2015: Not Quite a Year in Review

The last year had many exciting and interesting moments for me, but the last month has been challenging. I spent most of it mourning about and planning how to recover from the demise of Gapers Block, the website for which I’ve written for almost three years. The site is now “on hiatus.” Andrew Huff, the editor and publisher of the 12-year-old website, posted a letter to readers explaining the change. And this is how the site looks now.

Screen Shot 2016-01-01 at 3.16.51 PM

Many articles, comments and personal memories have come in to praise Gapers Block but no one has stepped in with the offer of the needed money to update the infrastructure and pay a full-time editor/publisher at least a pittance of a salary. So the site will live on as an archive, with all the existing content live, but nothing new. I couldn’t resist adding my own personal thoughts to the site, which I did late on New Year’s Eve, while waiting for the #ChicagoRising star to rise. (I can’t bring myself to call it “Chi-Town.” No real Chicagoan would use that term.)

GB staff members had known about this for several weeks and after we got over our initial distress, some of us began planning a new website to cover the Gapers Block arts and culture content. The result will be our new website, Third Coast Review, which is online now in an unofficial or “beta” way. We expect it to be official in a week or 10 days once we add more content.

What else was new and important in 2015?


Havana cityscape. Photo by Nancy Bishop.

My week in Cuba was memorable and I wrote about it at length here and here.

On another shorter trip, I spent time in New York and was lucky to get a ticket to see the smash Broadway hiphopera (as one of my fellow theater critics calls it), Hamilton, about our first treasury secretary. I wrote about that here and probably will keep writing about it. I intended to see it again later in the year but by then tickets were really impossible to get without paying a couple of months’ salary. And now Hamilton is coming to Chicago in September and will be here (at the dreadful Shubert Theatre on Monroe Street, renamed after yet another bank), so I will be able to see it a few more times.

In the meantime, I’m finally reading the insightful biography that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to write the show about our “ten-dollar founding father.” Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton is a fascinating, meticulously detailed and readable biography. I just wish it wasn’t 800 pages long.

The Phantom Collective, the pub theater group formed by my friend June Skinner Sawyers, staged several interesting literary events in 2015, including Black Dogs and Melancholy, a reading of Samuel Johnson writings. The most recent pub event was Beowulf &  Grendel, which combined Beowulf, the Old English epic poem, with Grendel, one of Beowulf’s antagonists (dramatized in John Gardner’s 1971 novel,Grendel, in which that character tells his side of the story).

Chicago Architecture Biennial. Norman Kelley, survey of Chicago windows.

Chicago Architecture Biennial. Norman Kelley, survey of Chicago windows.

Architecture: We love our buildings. The Chicago Architecture Biennial was a series of exhibits and events from October through today. The most comprehensive was the takeover of the Chicago Cultural Center by about 80 exhibits on four floors by firms and designers that asked questions about and predicted the future of architecture. I particularly liked the architectonic window treatments on the Michigan Avenue facade of the building by Norman Kelley. He clad each window in white vinyl cutouts representing Chicago window styles, mullions and dressings. The biennial as a whole was less than impressive but it was an excellent start and a learning experience for the next biennial in 2017.

Getting ready for Springsteen

Yes, I have the hardly-waits already for the January 19 concert at the United Center featuring my favorite rocker, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. And for the concert February 21 in Louisville, an excuse to visit with my friends Jeannie and John. There will be more. Springsteen is touring on the re-release of his 1980 album, The River, in the form of a large boxed set titled The Ties That Bind. No, I haven’t bought it yet.

The year in review? Not yet. 

I usually begin the new year with a list of my favorite events in pop culture for the previous year. I may still do that. For now, WordPress has created my year in review:

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,700 times in 2015. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.


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.

Films and filmmakers: Surrealism and horror stories

This week this cineaste* had two outstanding film experiences. One was with one of my favorite filmmakers and the other was a Halloween horror story.

* Michael Phillips called himself a cineaste in the Tribune today, so I can too. That’s a little more pretentious that calling yourself a cinephile or movie nut, but I like it.

Guy Maddin, madman filmmaker

Wednesday night Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin was at the MCA theater in a Chicago Humanities Festival event. The packed house of film students and film fans hung on his every word and appreciated his frankness and engaging humor. I have loved his bizarre films since I first saw The Saddest Music in the World. The chance to see him in person was impossible to resist.


Coleman and Maddin at the MCA. Photo by Nancy Bishop.

Maddin is probably best known for two films, The Saddest Music in the World (2003), a Depression-era story about a beer baroness with glass legs played by Isabella Rossellini, and My Winnipeg (2009), an homage and “surrealist mockumentary” to his hometown. He also has made many short films and creates film installations.

As I said in my Gapers Block article, Maddin looked like a perfectly normal and sane person, but I hoped that didn’t mean we were in for a quiet evening of intelligent discussion. Then Maddin said his major film influences were David Lynch and Luis Bunuel and my brain exploded. Bunuel, the Spanish surrealist, is one of my favorite filmmakers. In fact, I’m going to lead a discussion on his work for my film group next month. I have recently rewatched a lot of David Lynch films, including Eraserhead and Blue Velvet. The Bunuel/Lynch combination is mind-bending.

Maddin talked nonstop and was sort of interviewed by Charles Coleman from Facets. The conversation veered all over Maddin’s personal bio and film viewing and film making habits. He’s a great fan of silent films and is committed to saving or recreating lost films. Coleman showed two of Maddin’s short films, including The Heart of the World. See my Gapers Block article for more about Maddin and his work.

Maddin said he’s now reading Greek tragedies, which he thought would be boring … “but they’re like Mexican comic books!” He also lately has become obsessed with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. (Aren’t we all?)

Confession of a diarist

I went to see Guy Maddin because I like his work. I had no intention of writing about it. (Except when you’re a diarist or blogger, all of life is raw material.) I’ve been to a couple of author events lately that I fully intended to write about and the authors said nothing of interest. (I’m talking to you, Junot Diaz. And you, Thomas Dyja and Neil Steinberg.) But Maddin started strong and never stopped. I have 12 pages of scribbled notes in my notebook and I could hardly keep up with him. The evening was exhilarating.

Halloween horror story

It was Halloween night at the Symphony Center. The audience was a little different than the everyday CSO audience. Many were in costumes and weird makeup. Many were not. I wore my everyday costume of jeans and a Springsteen shirt.

NSB-DRCALIGARI-posterThe CSO was hosting one of its special movie night concerts. The film was Robert Wiene’s 1920 film, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, with site-specific music performed by the punky organist Cameron Carpenter. He played a stirring score on a massive digital organ set center stage under the giant movie screen. Carpenter says he is the first concert organist to prefer the digital organ to the pipe organ. His touring instrument is a “monumental cross-genre organ” built to his own design specs.

The film, which I’ve seen several times in the past, was a marvel to see on the big screen. It’s dazzlingly expressionistic with jagged lines, angled shapes, trees with spiky leaves, tilted walls and windows. It’s black and white, of course, but tints suggest daytime or night. The distorted sets are obviously two-dimensional, rather than real sets, but the effects are remarkable for the time.

The Dr Caligari story is about madmen and murder, delusions and deception. The expressionistic visual style surely paved the way for films like Metropolis, Nosferatu and M and inspired filmmakers like Fritz Lang and F W Murnau.

There must be different cuts of the film because its length is variously listed from 50 to 67 minutes. The CSO version was about 65 minutes. This version of the film on YouTube is 51 minutes.

In researching this, I also found a valuable archive of silent films in the public domain. Check out some you’re familiar with and find new ones, maybe even some of Guy Maddin’s lost films.

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The Best Things About 2013

Yes, there were some horrible things about 2013, mostly political, Congressional, in fact. But there were some great things about the year. Here’s are some of the things I want to remember about the last 12 months.


I’ve written about most of these things here, but I decided not to provide links because then the whole post would be links. If you want to follow up on a topic, check the Categories selections on the right. (Image courtesy PSD Graphics.)


  • Retirement means I’m finally able to be a writer. Writing about the things I love. I was a business writer for 35 years, but it was never this much fun.
  • Being “hired” to write for Gapers Block has been terrific. Thank you, Andrew and LaShawn. In just seven months, I’ve posted 71 articles, mostly theater and art reviews. All Gapers Block writers work as volunteers, but I do get free theater tickets and personal previews of art exhibits.
  • Nancy Bishop’s Journal has been in business for 18 months and this year I wrote 65 new posts, as my WordPress Annual Report announced yesterday.

Theater bests

  • An Iliad at Court Theatre was absolutely the best play of my year.
  • The Seafarer at Seanachai Theatre, performed at The Den Theatre, was a close second. It’s been extended, so you can still see it until February 1.
  • Homeland 1972 at Chicago Dramatists. How could I not love a play based on a Bruce Springsteen song? (“Highway Patrolman” from the 1982 album Nebraska.)
  • Terminus performed by Interrobang Theatre Project at the Athenaeum.
  • The Half-Brothers Mendelssohn by Strange Tree Theatre at Signal Ensemble Theatre. The time machine was worth the ticket price but the whole show was smart and funny.
  •  Remy Bumppo seems to do no wrong, at least this year. Both Northanger Abbey and An Inspector Calls were outstanding productions.
  • Hypocrites is another company that does great work. Their production of the Chicago story titled Ivywild was wondrous.
  • Trap Door Theatre’s production of The Balcony was outstanding, and so is most of this group’s work.
  • There were many more excellent shows, many that I reviewed for Gapers Block. But I’ll stop at nine.


  • Leonard Cohen at the Chicago Theatre. Leonard was his usual charming, sprightly self and left me cheering for a performer who knows how to present a great show. Both Leonard and I are approaching the age at which we might be called “super-agers” and I look forward to seeing how both of us do in our 80s.
  • The farewell to Lou Reed, who died in October at 71, was a musical tribute played outside in a grove of trees near Lincoln Center. Watch this video to see friends and fans rocking out to his “Walk on the Wild Side.”

  • The soundtrack from the film Inside Llewyn Davis, taking us back 50 years to relive the ‘60s in Greenwich Village, in the pre-Dylan era. The songs are all new arrangements of traditional folk songs, except for “Please Mr. Kennedy,” done in a hilarious performance by Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver (providing the bass notes).
  • “Dream Baby Dream,” the Springsteen song I couldn’t stop listening to
  • Anticipation: A new Springsteen record, High Hopes, will be released January 14. We’re hoping that Bruce will finally come home to tour but so far the 2014 dates are only in South Africa and Australia.

Films (a few of my favorites, in random order)  

  • Inside Llewyn Davis, which I’ve seen twice and reviewed here last week.
  • Russian Ark, a 2002 film by Aleksandr Sokurov, a technological and artistic masterpiece, despite being plotless. It’s a tour thru the Hermitage with a cast of thousands.
  • Sound City, a documentary made by Dave Grohl about one of the last analog music production studios in Los Angeles.
  • Anna Karenina, a gorgeous film innovatively staged—literally on a theater stage—with beautiful costumes, settings, cinematography and acting.
  • Holy Motors, a bizarre masterwork directed by Leos Carax, starring Denis Lavant.
  • Springsteen and I, in which his fans talk about how they came to be Springsteen fans and what his music means to them.
  • 20 Feet from Stardom, a film about the background singers, mostly black and female, who make rock sound like the music we love.
  • I didn’t see Spike Jonze’s Her until January 3, but it’s one of the top films of 2013. My review is coming up.
  • The Story of Film: An Odyssey, written and produced by Mark Cousins, an Irish film critic. The fascinating 15-part series starts with the first barely moving pictures in the 19th century and ends with today’s filmmakers. TCM ran it on 15 consecutive Monday nights this fall and Netflix is streaming it.
  • As always, a bow to the Gene Siskel Film Center and its dedication to excellent, rarely seen films


  • House of Cards, the Netflix political drama available for binge-watching
  • Treme, a somewhat flawed HBO series, centered on the eponymous New Orleans neighborhood, with great music; it ended this week after four seasons.
  • Breaking Bad on AMC; it’s all over for Walter White. Looking forward to the final season of Mad Men, also to be shown in two parts. Will Don Draper finally become Dick Whitman?
  • Stand Up for Heroes, the annual benefit concert for wounded warriors, on which Mr. Springsteen did a 20-minute set and told bad jokes.
  • Palladia, the 24/7 rock music channel. What would I do without it?

 Art and art venues

  • The Art of Fashion X 3. The most underrated of the three exhibits–Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of the Ebony Fashion Fair—is at the Chicago History Museum until May 11. It’s a fabulous show; don’t miss it. The other two were Punk: Chaos to Couture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; and the Art Institute of Chicago’s Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity exhibit.
  • Shutter to Think: The Rock & Roll Lens of Paul Natkin. This exhibit of the Chicago rock and roll photographer’s work for magazines, album covers and posters is excellent. It’s at the Chicago Cultural Center thru January 4, so you still have a minute to see it.
  • Chicago’s Bauhaus Legacy, a superb exhibit at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art on West Grand Avenue. I wrote a feature about this excellent small museum for Gapers Block.
  • The Work at Play exhibit of graphic design at the Chicago Design Museum in the Block 37 building, part of the Pop-Up Art Loop project. The exhibit honored the work of John Massey, a famous Chicago designer, and other important graphic designers

Books and book events

  • I’ve written about short stories, my book group, ebooks on the CTA, and musical author book events: Richard Hell at the BookCellar and Peter Hook at the MCA
  • Emile Zola, whose novels I binged on this year. Nana, The Ladies’ Paradise, The Joy of Life and Germinal are just the beginning.
  • The 50th anniversary of the release of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.

Miscellaneous but important

  • The death of Roger Ebert left a huge gap in film criticism and the movie biz.
  • Edward Snowden and the NSA. Snowden’s release of NSA files, whether legal or not, made us aware of how much the government is invading our privacy. My view is that Snowden is a patriot and should be given amnesty so he can come home. He should not be imprisoned and tortured as Bradley/Chelsea Manning was for similar acts. Today the New York Times published a powerful editorial agreeing with me.
  • Oscar Libre. After 32 years, it’s time to release Oscar Lopez Rivera, the Puerto Rican independence activist. I wrote about him a few weeks ago.
  • And now, it’s time for ….


Reliving the ‘60s: My review of Inside Llewyn Davis

Yes, I was there in the ‘60s, but not in Greenwich Village where Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan hung out and where the new film Inside Llewyn Davis is set. I spent the ‘60s in northwestern Wisconsin in River Falls, a small college town that I now think of as Brigadoon, a magical place. Well, at least a very good place to live and raise two small boys. We lived in a series of comfy old houses with big back yards on tree-lined streets with names like Cedar, Maple and Main.

We didn’t go to the Gaslight Café to hear up-and-coming musicians. But we did go to a local coffee house to listen to folk music and poetry by students, faculty and occasionally visiting talent. And there was always some kind of musical or theatrical event to attend on campus. Eugene McCarthy campaigned in River Falls in 1968 and we went to the parade on Main Street to cheer him on. What a lovely place to live.

You can’t help but think of life in the ‘60s as you watch Inside Llewyn Davis, the new Coen brothers film that you could only have missed hearing about if you have been in a cocoon for the last month. But for once, the hype is worth it. It’s a smart film, mostly historically accurate, and the music is worth the price of the ticket. Even though I generally prefer music that rocks, these are lyrical, traditional folk ballads (with one exception) arranged for today, with T Bone Burnett as the musical czar and Marcus Mumford (of the eponymous Mumford & Sons) as co-producer. Best of all, you hear full-length songs in the film, not 30-second samples.

The Llewyn Davis character is patterned after a folk singer of the time, Dave Van Ronk, whose memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, was one of the Coen brothers’ historical sources. Van Ronk’s second album, Inside Dave Van Ronk, provided the cover art idea for the movie version of the Llewyn Davis album, Inside Llewyn Davis. And the poster for the new film is a dead ringer for the cover of Bob Dylan’s album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (with a cat instead of Suze Rotolo). The similarities are striking in both cases. My friend June Skinner Sawyers writes about the Freewheelin’ photo shoot in her book, Bob Dylan: New York (2011, Roaring Forties Press).

The film shows us the quest of Llewyn Davis (played by the very talented Oscar Isaac), a folksinger who wants to perform authentic folk music, in the era before the genre became commercial. He goes everywhere, with his beatup guitar case, a knapsack, and usually a cat over his arm. The cat, who acts like cats do, is also on a quest—to escape from Llewyn’s grasp and, maybe, to get home. The fact that the cat is named Ulysses, which we don’t find out until the end of the film, adds to its charm. We could analyze Llewyn’s quest as that of a modern-day Ulysses or Odysseus, but we don’t need to do that to enjoy his quest for someone to listen to his music and pay him for performing. He just wants to make his living as a musician.

His journey includes performing at the Gaslight, a “basket club” where performers’ remuneration is in the tip basket; trying to get his manager to sell his solo album; and taking a road trip to Chicago, which is a short film in itself. He finds his way to the Gate of Horn on Dearborn Street to audition for its owner, Bud Grossman (played by Murray Abraham), who is known to be an effective manager of musicians. In an empty club, in sunlight and shadow, Llewyn plays an old folk song, “The Death of Queen Jane” for Grossman. Unfortunately, it’s the wrong song. Grossman says “I don’t see much money in that,” when Llewyn finishes.

The Grossman character, like most of the characters in the film, is patterned after a real person. Albert Grossman, the man who ran the Gate of Horn, managed Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and created and managed the trio Peter, Paul and Mary. At the end of Llewyn’s audition, Grossman tells him he’s forming a trio of two guys and a girl singer. “If you trim that beard to a goatee and stay out of the sun, we could use you,” Grossman tells Llewyn. Llewyn declines the opportunity.

There are many parallels to the quest of other young musicians to gain an audience. Bruce Springsteen spent years playing in small bands and performing on his own before finally getting to audition for John Hammond, the legendary Columbia record producer and civil rights activist. Bruce’s manager, Mike Appel, pressured Hammond to audition Bruce in May 1972 and the result, after Bruce played for Hammond, was a 10-record contract with Columbia. Bruce was lucky; he had a manager who fought for him (even though he and Appel later split in a contentious contract dispute). If he hadn’t, he might have ended up like Llewyn Davis, wandering the streets of New York with his guitar and playing for tips.

In a 1998 interview with MOJO magazine, Springsteen remembered the session: “It was a big, big day for me… I was 22 and came up on the bus with an acoustic guitar with no case… I was embarrassed carrying it around the city. I walked into his office and had the audition, and I played a couple of songs and [Hammond] said, ‘You’ve got to be on Columbia Records.’ – See more here. The audition tracklist and the tapes themselves were part of the Bruce Springsteen exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum that ran from April 2009 thru February 2011. (I visited three times.)

At the very end of the film, after Llewyn leaves the stage at the Gaslight, we see the next performer in shadowy profile—a young Bob Dylan; the song playing is Dylan’s unreleased version of “Farewell” aka “Fare Thee Well,” an 18th century English song that’s played several times in the film. Playing over the credits is Dave Van Ronk himself, singing “Green Green Rocky Road,” which Llewyn sings in the film.

The Coen brothers have created a film that immerses you in 1961 Greenwich Village with their obsessive attention to detail. It’s a good film to just enjoy; you’re sure to find some elements that apply to your life, even though you may disagree with others. There have been many reviews of this film and interviews with its star. Plus Showtime is running an excellent concert film (Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of “Inside llewyn Davis”) with music and performers from the film plus other related music and performers. My favorites in this splendid cast are the Punch Brothers, fronted by Chris Thile, the mandolinist and composer who won a MacArthur Fellowship (the Genius Grant) last year. I’ve had discussions, arguments even, with friends who want to overanalyze the Llewyn Davis character. Or the cat. Don’t do it. As Steve Prokopy says at the end of his Gapers Block review:

“The movie manages to be rough around the edges, yet poignantly elegant. Many audience members may not be familiar with Isaac’s work: he’s been around for a few years in supporting roles. But he rises to the importance of this role, in a way that Davis himself probably never could have. The parallels between the character and the person playing him are not lost, but one is rising to the occasion while the other is frequently buckling under pressure. Inside Llewyn Davis is easily one of the best films you’ll see this year, but it may be difficult to pinpoint why. So don’t try — just let the music, the humor, the look and feel of it all wash over you and take you to a place that feels like another world.

I couldn’t agree more.

December Diary: My reviews of theater, art, movies

Two theater recommendations

seafarer_250The Seafarer is a Christmas play by an Irish playwright. Given that, you know that there may not be a happy ending or a lot of tra-la-la. And there most likely will be consumption of alcohol. I hate stereotypes, but there you are. The Seafarer, by Conor McPherson, is a terrific production by Seanachai Theatre Company at The Den Theatre on Milwaukee Avenue. My Gapers Block review gives all the details. The play is running until January 5. I gave it a “highly recommended” for theatreinchicago.com, as did all the other reviewers.

That website, theatreinchicago.com, is a great resource for theatergoers. It compiles reviews of all current plays on Chicago, along with their ratings. Go to the website and click on Review Roundup in the left-hand column.

An Inspector Calls at Remy Bumppo Theatre seems at first like a smart drawing-room comedy. But J.B. Priestley’s play, written in 1945 for an English audience, soon turns into a tale about the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent. The 1 percent is the Birling family, wealthy through their manufacturing business. The 99 percent is represented by a young working woman who comes to a sad ending through actions, ultimately, taken by all the family members. (That’s a bit of a spoiler, so forget I said it.)

The Remy Bumppo cast is excellent and the production very gripping. Nick Sandys, as the mysterious inspector, plays the role very coolly. Calmly and without bluster, he terrorizes the Birlings in their dining room. Priestley was raised in a socialist family and was a writer of social conscience. As David Darlow says in his director’s note, Priestley “calls out to us to be accountable and responsible for our behavior and actions.” The play runs through January 12 in the upstairs mainstage at the Greenhouse Theater Center on Lincoln Ave.

Linguistic whine. Why can’t theater/theatre companies settle on one spelling, preferably the standard American spelling of theater, rather than the pretentious Anglified theatre. When I’m writing reviews for Gapers Block, it makes me crazy, going back and forth between the spellings, depending on whether I’m naming a theater company that persists in using that spelling (see above) or using the word generically as part of a sentence. Grrrrr.

Art with a message


Small Change by Richard Laurent; image courtesy of the curator.

The Art of Influence: Breaking Criminal Traditions. There’s a very interesting exhibit of art with a message at the IIT Chicago-Kent College of law, 565 W Adams St. I know, that’s an unusual place for an art exhibit, but it works. The exhibit is made up of 38 works in various media by 13 local and regional artists and represents metaphorically — in ways both beautiful and horrifying — the crimes perpetrated on women and girls in countries where those actions are considered part of the culture, rather than crimes. The purpose of the exhibit is to make an impact on those who may be influential in the future to help change the legal processes in those countries. My review for Gapers Block gives all the details and shows four images that illustrate the range of the work.

Films, live and DVDd

Blue Is the Warmest Color, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche. This controversial film about a young woman and her older woman lover in Lille, France, is beautifully filmed and to my mind, too long at 3 hours plus. The much-discussed sex scenes are quite beautiful and almost painterly in their composition. Most importantly, the film raises issues of male viewpoint, social class and life choice between the two lovers and their friends and families; those issues are fruitful discussion topics. The film is currently on view at local theaters.

A Constant Forge: The Life and Art of John Cassavetes (DVD). This very thorough documentary of Cassavetes’ work is well worth your time as an illustration of the auteur approach to independent filmmaking. It’s almost 3.5 hours long and no, this film wasn’t too long, although I did watch it in two sittings. It was made in 2000, about 11 years after his death at 59. The doc includes interviews with many of the actors he worked with: his wife Gena Rowland, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, Jon Voight and Seymour Cassel. The actors and others talked about his creativity, his honesty, and his lack of concern about making money. Many long film clips and film of scenes during the shooting process really bring Cassavetes’ approach to life.

 My favorite Cassavetes quote: A reporter asks him if he’ll ever make a musical. He says he really wants to make only one musical, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.  My kind of guy.

gondry-chomskyIs the Man Who Is Tall Happy? An Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky. Yes, I said Noam Chomsky. But this is the avuncular linguistics professor, not the radical political activist (though just a hint of that Chomsky shows occasionally). French director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) created this animated documentary from interviews with Chomsky. He animates and illustrates Chomsky’s ideas by scrawling clever cartoons and charts.

The film title is taken from a sentence that Chomsky diagrams near the end of the film to show how children learn to use language.

The film runs at the Gene Siskel Film Center through tomorrow. I’ll watch it again on DVD when it’s available. There are places where I wanted to say, “Wait, let me replay that last bit because I didn’t quite get it.”

My coming attractions for this week

Inside Llewyn Davis. This is the Coen brothers film about the early years of the folk movement in Greenwich Village in the 1950s. It opens here Friday and I’ll be there. In addition to the film, Showtime network has been running a concert with a setlist of some of the music from the film, performed by other musicians. There’s also a Showtime making-of film called Inside Inside Llewyn Davis. And there’s the soundtrack on CD or download. I’ll review this film here soon.

Blood on the Cat’s Neck by Rainer Werner Fassbinder at Trap Door Theatre on Cortland. The always provocative and entertaining Trap Door group has been getting mixed reviews for this play; it’s Jeff recommended, however.

Burning Bluebeard by Jay Torrence presented by The Ruffians at Theater Wit. The play is about the tragic 1903 Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago. This is a theater company I have not seen before and I’m looking forward to it.

And finally, I’ve gone another whole week without writing about Bruce Springsteen.  But he has a new album coming out in January. You can be sure I’ll make up for my apparent neglect.

Art-talk with Jaume Plensa, creator of that magical fountain


Photo courtesy Chicago Architecture Foundation

“I have eyes in my fingers. I have to touch my art.”

That was just one of the comments made by Jaume Plensa, the Spanish artist who created the Crown Fountain at Millennium Park, in his appearance at the MCA recently. Plensa, who is a true creative spirit and a thoughtful artist, showed an 18-minute slide presentation of his sculptures in locations all over the world and was interviewed by Reed Kroloff, director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art.

I was only familiar with his fountain design here and it is considered his most important piece in the US.  Why do I call it magical?  Have you ever taken a child there or sat and watched kids play in the summer?  Plensa has created the ultimate in interactive art. You can physically become part of his work of art. (But be sure to bring a towel.)

The MCA event was cosponsored with the Chicago Architecture Foundation and titled “Architecture Is Art…Is Architecture Art?” The question was never answered directly but Plensa did muse about the relationship between architecture and art. You can read more about him and his work in my Gapers Block article.

Related articles on public art and sculpture

Sculpture in Portage Park and Pioneer Court, plus new tours at a Frank Lloyd Wright landmark building. Read it here.

Public sculpture on the parklet on the State Street median and a global view of art under a viaduct. Art everywhere!  You have to love it.

Six things you didn’t know you missed in Gapers Block

I love writing for Gapers Block. It gives me an excuse to view, think and write about some of the things I love—like theater, art, architecture and design. So here are some things I’ve been writing about recently. You can still catch some of them.

Six Corners dedication of Portage sculpture

The Six Corners Association partnered with the American Indian Center to create a piece of art to celebrate the contributions of Native Americans to the history of the community, which is part of the larger area known as Portage Park. The sculpture titled Portage by artist Ted Sitting Crow Garner is being dedicated at 12 noon Saturday, October 12, at the Six Corners Sears store at the intersection of Cicero, Irving Park and Milwaukee.


Here’s a photo from a slideshow charting the progress of the sculpture.  Garner is shown putting it into position on the west side of the Sears store.  Image courtesy Six Corners Association. 

See my preview here, which includes some of the history of the neighborhood.

In my high school years, I worked at a chain woman’s clothing store on Cicero Avenue across from the Sears store, so I feel a pride of ownership in my old neighborhood.

Even if you miss the dedication, you can drive by and check out the sculpture later.

Hebru Brantley’s The Watch at Pioneer Court

Hebru-TheWatch-GBA collection of brightly colored figures has taken up residence at Pioneer Court Plaza, formerly the site of the Marilyn Monroe figure. They’re part of Chicago Ideas Week and created by Chicago artist Hebru Brantley, who is the Chicago Ideas Week 2013 Artist in Residence. Read about them here. They’ll be in place at least until October 20.

Photo by Kristie Kahns, courtesy Chicago Ideas Week. 

Ukrainian Institute Artists Respond to Genocide exhibit

I wrote recently about the excellent Bauhaus exhibit at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art.  The institute recently unveiled its new exhibit, Artists Respond to Genocide, which enables artists to take a broad look at genocide over the last century. The exhibit is made up of paintings, drawings, photography, sculpture and assemblages by 20 local and international artists. Many of them are really gripping, such as the large brightly colored painting by Mary Porterfield titled Engraved, or the woodcut and intaglio prints by Harold Cohen titled Auschwitz, Baba Yar and Genocide. The exhibit recognizes the Holodomor or secret holocaust in the Ukraine in 1932-33 as well as the appalling list of genocides over time. A chilling list in the back of the exhibit program enumerates 13 of them, with the number of fatalities in each.

UIMA Facade--GB

I wrote a preview of this exhibit for Gapers Block. You can see the exhibit until December 1 at this excellent small museum at 2320 W Chicago Ave.

The image is the Stanley Tigerman-designed facade of the building.

Image courtesy Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art. 

You can tour Wright’s Unity Temple

UnityTempleFront-GBIt’s been some time since formal tours of the landmark Frank Lloyd Wright structure, Unity Temple in Oak Park, have been available. Up until now, the only way to see the interior of this innovative building was if you knew someone or by chance went to a program there. (I’ve done both and even happily went to several services with friends. Even an avowed atheist will do anything to see the interior of a famous religious structure.)

But now the FLW Preservation Trust is offering docent-led tours again. Get more information here.

Image courtesy Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust. 

Terminus at Interrobang Theatre Project

I’ve seen and reviewed many plays in the last month, but one of the very best was this amazing three-actor blend of monologues produced by Interrobang Theatre Project at the Athenaeum.  Here’s how my Gapers Block review started:

“Mark O’Rowe is one of the new generation of Irish playwrights whose work was first seen in the 1990s. In Terminus, being presented by Interrobang Theatre Project, he displays his fascination with language and his passion for words. Terminus isn’t so much a play as a series of stories, intertwined in monologues by three characters, known only as A, B and C. Their stories, set in the streets of Dublin, begin separately, and gradually become more connected, until they are finally merged in a glorious fantasy of blood, sweat, tears and sex.”

Truly, this was one of the finest nights of theater I’ve seen lately. Unfortunately, the play closed last week.

 The Benchmark at Step Up Productions

I also reviewed this play about a well-read homeless man and although the lead actor’s performance is excellent, the play as a whole was somewhat flat.  I wanted desperately to love it, but couldn’t. But tastes vary and other viewers might well enjoy it. Read my review here and then check out other reviews here.

Gapers Block recap: Art and a little more

Here are a few events I’ve been writing about recently on Gapers Block to pique your interest in current and future art events in Chicago.

Art Around Town

 Borders, 26 Icelandic Sculptures, in Solti Park


Next time you’re near the Art Institute, meander south to Solti Park at the southeast corner of Jackson and Michigan. You’ll find these pairs of figures – one iron, one steel – that seem to want to talk to you or make you sit down and reflect. And you can sit down next to one of them and look into his eyes. My friend Linnea and I had a conversation with one of them. The Icelandic artist, Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir, modeled the figures after her oldest son. Read my article.

Expo Chicago to Display Art from 120 Galleries

The massive annual art exhibition known as Expo Chicago will return next month with displays from 120 galleries at the Festival Hall at Navy Pier. There will also be contributions from other organizations and a citywide week of arts and culture called Expo Art Week. Included in the week’s activities will be museum and gallery exhibits, music, theater and dance performances. The exhibition is open for public viewing September 20-22. See my Gapers Block story for more info.

Constantly Consuming Culture to Showcase Work of Little-Known Chicago Artists

It may not attract curators and collectors from around the world, but this exhibit September 7-13 at 222 N. DesPlaines St. should be very intriguing. It will show the work of eight local artists, who work in painting, sculpture, found art and video art. Who knows? You may fall in love with a piece of art that you can actually afford to buy. Because the expenses of mounting the show are funded by crowdfunding, the artists will receive 100 percent of any sales at the show. Read about it here.


Strange Bedfellows Theatre Invents Van Gogh

Strange Bedfellows, another one of our creatively crazy storefront theaters, just finished a run of Inventing Van Gogh, an imperfect but intriguing story about Vincent Van Gogh’s rumored last painting, another of his self-portraits. Strange Bedfellows’ motto is “Redefining mischief,” which makes me want to see what their next play promises. See my Inventing Van Gogh review.

And a movie 

American Made Movie Tells Story of Manufacturing Decline, Revival


This 82-minute documentary opens this Friday and runs for a week at AMC Loew’s 600 N Michigan. It repeats the familiar story of US manufacturing’s decline over the last 30-40 years and suggests a rather naïve solution:  Buy local, buy American and that will build a new domestic manufacturing base. The story is told with some compelling personal stories and anecdotes about half a dozen businesses, large and small, that changed their practices to survive. Buy local and buy American are practices that some of us can follow. But the big-box stores sell lowest-cost products made overseas and those are the products that many American families can afford. So this film, while well made, is “preaching to the choir.” Read my review.

Image of stars and stripes jewelry by Merrily Made Jewelry, courtesy of the producers; see review for the jewelry story. 

The art of fashion: Punk, Impressionism, Ebony

Three important exhibits this summer are threading art, fashion and social issues into fascinating museum experiences. I keep trying to decide that one or another is my favorite but each one is equally discerning and compelling in its own way.

Punk rules

I wrote recently about seeing the exhibit Punk: Chaos to Couture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Of course, I’m tempted to say this is my favorite of the three because I love punk rock and its alienated, disruptive, DIY and disheveled nature. Punk, especially Brit punk, was critiquing the evils of society in the 1970s—the ones that we see even more vividly today. Poverty, economic and educational inequality, and the evils of the establishment.

cbgbbathroom2Most especially, one of my favorite bands of all time, The Clash, is represented in the exhibit by a quote from its late lamented frontman Joe Strummer, explaining what the band wore: “We didn’t have the backing of the Sex boutique (like the Sex Pistols) so we rented a warehouse in Camden Town and painted it. We got all covered in paint….”

Some of my favorite things about the exhibit were the facsimile of the bathroom at CBGB, the famous punk club on the Bowery; and the DIY Bricolage section, which used trash materials in costuming. The exhibit was intended as an immersive experience with almost-loud music, music videos and other multimedia examples of the period. (Photo copyright Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

From punk to Paris

Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity at the Art Institute of Chicago is an elegant tour of the fashions and social customs of the late 19th century as displayed in impressionist paintings from the collections of the Art Institute, the Metropolitan Museum and Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the three museums that organized the exhibit. The exhibit is highlighted with gowns similar to those worn in the paintings displayed and properly accessorized with footwear, gloves and chapeaus. The exhibit takes us from the elaborate, fussy, long-trained gowns that required corsets and cautious walking to day gowns and walking ensembles that freed the 19th-century woman from some of the strictures of corset, bustle and fabric. (Photo courtesy Art Institute of Chicago.)

The-Parisienne_360Museum legends and signage describe the changes in styles and social customs that accompanied and, indeed, enabled the fashion changes. Other displays show period examples of accessories such as fans, lorgnettes, jewelry, hats and footwear.

We can also see examples of fashion magazines and catalogs with announcements of the openings of important new fashion emporiums in Paris, including Le Bon Marché, La Samaritaine and Printemps.

The Art Institute has an ongoing series of lectures (some are members-only) about the exhibit and the period. They are free and provide invaluable insights to enhance your enjoyment of the exhibit. See the Art Institute calendar for information.

The world’s largest traveling fashion show

Chicago has another stunning exhibit of art and fashion at the Chicago History Museum. Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of the Ebony Fashion Fair runs until January 5, 2014.

feature-exhibitionI reviewed this exhibit for Gapers Block and you can read my article here. The exhibit is a gorgeous display of almost 70 of the 8,000 gowns and ensembles from the costume collection of the Johnson Publishing Company.

The Ebony Fashion Fair exhibit presents the history and style of the traveling fashion show that began in 1958, brought visibility to African-American designers and models, and helped Chicago-based Johnson Publishing Company reach larger audiences.

It’s a stunning exhibit of fashion and history and shows how the fashion fair recognized and encouraged changes in socioeconomic and elite status for African-American women. The fashion fair was produced and directed by Eunice Johnson, whose husband was John H Johnson, the visionary founder of Johnson Publishing, publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines.

The exhibit shows the original garments by designers such as Yves St. Laurent, Oscar de la Renta, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, Christian Lacroix, and Patrick Kelly, on stunning African-American mannequins. The garments are sleek, dramatic, vibrantly colorful and often exotic. The exhibit also tells the story of Eunice Johnson’s persistence in gaining access to the fashions she wanted to show (cash helps) and how she brought high fashion events to African-American audiences. More than 5,000 fashion shows in 180 cities all over the US were produced as charitable events, raising more than $55 million for civil rights projects and scholarships.

While you’re at the history museum, you can also still see the Vivian Maier exhibit that I wrote about here. It runs through January 5, 2014.