Once upon a time in Chicago, a long, long time ago, I decided I wanted to become a standup comedian. So, I started going to comedy clubs with my friends Jim Harmon and Vito Vitkauskas. Eventually, I took theater classes and attended the Players Workshop of Second City. I think Jim attended the workshop first, so I became interested in it. Will Clinger was in Jim’s class, and they went on to do two plays together. One was Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party and I don’t remember the other one. Jim eventually rejoined the real world of the working people and left theater altogether. Will, on the other hand, continued in theater and I would occasionally see his name in the entertainment section of the newspapers. Since I loved Chicago so much, I enjoyed watching Wild Chicago because the show featured interesting people and places of Chicago, one of my most favorite places on earth (But you probably know that if you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time). One day, I was surprised when I saw a segment hosted by Will Clinger. It’s nice to see a familiar face on TV once in a while.
Jim and I have kept in touch on and off over the years. We’ve been friends since high school. That’s one of the things that I like about not having moved away from Chicago. I always run into old acquaintances when I least expect it. Once, when I lost track of Jim for a few years, he suddenly e-mailed. He had Googled my name and found my blog. Anyway, we met for lunch one day, exchanged stories about our children, and then I told him about how I had seen Will Clinger on Wild Chicago. Anytime I saw Will in the newspaper, I would tell Jim. A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail from the Chicago Dramatists advertising a play starring Will Clinger titled How I Became an Interesting Person. I sent the e-mail to Jim just to let him know about Will’s latest theatrical endeavor. Jim responded by saying we should go see the play. I didn’t even think of that, even though I love seeing plays at the theater.
So last night, we saw Will Clinger in his play. I really enjoyed the play because it had been a very long time since I had seen a very funny play that made me laugh out loud. I would recommend the play to you, but you have to see it by Sunday because that’s when it ends. Of course, we had to meet Will after the play was over. He recognized Jim but couldn’t quite place him. Will then looked at me and I said, “You don’t know me.” Jim finally had to say, “We were in The Birthday Party together” and then he remembered Jim. But Will still didn’t remember me since he never really knew me in the first place.
Quick! What do you think of when hear drive-in? I think of the movie Grease! and John Travolta singing Stranded at the Drive-in after Sandy left him.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many drive-in theaters in America anymore. I used to love going to the drive-in. I remember sneaking my friend in by putting him in the trunk so we wouldn’t have to pay for him.
The drive-in was always a unique way to watch movies. I used to go to a drive-in in Twenty-nine Palms, California, where you could roller skate and watch a movie simultaneously. Well, I was telling my sons about my drive-in adventures and they couldn’t understand what I was talking about. I always like to broaden their horizon, so when I failed to explain to them how much fun we used to have at the drive-in, I wanted to take them to one, but I didn’t think there were any drive-ins left in our area. But I googled “drive-in” and discovered there was a Cascade Drive-In in West Chicago.
I took my sons just so they could see what a drive-in was like. Things were a little different from the last time I went. You can now listen to the movie on your car radio on AM or FM! They still had gray steel speakers on the poles, but they didn’t work. All cars are supposed to drive with their headlights off, but mine stay on whenever I start the engine. I sat on a lawn chair so my sons could sit in the front seats. Boy was I sorry! The compact car next to us contained an entire family. And they were so crammed into their little car that they were complaining during the whole movie.
Well, my sons and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, but we decided never to go to the drive-in again.
Today I went to the UIC Theater to see Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I really wasn’t sure what to expect because I had no idea what the play was about other than I knew that the title characters came from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Well, last week I saw Hamlet at the UIC Theater and I liked the production so much that I decided that I would see Stoppard’s play today. Okay, so I’ll never make a living writing reviews, but I thought today’s play started out rather slowly. There were some witty interchanges between Rosencrantz and Guildernstern, but sometimes it didn’t hold my interest. Well, I actually dozed off for a couple minutes in the beginning of the play. I supposed it wouldn’t have been so bad if I weren’t sitting in the very front row in the middle right in front of the actors. So there I was front and center. When I woke up, Rosencrantz was staring at me. I felt so embarrassed! After that I tried not to fall asleep again. But I dozed off again–at least two more times. However, no actor noticed me this time. So about the play, well, since it is a spinoff of Hamlet and it was also produced by the UIC theater department, I was happy to see the same actors reappear. Some of Hamlet’s scenes were repeated for Stoppard’s play. It was very interesting, even though I fell asleep a few times.
Today, my sons and I went to a restaurant for supper. I often take them out to eat when they visit me. One, I’m not a very good cook. Two, I’m too lazy to cook and then wash the dishes afterwards. And three, I want my sons to know proper restaurant etiquette and protocol. My oldest son who is eighteen hardly eats out with us anymore because he’s at that age where he prefers to be with his friends. My twelve-year-old fraternal twins and I go to a restaurant at least once a week. I always make sure they learn some new fact about restaurant dining. Today, we discussed how the restaurant pays the waitress a very low wage, so she depends on tips for most of her income. Why do I do this? Because when I was a boy, we never went to restaurants. Mexicans just didn’t go to restaurants. It was cheaper to eat at home or bring your own food to the park, to the beach, to wherever. I want to save my sons from some of the embarrassment that I endured the first few times I went to restaurant because my parents had never taken me to one. I had to learn the hard way.
I must have been about eleven or twelve years old the very first time I went to a restaurant. I had found a dollar at the park and I thought that I would like to go to a restaurant. Since my parents would never take me, I would go by myself. I knew exactly which restaurant, too. There was one on the corner right by Peoples Theater at 46th and Marshfield. This restaurant caught my attention the very first time because a car had crashed halfway into its front door. I actually saw the accident, which made it all the more exciting. The next summer, I rode my bike past the restaurant minutes after another car had crashed into it. About two months later, yet another car crashed into it. Somehow, this seemed like a restaurant where I wanted to eat. Often, I would ride by on my bike and stop to look at the menu in the window. Of course, I would always listen for cars that were about to crash into the restaurant. So when I found the dollar I knew I could afford to eat there. For sixty-five cents, I could order the cheeseburger with fries and a Coke. And still have change leftover.
Well, since I had never eaten at a restaurant, I walked in and didn’t know what to do. I was staring at everyone in the restaurant when a waitress approached me. She asked me if I was lost. I said that I came to eat there and showed her my dollar. Well, actually, I handed it to her because I didn’t think she would serve until I paid first. She put my dollar back in my pocket and asked me where I would like to sit. I said, way in the back somewhere, away from the front door and windows, lest another car come crashing through. The waitress was very nice to me, took my order, and later brought out my food. She kept coming back to ask me if everything was fine. When I finished eating, she asked me if I wanted anything else, which I didn’t, since I couldn’t afford anything else. Later, she brought me this little piece of paper which I didn’t understand. It said check at the top, but since I didn’t speak English that well, I recalled that the only time I heard the word check was when my parents talked about getting paid for work with a check. After the waitress left me the check, I never saw her again. I waited for her to come back so I could pay her. I looked all over for her. I went to bathroom and I didn’t see her anywhere. I didn’t understand why she would give me a check when I didn’t do any work. I waited for her patiently. I’m not sure how long I waited, but it was a very long time because I started feeling hungry again. Finally, I just left–with the check and my dollar.
To this day, I feel embarrassed about what I did that day. But, hey, I didn’t know any better. In order to atone for that faux pas, I teach my sons the proper way to eat at a restaurant and the importance of tipping. When I explained this ritual to my sons, Alex told us how his friend Jack didn’t understand tipping. Jack’s family went to restaurant eat. There were a lot of people, so Jack’s father left a hundred-dollar bill on the table for the tip. When they got home, Jack told his dad, “You forgot this on the table,” and handed his dad the hundred-dollar bill!
Growing up in Back of the Yards had many advantages. One of them was the Peoples Theater at 1620 W. 47th Street where we went almost every weekend to see movies. I was really impressed by the theater because it seemed so classy to me. There were marble floors, marble walls, and even the restroom looked elegant with its marble floor and walls. The incongruous thing about the restroom was the fact that the rolls of toilet paper were securely bolted in place. Otherwise, people would either steal the whole roll of toilet paper or dump it into the toilet. I could never understand why anyone would dump a perfectly good roll of toilet paper into the toilet, but other public restrooms in the neighborhood that didn’t take such precautions actually had rolls of toilet paper in their toilets. However, in my circle of young friends, there was an unwritten rule that you never used the sit-down toilets of a public restroom. Never! Never ever! Under no circumstances. You were supposed to hold your number two in and run home to the comfort of your own bathroom, hopefully in the nick of time. In the auditorium of the theater, there were a lot of terra-cotta decorations. I used to stare at them while waiting for the movie to start. I was always fascinated by the ceiling way over my head. There was a giant oval recess that was always lighted. I would imagine different things while looking at it. But what I usually saw was the underside of a giant turtle. I imagined that it was in a huge overhead aquarium and I was always afraid that it break open from the weight of the giant turtle and that we would all drown under the huge waterfall. As you may have already divined, I now tell this story because no such disaster ever befell upon me!
For Christmas, Holy Cross School would have a special day for us to go to Peoples Theater to see a Christmas movie. We would get out of school for this special field trip a whole two blocks away from the school. We loved any event that allowed us to miss class!
During the week in the summer, my mother would take my younger brothers and me to Peoples Theater while my father was working. She used to like watching those romantic movies, which I found so boring when I was little. I believe we saw Gone with the Wind, Dr. Zhivago, and From Here to Eternity. Whenever the couple would kiss, I thought the movie was over and I would pull my mother’s arm so we could go home. My mother only took us to the show when she wanted to see a movie. My father would take us even if it was movie just for kids. Of course, he would sleep through the entire movie because he worked midnights at Curtiss Candy, a candy factory underneath the old S-curve at Lake Shore Drive and the Chicago River that manufactured Butterfinger and Baby Ruth candy bars. The only time he really wanted to see a movie was when they showed Cecille B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments. Of course, he fell asleep through those movies, too. We usually only went to the matinée show on Saturday because the tickets were only fifty cents.
When I was a little older, I started going to the movies with just my brothers and no parents. I was in charge of taking care of them. When my brothers were older, we all went to the theater separately with our own friends. I went a lot with Adam Mendez or Patrick McDonnell. One day, Patrick invited me to go with him during the week. I told him I couldn’t go because I couldn’t afford the full price of the ticket. He told me that he had free passes for the theater. His father had told him where to get them. There was an insurance sales office near the theater that gave free passes to customers. Patrick, who was wise beyond his years, showed me where to go to get the free tickets. He made small talk with one of the insurance agents who asked how Patrick’s father was and gave us two free passes to Peoples Theater. After that we went to show once a week during the week when the tickets cost full price and sometimes we were able to sneak in to see some adult movies. However, they caught us when we tried to see Bonnie and Clyde with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway and they made us leave. One day when we went to the insurance office, the manager told us that they were closing down, so he gave Patrick the whole packet of movie passes. If we liked a movie a lot, we would see it at least twice, oftentimes, more. When Patrick moved away, I inherited the packet of passes from him. Then, I used to go Peoples Theater with my brothers and my friend Adam. I remember that Adam and I really loved the movie The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly so much that we saw it everyday for two weeks. And we never got tired of it. I saw many of my favorite movies there: The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Born Losers (a biker movie), Flipper, and others that I can’t recall now.
When I was older, my mother sent me to see Irma Serrano at the Peoples Theater. My mother went to Mexico when Irma Serrano came to Chicago. She told me to tell Irma I was Carmen Rodriguez’s son. When I did, Irma invited me backstage and I took pictures of her. I never did learn how my mother got to know Irma Serrano
Alas! Peoples Theater is no more! There is a Walgreen’s on the site now. But I will always remember Peoples Theater for all it’s terra-cotta decorations and marble walls and floors, even in the restroom! It was kind of like going to church every week.
I just saw the play Machos written and directed by Coya Paz and performed by Teatro Luna at the 16th Street Theater in Berwyn, Illinois. Teatro Luna is the only all-Latina theater group in Chicago area and I have seen many of their previous productions that were very good, but this one is by far their funniest, and perhaps, also their most serious. Machos is based on interviews with men about how they feel about being men. The men in the play describe what it’s like to be a man and how much pressure society, family, and peers place on them in their quest to be men. This play truly analyzes all aspects of society’s expectations of men in general and also the Hispanic expections of being macho, as the play’s title implies. Since all the men are portrayed by women dressed as men, there’s a tongue in cheek attitude about the whole analysis. They honestly complain about how they don’t understand women without sounding like a David Mamet rant against bitches. If men were to put on this play, the tone would certainly come off as more hostile toward women. However, since the play is written and directed by a woman, the men portrayed seem more human and their problems and behaviour seems more plausible. The play is definitely a comedy about many serious subjects such as love, infidelity, sex, and homosexuality, but there also many poignant scenes also, like the one of the Mexican father who drinks alone at home listening to old Mexican music on vinyl LPs. Even though he’s at home with his family, he’s also alienating himself from them and therefore drinking alone instead of eating supper with family. It’s actually a vicious circle of which he’s oblivious.
Okay, my favorite scene occurred after the play was over near the restrooms. A cast member stood between the doors to the Men’s and Women’s room and said, “Which one do I use?” She, I mean He, I mean, S/he went into the Women’s room. I highly recommend this play.
Last night, I watched The Blues Brothers movie again, mainly to show my sons a classic movie about Chicago. I first saw it 1980 when I was in the Marines. I saw the 25th anniversary edition DVD at my local library and I borrowed it since I always talk about classic movies with my sons. This is an age of reproductions and sometimes my sons will quote something from a song, a TV show, or a movie they have seen without knowing the source of the imitation, parody, or spoof. So whenever possible, I try to educate my sons by pointing out the original source. Perhaps the most famous scene from The Blues Brothers movie is the one that I’ve seen in many contexts and that is the scene where Jake and Elwood Blues go to the Triple Rock Baptist Church and find God. You know the scene where Jake back flips up and down the aisle. I once saw this scene with my sons at a movie theater during the previews. My sons had seen the scene before, too, but they had never seen the whole movie.
I liked the scene at Maxwell Street because I still remember going to Maxwell Street as a boy with my father and uncles when we lived in Pilsen. When we went to St. Francis of Assisi Church on Roosevelt and Halsted, we were right around the corner from Maxwell Street. Sometimes we went to Maxwell Street after mass. My father always went to Preskill’s hardware store where my father could look at tools for hours. I always remember the little shacks that were built in the middle of the street to sell food such as red hots (hot dogs), Polish sausages, and other appetizing greasy foods, but we never ate there.
When I was old enough to drive, I often returned to Maxwell Street, against my mother’s wishes. This was a great place to buy nice clothing cheap. And tailors would alter it for a perfect fit. It was then that I was finally attracted to fine cuisine that Maxwell Street had to offer. Yes, I’m talking about those Polish sausages and pork chop sandwiches, way before they started serving them with French fries. Jim’s Original Maxwell Street Polish Sausage was right on the corner of Maxwell and Halsted. That was my favorite eating establishment. Sometimes I would stop there on the way home from the comedy clubs because they never closed. I mean never! Not even Christmas or New Year’s Eve. Where else could I buy a Polish sausage and pork chop sandwich at any hour of the day, any day of the year? Sometimes I would drive by just to smell the all the Polish sausages, pork chops, and onions piled high on the ever-grilling grill that was the equivalent of Maxwell Street’s eternal flame. I would always meet interesting people there, too. I once saw a limo pull up and the passenger got out to buy a Polish sausage and then got back into the backseat of the limo and then it drove off. I’ve often wondered about the true story of that purchase. How cool would it be to go to Maxwell Street in limo?
When I became a Chicago police officer, if I drove past Maxwell Street, I just had to stop for a Polish sausage and a pork chop sandwich. No matter what district I worked, I somehow found myself going by Maxwell Street on the way back from the Cook County Jail, the Cook County Hospital, or the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center. Of course, I would stop at Jim’s Original Maxwell Street Polish Sausage and partake of their fine cuisine.