief food critic from 1999 until 2004. He told us his personal rules for the colleagues who accompanied him on his food adventures (everyone orders something different, don’t eat slowly, make at least three visits to the restaurant) and gave us many great insights on writing—about food and other topics.

Hedy Weiss, theater and dance critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. Hedy, a former dancer, had us start our session by doing stretches on the patio outside our meeting room. We watched different types of dance videos to get a sense of how to review this art that most of us were not experienced with. We also saw and reviewed the 2013 documentary—Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq—about the great ballerina who was stricken by polio at 27 and never danced again. After years of treatment and therapy, she was able to live a vibrant and active life (confined to a wheelchair) for several decades. The film was a PBS American Masters episode and had an art house release.

Nick Wyman, president of Actors Equity and an actor in one of the National Music Theater productions.

Peter Marks, theater critic for the Washington Post. Peter was a delightful and thoughtful participant in our discussions. I learned a lot from listening to him critique our reviews.

O’Neill creatives—director, playwright, composer, lyricist and scene designer—who talked about their crafts and what pisses them off about theater reviews—and reviewers.

We saw and reviewed four of the O’Neill productions in staged reading form. By agreement with O’Neill, I’m not at liberty to discuss those in any way. Playwrights live at the O’Neill for a month and work with directors and actors in rehearsals that result in public staged readings. A similar process enables several playwrights, lyricists, and composers to develop new work in a variety of music theater genres. The O’Neill provides artistic and administrative support so that the artists can explore the material with directors, musicians, and Equity performers. Even after brief rehearsal and rewriting periods, you could see that some of these productions will definitely appear on stages or screens near you some time soon.

We also took field trips around Rhode Island and Connecticut to see and review regional theater.


At Trinity Rep in Providence

At Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, we saw an excellent production of Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind. This veteran repertory company presented a gripping version of this Shepard play. It was my favorite performance of the two weeks.


Elvis is in the building

At the Ivoryton Playhouse in Ivoryton, Connecticut, we saw a so-so production of All Shook Up. The cast was enthusiastic but the quality was community-theater level.

At the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut, we saw a fine production of Fiddler on the Roof. I should say, I heard a fine production. Some of us were sitting in the second-row balcony just over the stage where we had almost no view of the performance. The music was great.

At Connecticut Repertory Theatre on the UConn campus in Storrs, we saw Leslie Uggams in a bizarre production of Gypsy. Bizarre because she was so miscast in the role. The theater trumpeted the production as the first time an African-American actor was cast in an Equity production of Gypsy with a multiracial cast. Many of the cast members were quite capable, but, unfortunately, Uggams was about 20 years past her time for this show. For the story to work, Mama Rose should be in her 40s or maybe early 50s but Uggams is in her 70s—and not a frisky 70. The actor who played her love interest was nearly comatose—either from shock or lack of direction.

By the end of two weeks, we were all sleep-deprived but exhilarated from the intellectual and creative experience. We worked straight through from Saturday thru Friday 14 days later, with one day off.


BobbyB’s Deli, Waterford CT

To make up for the relatively awful food in the campus cafeteria where we ate most of our meals, we had a few good food excursions. To Bobby B’s Deli, a short walk from our dorm, where we had amazing egg-on-bagel sandwiches. To a tavern in Ivoryton, where I had a sensational lobster roll. To Ocean Pizza in New London, for a fried scallop grinder that was mmm-mmm but too much to eat. To Azu in Mystic for some sophisticated casual food. To an Italian café in East Haddam for a pre-show dinner. And home again to eat my own cooking. Delicious.

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Road trip: Bruce, BBQ and E Street Radio

It’s 470 miles from Chicago to Nashville, down I-65, the spine of Indiana, around Louisville and then on to Nashville. That was our road trip last week to see Bruce Springsteen at the Bridgestone Arena. It was a sold-out show with 18,000 ecstatic fans welcoming Bruce home after his years in the European and Asia Pacific wilderness.

The concert was fabulous—a 3.25 hour E Street Band performance with classics like “I’m on Fire” and “Downbound Train” and beautifully sorrowful songs like “The Wall” from the new High Hopes album. The whole horn section was up front for “Johnny 99.” I thought he was through after rousing encore versions of “Tenth Avenue Freezeout” and “Shout” and final band thanks. I was hoping for a live version of “Dream Baby Dream,” but he waved away the pump organ and played a solo acoustic “Thunder Road,” letting the crowd lead him in a singalong. A great ending.

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You can read a report on the concert and see the full setlist on my favorite Springsteen site, backstreets.com. Scroll down to the Nashville report.

Update: I have to add this comment by Mosley Turner, who reviewed the April 26 Atlanta concert for Backstreets. “Bruce has received — and earned — virtually every honor and accolade there is, in addition to the unswerving loyalty of the E Street fans. This is a man with not a thing left to prove, yet he delivered a performance tonight as though everything was at stake, fully invested in every lyric and every note. While there will always be those who will say ‘you shoulda been there’ for a particular tour or some special moment, no one who sees Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band right now could come away feeling that they did not see them at a peak in their long and storied career.”

In our 18 hours on the road, food and music were the main topics. We had live downloads of concerts from Cape Town, South Africa, and Hunter Valley, Australia, to listen to, plus E Street Radio on Sirius all the way.

Townhouse Cafe, Seymour, Indiana

Townhouse Cafe, Seymour, Indiana

On the way south, we picked Seymour, Indiana, as our lunch stopping point as a hat-tip to John Mellencamp, who was born there. I remembered breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches from a college year in Iowa; I had recently learned they’re an Indiana favorite too. So we found the Townhouse Cafe in Seymour, a homey place said to serve the best tenderloin sandwich in Indiana. Well, it was delicious and huge and since I don’t engage in food porn, I didn’t take a photo. Our server had worked there for 20 years and I quizzed her about Mellencamp, whose framed album cover of Scarecrow was hanging over the counter. Yes, she remembered one time when he came in alone and she didn’t recognize him at first; he was a gentleman to serve and talk to.

The morning after the concert with both of us sleep-deprived, we headed north and picked up I-65. Wanting to get around Louisville before lunch, I picked New Albany, Indiana, as a lunch stop. (I lived in Louisville in the ‘80s working for KFC so the territory was familiar.)

Feast BBQ, New Albany, Indiana

Feast BBQ, New Albany, Indiana

This time we were yearning for barbecue and found Feast BBQ in New Albany not too far off the highway. We skipped the bourbon and beer, their other specialties, and had amazing brisket sandwiches. Truly, it was the best smoked brisket I’ve ever had and I would go back tonight if it wasn’t a five hour drive. We talked to the owner and he divulged some secrets about how they smoke their meat. Since I’m not planning on smoking meat in my highrise apartment, I didn’t take notes.

Yes, a road trip in a fast car with great music and food stops is a good thing now and then. When I had small children, I dreaded road trips. But they’re an occasional pleasure now. I’m not ready to get back in the car yet, but I’m sure I will be, further on up the road….

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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)

Quick Cuts #2: Stage, screen and lobster rolls

Some brief reviews of plays and films I’ve seen lately. Plus the promised lobster rolls.

aliensAliens at A Red Orchid Theatre, extended through 3/16. A Red Orchid is one of those small theaters that makes Chicago’s reputation as the home of excellent storefront theater. It’s a tiny space at the end of a hallway on North Wells Street that makes amazing use of its space. Aliens by Annie Baker is a three-character play in which nothing much happens and moments of silence are dramatic action. Two slackers hang out near the dumpster behind a coffee shop somewhere in Vermont and philosophize, write novels and occasionally make music. A teenager who works there is fascinated by them and their conversation and – perhaps – finds his way to his future. It’s a character study and a sweet play although not for those who need fight scenes and choreography. I recommend it.

Sweet Charity at Writers Theatre is also still running (through 3/31) in Glencoe. It’s in the category of fluffy musical, done moderately well if you like that kind of thing. Neil Simon adapted it from Fellini’s Nights in Cabiria, which made me optimistic that it would be good. The film starring Guilietta Masina was charming and sad – and it didn’t have egregious singing and dancing. My recommendation:  Rent the Fellini movie.

A Soldier’s Play at Raven Theatre, running through 3/30. This play by Charles Fuller delves into racial tensions during World War II, when the armed services were officially segregated. The characters are mostly baseball players from the Negro League, who were drafted to form a team that could beat other service teams but haven’t had a chance to get into battle. The plot centers around the murder of a black sergeant being investigated by a black lawyer/captain from the military police. The play won a Pulitzer Prize in 1982 and had a long off-Broadway run as well as a film version (titled A Soldier’s Story). There’s plenty of tension but the plot is occasionally weak. Nevertheless, it’s good to be reminded of how shockingly bad racism was at a Louisiana army base 70 years ago. Raven Theatre is on North Clark Street; its productions are always worth seeing.

Faith Healer at The Den Theatre (now closed). This was a terrific production of the Brian Friel play. So tragically Irish. The play is structured in four monologues by three actors so it’s an exercise in rhetoric rather than action.  Faith Healer is closed now but I recommend you check out The Den Theatre on Milwaukee Avenue just north of Division. It’s a pleasant space with a comfy lobby and a small performance space. Check them out at http://thedentheatre.com. Their current play is City of Dreadful Night by Don Nigro, an homage to film noir.

Other Desert Cities at Goodman Theatre (now closed). This play by Jon Robin Baitz was a Broadway hit with name stars and it’s easy to see why. It’s a juicy family story with political overtones. It takes place when the writer/daughter comes home to Palm Springs to tell her family about her soon-to-be-published memoir, which will spill all the family’s secrets. The dialogue is sharp and the play is well acted, although the extremely wide stage set seemed to leave too much distance between characters (symbolic staging, possibly). The first act is too long and the ending, which turns the whole story on its head, was a bit of a gimmick. Nevertheless, it’s a fine play and worth seeing.  Apparently it’s the new hot play for regional theaters, so you may have a chance.

Anna Karenina. This is a gorgeous film directed by Joe Wright that didn’t get the attention it deserved. It won the Oscar for costume design and was nominated for cinematography and production design. It deserved all of them. I thought the staging and design were unique and brilliant. It is set theatrically – and in fact as if staged in a theater, on stage and up in the catwalks and backstage riggings. At first that seems mannered but you soon forget that the staging is unconventional because the plot and language (script by Tom Stoppard) have you thoroughly mesmerized. The exteriors include marvelous scenes of trains arriving in Moscow or St. Petersburg, totally encased in snow and ice. I’m glad I saw it on a big screen but if you missed seeing it in theaters, get the DVD. It is a beautiful film with excellent performances by Keira Knightly and Jude Law, among others.

A.O. Scott in the New York Times notes that Anna’s is perhaps the most famous infidelity in literature (but not unlike that of Madame Bovary, I would add). And both end tragically for the women.

Maine comes to Chicago

Have you been to Da Lobsta, this new lobster-roll place on Cedar Street? It’s where Ashkenazi Deli used to be. I had lunch there recently — great sandwiches full of big chunks of lobster in a warm buttery roll. Limited menu otherwise, but it’s lobster all the way. Salads, soups, lobster mac and cheese, a few other items. The arrangement feels more spacious and has room for more tables than when the deli was there. The owner/manager said they plan to be at various markets and street fairs this summer and probably add more retail locations later. You can see the menu on their website dalobstachicago.com. If you remember luscious mayonnaisy lobster rolls from vacations in Maine, check out this place.