Friday, May 30, 2008

Harmonic convergence

Our Friday performance series continues with the Everly Brothers, or as Paul McCartney called them in song, "Phil and Don."

Enjoy the masters at work:

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Cookie closure

Quoth the fourth and final fortune cookie: "No one conquers who doesn't fight."

Certainly true, and likely good advice, but a fortune? Mmm... no. It may imply a choice implicit in one's future (you'll have to fight if you want to win), and it may offer insight into a cruel world (you can't get what you want without a struggle), but strictly speaking it is not a fortune.

I assume fortune cookies used to give out fortunes, but these days they mostly just flatter or pontificate. They either tell you how great you are or offer timeless truisms, dispensing so many pearls of wisdom they should be called oyster cookies.

I have no idea why. Is it lazy writing? A language barrier or cultural divide? Creative desperation at the cookie factory?

In any case, the game is over. Final total: one fortune in four cookies. Despite the admittedly small sample size, a .250 batting average is not too impressive considering that whoever wrote these "fortunes" could have written whatever they wanted. In baseball, there's a pitcher and eight other defenders trying to get you out; in fortune writing you can bat 1.000 if you just keep your eye on the ball. The only limit is your own imagination.

Come on, fortune writers. I know it's tough, but you can do it. No one conquers who doesn't fight.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A trip through time

I'm getting a fair amount of Johnny Depp and Christian Bale traffic today. Those of you who can't make it to the North Side location this week might enjoy this local news report showing how the set designers have overhauled Lincoln Ave. to depict a bygone era.



Walking east from the DePaul "L" stop Monday evening, BEN happens past a lengthy bundle of live power cables on the north side of Fullerton Avenue guarded by a burly SECURITY GUARD.

BEN (to self):
That's odd. I wonder if they had a power outage.

Crossing Lincoln Avenue and heading north on Halsted Street, BEN passes another SECURITY GUARD, then several PEOPLE wearing radio earpieces. The street is lined with open trailer trucks full of equipment. It is unmistakably a location shoot.

BEN wonders idly what movie, TV show or commercial would choose to shoot in the middle of the congested Lincoln Park neighborhood.

Suddenly it hits him: a big movie production now filming around town is Public Enemies, a historical crime drama starring Johnny Depp as the Depression-era Chicago gangster and Public Enemy No. 1 John Dillinger.

BEN is no historian, but even he knows Dillinger was famously gunned down outside the Biograph Theater, with a "woman in red" involved somehow. The Biograph stands 200 feet away from where BEN is now walking. Clearly they're about to film the day Dillinger met his fate.

You guys doing the Johnny Depp movie?


So John Dillinger's getting killed tonight?

Not tonight. We're just setting up. He'll be here on Thursday. Maybe Christian Bale too.

Cool, thanks. Good luck with the movie.


Pff. Who said writing a screenplay was hard? That was nothing. 119 more pages and I've got a bio-pic script of my own, albeit one of utterly no interest to anyone but myself.

I was headed to my regular card game, where I learned that many of the businesses along Lincoln Avenue have been handsomely paid to close up shop for the duration of the movie shoot.

It reminded me of a few years ago when Ocean's Twelve filmed scenes in downtown Lake Forest, the Chicago suburb where I work. The production company wrote a huge check to the owner of the local florist shop to move her entire operation off-site in the height of wedding season and reconstruct her store to accommodate a camera crane and crew, all so George Clooney could spend twenty seconds buying some flowers.

And who knows how much they had to pay Metra, our local commuter rail system, to stop the trains from coming through town on a Saturday afternoon. No wonder so many movies cost $100 million these days.

Back on the Johnny Depp front, I've had two female friends ask me recently in separate conversations whether I wanted to join them to "stalk Johnny Depp." They each used that phrase.

Despite their somewhat disturbing use of the word "stalk," I knew what they meant. My friends are normal if star-struck people who mean no harm, they just want to catch a glimpse of a heartthrob movie star and maybe get a snapshot or autograph.

Lake Foresters were the same way: even wealthy, jet-setting sophisticates struggled to get within panting distance of Clooney, and the lucky few who happened to visit Starbucks when Julia Roberts did were the envy of many.

In my ongoing role as a real-life Leonard Zelig I've met my share of famous people, and between that and me not having a uterus and all, I took a pass on skipping a day of work to drive 40 miles out to Aurora to try to see Johnny Depp from behind a barricade.

But you're on notice, oversexed young women of Chicago: Johnny Depp will be filming tomorrow right in your backyard, and maybe Christian Bale too (he's Batman, you know). Once the stars get there you probably won't be able to walk right through the location as easily as I did, but by all means, have at it.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

National champions

Congratulations to the Northwestern University women's lacrosse team, which won its fourth consecutive national championship Sunday evening in Towson, Maryland. By beating Penn 10-6 in the tournament final the Wildcats wrapped up another NCAA title in style, defeating the only team to beat them this year.

Much of the credit goes to coach Kelly Amonte Hiller. An NCAA champion during her playing days at the University of Maryland, Amonte Hiller has built something unprecedented: a national lacrosse dynasty based in the Midwest.

Lacrosse is widely viewed as an East Coast sport, played mostly at prep schools, colleges and universities along the Atlantic seaboard. Like platform tennis, it's been big in New England for decades, spreading more recently to the central states.

When I attended New Trier Township High School in suburban Chicago, we were one of only eight high schools in Illinois to field a lacrosse team. And that was boys' LAX; girls' lacrosse was on no one's radar screen then. It sure is now.

When Northwestern won the NCAA tournament in 2005, it was the first national lacrosse title at any level—private or public high school, college club team or college varsity—for any American team of either gender based outside of the Eastern Time Zone.

They got more media attention when a few of them wore flip-flops to meet President Bush at the White House (quel scandale!) than they did for winning a national championship in a somewhat obscure sport, but the lacrosse establishment certainly noticed.

NU proved the surprise title was no fluke by reeling off three more national championships in a row. In fact, they got better as time went on, going undefeated for the entire season en route to their second title. They built an even longer streak over the following two years, winning 36 straight before falling to Penn a month ago in the regular-season finale. All told, over the last four seasons, they're an eye-popping 82-3.

Things look good for next year too. NU will lose only one key player from the current squad, senior defender Christy Finch. They've weathered bigger losses before, such as last year's graduation of 2006 and 2007 Tewaaraton Trophy winner (i.e. two-time national player of the year) Kristen Kjellman.

There's a great human interest angle. Northwestern has recruited some of its best players from an unlikely place, the little town of Westwood, Massachusetts (population 14,000), where local resident Leslie Frank started a youth lacrosse program in 1998. She started coaching the Westwood High School girls' team the next year and quickly built an unstoppable force much like Northwestern's current team.

Although a state champ and star player at Westwood, Kjellman was lightly recruited by the traditional college lacrosse powers. The overlooked player took a chance on fellow Massachusetts native Amonte Hiller's unproven Northwestern program and they made beautiful music together. Kjellman became the consensus best player in the nation and NU's top all-time scorer, leading the upstart Wildcats to the national championship.

Numerous players have followed the trail Kjellman blazed from Westwood to Evanston. One of them is Leslie Frank's daughter Meredith Frank, now a sharpshooting Northwestern junior. The unusual tie between the Boston suburb and the midwestern university has grown so strong that some people refer to the college as "Northwestwood."

NU's national dominance is all the more impressive given that Northwestern lacrosse was promoted from club sport to varsity only seven years ago. How far they've come, and how fast.

Congratulations to coach Amonte Hiller and her players and staff from a proud alum.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day

I can think of no better way to honor our war dead than to stop creating more of them.

Vote Democratic in November.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Good enough for me

I just cracked open the third of the four Chinese fortune cookies I've been writing about. The paper slip inside read: "Be prepared to receive something special."

All righty then, an actual fortune for once. Kinda vague, but suitably predictive. Not advice, observation, compliment, fashion tip or maxim. Perfectly serviceable.

When we open the fourth and final cookie in the next few days, we'll see whether they finish strong with two real fortunes in a row, or regress to something like "You have many pleasing characteristics."

With all the talk of cookies and puppets lately, this would be a good opportunity to merge the two threads and acknowledge one of my childhood heroes, Cookie Monster.

He was the inspiration for Trekkie Monster, Avenue Q's resident Internet porn addict. Just as Trekkie grows a little by the end of the show, so has Cookie begun asking fundamental questions of himself, offering this bit of introspection over at McSweeney's.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

There is life outside your apartment

Sure, the Tribune and Sun-Times weighed in with glowing reviews of Avenue Q, but what about the opinion of record, Flavorpill?

Regular readers of this space will not be surprised to learn we're recommending it too; my preview is here.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Puppet regime

First I mentioned Kermit the Frog, then Kermit, Prince of Denmark.

Let's honor the Rule of Three by rounding out the week with this "Muppet Show" classic:

Thursday, May 22, 2008

More misfortune

I recently alluded to a fortune cookie fortune (not to be confused with a cookie fortune cookie) that wasn't a fortune at all, merely an observation. On my usual high horse, I broke out the tweed jacket from my teaching days and delivered a brief lecture as to what is and is not a fortune. Apparently another sermon is in order.

Because the Chinese meal was carry-out, I was given not one but four fortune cookies. Ever on the lookout for blog fodder, I decided I would gradually crack open the remaining cookies and report on whether my fortunes improved, literally and figuratively.

Fortune #2 doesn't deliver the goods any better than Fortune #1. The new "fortune" reads, "Use your talents. That's what they are intended for."

Good advice, to be sure, but advice is not a fortune. "Look before you leap" is not a fortune. "Respect your elders" is not a fortune. "You will inherit a large windfall" is a fortune. "Happier times are around the corner" is a fortune.

At least they're chocolate fortune cookies.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Avenue Q

After years of anticipation, the smash Broadway hit Avenue Q opens today in Chicago. It's the latest stage in an ongoing rocket ride for my college friend Jeff Marx, the show's co-creator.

We met freshman year in the Honors dormitory at the University of Michigan and hit it off. Jeff was a friendly, talented kid from Hollywood, Florida with a great love for musical comedy. He wrote funny songs on the synthesizer in his dorm room and performed in campus musicals.

For Jeff, musical theater wasn't just a hobby; he had more serious ambitions. After college he moved to New York City and embarked on a theater career, working for major Broadway producers like Andrew Lloyd Webber and Fran and Barry Weissler to learn the business side of show business. He also cultivated songwriting mentors like Stephen Sondheim and Barry Manilow.

Jeff went to law school to learn about his own rights as a creative artist, working as a research assistant for a leading professor of entertainment law. All the while he was developing his skills as a songwriter, creating and writing entire shows by himself and shepherding the annual law school musical.

After graduation, Jeff won admission into a prestigious musical theater boot camp called the BMI Workshop, where he met a talented composer-lyricist and recent Yale grad named Bobby Lopez. At an early session, Jeff performed a funny, touching song he'd written called "People Suck" ("People suck / Nobody listens / Nobody really cares about you / But I do"). Bobby and Jeff liked each other's work and soon decided to work together.

They wanted to write musicals for their own generation, but to the modern audience, characters suddenly bursting into song like Gordon MacRae in Oklahoma! felt stilted and passe, like something from a previous era. A traditional musical wasn't going to cut it. It occurred to Jeff and Bobby that everyone their age had grown up on "Sesame Street" and no one batted an eye when a Muppet sang a lesson or silly song. So they decided to write for the Muppets.

They co-wrote a Muppet musical version of Hamlet entitled Kermit, Prince of Denmark. Unlike the murderous original, it's a mistaken identity comedy in the Prince and the Pauper vein. A lookalike Kermit is mistaken for the Prince, and after he's swept into the castle by confused courtiers, his sunshiny Muppet enthusiasm restores friendship and happiness to the tense Danish monarchy.

I've heard the songs; they're fantastic. Unfortunately, Jim Henson's son Brian passed, leaving Jeff and Bobby nowhere to go since they didn't own the characters. The good news was that Kermit won them the Ed Kleban Award, a $100,000 cash prize funded by the late lyricist of A Chorus Line that helped support them while they continued to chase their dream.

After their Muppet experience, they realized they had to create their own characters to control their own destiny. And so they did, writing a funny, racy parody of children's television: think "Sesame Street" for grownups.

The protagonist is a fresh-faced college grad puppet named Princeton. He arrives in New York City ready to set the world on fire, but he doesn't have a job and the city's pretty expensive. He finds his first apartment on Avenue Q, a downtrodden but affordable block in an outer borough, where he and his new neighbors struggle to get jobs, find dates, sort out their sexuality, make ends meet in the big city and figure out their purpose in life.

Despite all the puppets and primary colors, Avenue Q isn't for kids: with songs like "The Internet Is For Porn," "If You Were Gay" and "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," the show teaches a lot more than the alphabet.

It's by turns hilarious, dirty, clever and moving, a knowing sendup of earnest public television like "Sesame" and "The Electric Company" and yet entirely original. The puppeteers work in full view of the audience, acting out their parts along with the puppets. No one had seen anything like it and pretty much everyone who saw it loved it.

Jeff and Bobby originally wrote Avenue Q for television, intending it for somewhere like Fox, HBO or ideally the post-South Park timeslot on Comedy Central. But television executives gave them the cold shoulder.

Things got interesting when a producer of Rent offered to produce Avenue Q for the stage. Jeff and Bobby quickly embraced the idea: with an open-ended television series, they'd have to write new songs every week, whereas in the theater, they could handpick their best material and craft a complete story with a beginning, middle and end. With the powerhouse producing team of the biggest musical in years ready to make it happen, all they had to do was say yes.

The rest is theater history. Avenue Q opened off-Broadway in the Vineyard Theater to a huge response, drawing rave reviews and earning a Lucille Lortel award for the best off-Broadway musical. It became a word-of-mouth hit and was extended several times.

Soon after the run, the show's producers announced it was headed to Broadway. Some skeptics thought it was too small a show to make the jump up to the big time, but they were proved wrong. Avenue Q booked the Golden Theater, the smallest theater on Broadway, where the audience could still read the puppeteers' facial expressions and the show could maintain the intimate feel of its off-Broadway run.

Avenue Q opened on Broadway on July 31, 2003 and never looked back. It drew raves from the critics and roars from the seats, quickly becoming the must-see buzz show of the season. I saw it over Labor Day weekend in 2003, five weeks into its Broadway run, and it blew the roof off the place. The show was even better than I'd heard it was. I laughed myself silly and and was literally moved to tears by a bunch of puppets. I thought I'd lost interest in musical theater, but boy, was I wrong.

In an elegant case of life imitating art, Jeff was supposed to join my family for dinner on our way to the show, but he ended up having to postpone for a few days. He was busy wrapping up his move from a drafty fifth-floor walkup in an unfashionable outlying neighborhood—the real life equivalent of Avenue Q—to a sleek Times Square apartment in a doorman building around the corner from the Golden Theater. Princeton had graduated.

For my money, Avenue Q is the best new musical this country has produced since A Chorus Line. By now, you may have reason to doubt my objectivity, so don't take my word for it. Ask anyone who's seen it. Read its reviews. Everyone agrees: it's a great, great show.

The Chicago stop on the national tour will be over in two short weeks, so don't miss out. Grab your Avenue Q tickets here.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


1. Cubs catcher Geovany Soto was credited with an inside-the-park home run last night when his long fly ball bounced off the Minute Maid Park outfield wall close to the yellow line. Me, I thought it looked like a regular home run and Soto got a little more exercise than he needed.

Then again, who cares? Soto has been terrific either way and the Cubs have won 9 of 11. Alfonso Soriano is your National League Player of the Week with 7 HR, 16 hits, 14 RBI, 10 runs, a .516 average and 6 multihit games from May 12 to 18, including 5 for 5 with 2 HR Saturday. He's swinging at beach balls with a tennis racket. As announcer Bob Brenly said, Soriano's so hot you have to wear an oven mitt to give him a high five.

The Soto homer reminds me of an old Onion article about the violent overthrow of America. One of the jokes went something like, "Most Americans will be sold into white slavery. Everyone else will be sold into regular slavery."

There's a possible further Cubs inaccuracy brewing in the person of recent hire Jim Edmonds, specifically in re his reputation as a washed-up, broken-down slugger who can't field his position. Friends of mine who follow Edmonds' last two teams have reported as much, and that the Cubs erred when they signed Edmonds to play center and sent Felix Pie down to the minors.

And maybe my friends are right, but you wouldn't know it by watching last night's game. With a two outs, a runner on base and the Cubs protecting a two-run lead, Hunter Pence tattooed a ball to deep center field. Edmonds took off on a dead run with his back to the infield and made an elegant catch about 400 feet from the plate, saving at least one run. He coasted to a stop as he ran up Tal's Hill behind the warning track.

It was reminiscent of Willie Mays' famous basket catch at the Polo Grounds in the 1954 World Series. Edmonds may be past his prime, but it looks like the eight-time Gold Glove winner could still have some gas left in the tank.

2. The paper slip in my fortune cookie from Opera the other night read, "You have a slow and unhurried natural rhythm." At least that's what I think it said, but my spastic hummingbird heart was beating so fast, I might have misread it.

3. The above is not a fortune, merely an observation.

Get with it, Chinatown. "You will take a dangerous journey" is a fortune. "You will meet a mysterious stranger" is a fortune. "People think you are friendly" is not a fortune.

4. In "The Rainbow Connection," Kermit the Frog wonders why there are so many songs about rainbows. Really? Are there? Off the top of my head, I can think of only two songs about rainbows: "The Rainbow Connection" and The Rolling Stones' "She's a Rainbow." And that one's really about a woman.

5. A frequently aired Partnership for a Drug-Free America public service announcement intones, "Steroids don't make great athletes, they destroy them."

This is a good lesson for the kids and all, and surely sound medical advice, but despite the feel-good sentiment it's not accurate as a matter of pure athletics. As the WSJ recently reported, steroid cheats generally not only prosper, they enjoy the sporting benefits for years after they knock off the sauce.

A more accurate tagline might be: "Steroids don't make great athletes, they make them rich."

Monday, May 19, 2008

Tasty capsules

Looking for some fun around town?  Here are my latest suggestions, via Flavorpill:

1.  Tiffany Dome Project Wed. May 21, 6pm at Chicago Cultural Center. Free.  Conversation about the ongoing restoration of an architectural landmark.

2.  The Long Blondes w/ Gabby Glaser Sat. May 24, 8:30pm at Logan Square Auditorium.  Rock and roll music.

3.  Campaign Supernova! or How Many Democrats Does It Take to Lose an Election? Ongoing, Thu. through Sun. evenings at Second City e.t.c. Politically charged sketch comedy.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Blog closed

It's too nice out to blog. I'm playing tennis. You should too!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Medical advice

If you need medical attention, consider Resurrection Health Care.

Their three levels of service are, in increasing order of urgency, Occupational, Medicine, and Resurrection.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

For shame!

FOBB&B Stephen Schmidt is running a Final Four-style summer blockbuster box-office tournament (pity whoever had Speed Racer taking the checkered flag).

While handicapping a few upcoming releases the other day, he referred to the "Sex and the City" movie as Horse-Face, Lezzie, Cougar and The Hot Chick.

My heavens! Such language! I can't endorse that kind of gratuitous ad hominem attack.

But really, is he wrong?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

She's what-ing Obama?

Here, the two leading video series of 2008 converge:

Elsewhere in sex-charged Obama video mashups, who would have thought that the princely candidate would be dogged by not one but two rampaging preachers? Sure, we've all heard plenty from Rev. Wright, but this guy takes misguided demagoguery to another level:

I hesitate to give Rev. Manning any more attention than he deserves (none), but I'm entertained by the bizarre combination of his wacky message, his hilarious yelling and the catchy 50 Cent track.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


After a citywide outcry, the proposed Chicago arts ordinance has been sent back to committee for revision.

No word yet on whether the statute will now call for independent musicians, actors and comedians to be rounded up and shot.

A riddle

Q: What's hot and blue and has 250 toes?
A: The Chicago Cubs.

The North Siders got their fourth straight comeback win last night behind another strong performance from Carlos Zambrano, who improved to 6-1. His three earned runs raised his ERA to 2.03, but something tells me he doesn't care.

The Cubs are 15-6 at Wrigley Field, off to a 4-0 start and batting .323 on the current homestand. They're either grinding out a win with scrappy late-inning hitting or piling it on with a double-digit scoring barrage. Last night it was the latter as they overwhelmed the hapless San Diego Padres softball-style.

I arrived home as Zambrano was batting to lead off the fifth inning with the Cubs down a run. As I pulled into my garage, listening to the game on the radio, Zambrano hit a ball off the outfield wall and ended up on second.

Wanting to see whether leadoff man Alfonso Soriano would drive him in, I knew I had to hustle upstairs because Soriano hacks at everything. He's never met a first pitch he doesn't like.

So I hurry up the stairs and straight to my TV... just in time to see Soriano rounding second in his home run trot. Less than a minute had gone by, but that was all it took. It's great to see Soriano returning to form after missing much of the season with an injury.

With the floodgates thus open, the Cubs batted around and scored six runs in that inning. It was their major league-leading 12th time they have scored at least five runs in an inning. That is, until ten minutes later, when they batted around again and scored five more the next inning.

Pity the Padres, whose wheels have already come off in this young season. They've barely won a game in the last three weeks, recently releasing All-Star Jim Edmonds as they try to figure out what's wrong with their team. For now, it's "Greg Maddux and pray for four days of rain."

As dominant as Zambrano is on the mound, his batsmanship is also noteworthy. He takes pride in his hitting and does it well, going 2 for 4 last night to raise his average to .296. He's a big man who can hit for power and do the little things like hit behind the runner.

Zambrano can also switch-hit, getting a hit last night from each side of the plate. And when he gets on, he runs the bases like an enthusiastic Little Leaguer.

He also has a cute sense of humor. After the game, he was asked whether the chilly weather bothered him. "No," the Venezualan deadpanned, "because I'm from Alaska." Everyone chuckled.

A lot of people are smiling in Wrigley Field these days.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Arts crisis in Chicago

Several people have alerted me to this matter of grave importance to anyone who cares about the continued survival of the independent arts scene in Chicago.

A proposed ordinance now pending in the Chicago City Council could decimate the city's creative community. Small theater, music and comedy venues all over town would be saddled with a draconian new law placing unnecessary hurdles before them and effectively giving the city the power to shut them down at will.

It's been quietly rushed through committee with no solicitation of public feedback, reminiscent of the Soldier Field renovation funding bill (and look how well that turned out). The full City Council will consider the ordinance Wednesday.

The goal of the ordinance is actually worthwhile—to curtail a small minority of promoters whose impromptu music shows are unsafe—but as drafted it's a catastrophically overbroad statute, a hair-trigger bazooka aimed at a fly.

A grassroots consortium of Chicago artists is organizing a petition drive against the proposed ordinance. Here's their take:
Stop the promoter's ordinance

May 9, 2008

Imagine a Chicago with no Metro or Double Door or Schuba’s. Imagine a Chicago with no Royal George or Bailiwick or Athenaeum. Imagine a Chicago where local music is only heard in the suburbs and theater is limited to Wicked and Jersey Boys.

Scary thoughts. But if the City of Chicago’s City Council doesn’t hear your voice by Wednesday, May 14, they’ll become reality.

On that date the council will vote to approve an ordinance that has the power to stifle creativity in Chicago’s musical, theatrical, and general cultural scenes. With no public discourse or commentary, this proposal has been approved by the City Council Committee and is on the fast track to be pushed into law. It is up to us to let our elected officials know that Chicago’s creative scene is too rich, too varied, and too vital to be regulated in such a blanket fashion.

The details:

The “Event Promoters” ordinance requires any event promoter to have a license from the city of Chicago and liability insurance of $300,000, but that’s just the start:

  • The definition of “event promoter” is so loosely defined it could apply to a band that books its own shows or a theater company that’s in town for a one-week run.
  • “Event Promoter” must be licensed and will pay $500 - $2000 depending on expected audience size.
  • To get the license, applicant must be over 21, get fingerprinted, submit to a background check, and jump over several other hurdles.
  • This ordinance seems targeted towards smaller venues, since those with 500+ permanent seats are exempt.
  • Police must be notified at least 7 days in advance of event.

For the complete ordinance, check out Jim DeRogatis’ blog on the Chicago Sun-Times.

We are collecting signatures to present to the council voicing our opposition to this ordinance. YOUR VOICE IS NECESSARY TO ENSURE CHICAGO’S CULTURAL SCENE CONTINUES TO THRIVE. Please leave a comment as your expression of disapproval. These will be presented to the City Council and to all Chicago Aldermen prior to Wednesday’s vote.

Thank you for helping to protect Chicago’s Culture.


Theresa Carter, The Local Tourist: THE Website for downtown Chicago
Michael Teach, Chicago Acoustic Underground
Michael Narvaez, Chicago Acoustic Underground

Sunday, May 11, 2008

A miscellany of coolth

With Kup gone and the INC. column a distant memory, today I'm doing my part to report on various cool things that have come to my attention.

1. Robin Williams, in town to tape an episode of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," made unannounced late-night standup appearances last weekend at the Lakeshore Theater and Town Hall Pub.

Big stars playing small rooms to the happy surprise of whoever happens to be there: to me, that's cool.

2. Rising local comedian Hannibal Buress killed with some new material at the Red Line Tap, part of Schadenfreude's Rent Party Tour. Before he went on, he quietly showed me a nice feature the Chicago Tribune had written about him the day before (good for you, Hannibal). I agree with the Trib: he's cool.

3. What Hannibal was too modest to mention, but I heard elsewhere, was that Robin Williams had handpicked him to open at the Lakeshore later that night. How cool is that? It's the latest feather in the cap of an outstanding young talent who'll appear on Comedy Central's "Live at Gotham" on July 25.

4. Speaking of the omnipresent Schadenfreude, they're the writing team behind a new sketch comedy TV show entitled "IL-Informed." It's by, for and about Chicagoans: our headlines, neighborhoods, politics and foibles. Think "The Daily Show" meets "SNL" shot by a "Chicago Tonight" crew.

Like Schadenfreude's radio program and umpteen stage shows before it, "IL-Informed" is smart, topical and funny (and need I add cool?). WTTW has been airing the pilot this week and is looking for a corporate sponsor to underwrite more episodes. Are you listening, Accenture? Motorola? United? McDonalds? Somebody step up, they won't bite your hand... that hard.

5. Happy Mother's Day to my mom. She is extremely cool.

6. A law school friend of mine, Assistant U.S. Atty. Reid Schar, will deliver the federal government's closing argument tomorrow morning in the ongoing showcase corruption trial of financier Tony Rezko. That is a cool assignment for a tough-as-nails prosecutor. Go get 'em, Reid.

7. Some cool baseballiana:
  • Albert Pujols has reached base in every one of the St. Louis Cardinals' 36 games this season.

  • The Arizona Diamondbacks' Brandon Webb has won all eight of his starts this season. Not surprisingly, he was named the National League Pitcher of the Month for April. (The Cubs don't have to face him this weekend, but to get the sweep today they have to beat Randy Johnson.)

  • Yet another Cubbiversary: on May 9, 1993, 15 years ago Friday, Cubs first baseman Mark Grace hit for the cycle at Wrigley Field. He got his home run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, but it was not enough to prevent a one-run loss.

  • Speaking of the cycle, current Cub Daryle Ward, whose RBI pinch single tied yesterday's game in the seventh, is part of the only father-son combination in major league history to hit for the cycle. He did it in 2004 and his father, Gary Ward, did it in 1980. As a trivia geek of long standing, I find this cool.

  • Ward the Younger is also the only player to hit a ball into the Allegheny River on the fly from Pittsburgh's PNC Park during a regulation game.
8. Someone I know very well has won a total of $843 in his last three trips to the poker table. Although this required the despicable practice of gambling, and there was plenty of luck involved, it's still kinda cool.

9. My brother Ari Bass and his girlfriend, Sarah Ingram, have both begun volunteering their time to mentor young people for the Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Chicago. Because of its social contribution, this one is particularly cool.

10. What cool list would be complete without a mention of Fonzie punching the jukebox at Al's Diner to play a song? Not too recent, perhaps, and somewhat quaint by today's standards, but in its time it defined cool.

11. You. For reading Ben Bass and Beyond, you are cool.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Campaign Supernova!

Run, don't walk to The Second City e.t.c.'s new show, Campaign Supernova! or How Many Democrats Does It Take to Lose an Election?, which opened last night to an enthusiastic reception from a capacity crowd. It's an election-season winner.

Campaign Supernova! is funny from top to bottom, with a nice mix of timely political swipes, quick blackouts, grounded emotional scenes and a few instant Second City classics. It's well worth your time and easily worth your money. Congratulations to the cast, staff and director Matt Hovde.

On the personal side, as is the case with the enjoyable new Second City Mainstage show No Country For Old White Men, it's gratifying to see so many of my fellow performers from the iO Theater having climbed the Second City ranks to the highest level.

Campaign Supernova! runs Thursdays through Sundays at The Second City e.t.c., 1608 N. Wells St. in Chicago. More information is here.

Update: My Flavorpill preview is here.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Sports Yak with Ben Bass

I'm no better than a sports talk radio yammerer. Three days in a row now about sports. Sheesh!

There has been much hand-wringing lately over the gulf between the trained journalists in the mainstream sports media (who apparently never blow a story or dodge a tough issue) and the Wild West of opinionated, irresponsible bloggers (who apparently trade in slander and gossip, drowning out the traditional press by their sheer numbers). This reductive view is, of course, a false divide.

Bob Costas' typically thorough 90-minute live "Costas Now" on HBO last week articulated the shades of gray in our brave new world of instant online DIY publishing and video. Among other things, Costas pointed out that there are legitimate sources contributing credible journalism on the Internet. Today, we acknowledge one of these.

When I was a kid, my dad used to subscribe to the Wall Street Journal (in fact, still does) and I would sometimes flip through it too. Although I didn't really get into their dense articles about the regulatory climate or the Fed, I did like the Journal's coverage of arts, sports and pop culture. One columnist I'd often read was their sports editor, the imposingly named Frederick C. Klein.

Fast-forward to 2008. In the years since I used to read his columns on the family room floor in Glencoe, Illinois, someone introduced my dad to Mr. Klein ("Fred" away from the newsprint), a fellow Chicago native as it turns out, and they've become friends. He's now retired from the Journal but still writing books and articles. His latest project is a sports blog, Fred Klein on Sports, which I encourage you to check out.

Incidentally, Mr. Klein supports a theory I alluded to the other day, that Kerry Wood's 20-strikeout game at the dawn of his big-league career was ruinous to his long-term prospects. His take is that Wood tried to repeat the feat in every subsequent start, with disastrous consequences for his arm. Don't take it from me, take it from the emeritus sports editor of the Wall Street Journal.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Hope springs eternal

Last night an older, wiser Kerry Wood celebrated the tenth anniversary of his 20-strikeout game by pitching the ninth inning and earning the save in the Cubs' 3-0 win at Cincinnati. Just as he had on 5/6/98, Wood got two men on strikes in the ninth.

This time Carlos Zambrano did the heavy lifting, pitching eight shutout innings. Zambrano wasn't throwing corkscrew breaking balls or 100-m.p.h. heat, and only got three outs by strikeout, but had his usual good stuff, inducing eight groundouts and eleven strikeouts.

Zambrano knows the difference between throwing and pitching. He can break out the flamethrower or sweeping curveball when he needs it, but against a scuffling Cincinnati team, the crafty approach sufficed; he kept it in third gear and still got 24 outs with no runs scored. After eight starts, the Cubs ace is 5-1 with a 1.80 ERA. There's a lesson in there somewhere.

For those who prefer a routing number and a signature on their lessons, Zambrano signed a $91.5-million, five-year contract extension last August that will keep him on the North Side through 2012.

Zambrano would have liked to get the complete game, but manager Lou Piniella shut him down after eight innings. With the Cubs widely expected to contend this year, they'd rather save something for September and, they hope, October.

Yesterday's post was about a Cubs rookie sensation. Since I rarely write about Los Ositos, let's take a moment to acknowledge two current Cubs rookies who helped the team set a record with 17 April wins.

Japanese import and recent Sports Illustrated cover boy Kosuke Fukudome has led the way with consistent hitting and excellent defense. His discipline at the plate seems to be infectious as the whole team is following his lead, working deeper into counts than they have in the past.

The patient approach is working. The Cubs are drawing more walks (2nd in N.L.) and getting on base at a .367 clip (2nd in N.L.). Seeing more pitches also increases the chance of getting a mistake to hit, and sure enough, the Cubs are hitting .280 as a team. With more ducks on the pond, they're scoring runs in bunches and winning more games. They're also a lot more fun to watch.

Like Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and Daisuke Matsuzaka before him, Fukudome was an established player in Japan before making the leap to the American major leagues. He'd won two batting titles, four Gold Gloves and an MVP award in Japan's Central League. Although he's technically a rookie in the United States, his continued hitting prowess in 2008 was not exactly unexpected, as reflected by his $48 million contract.

The Cubs' other hot rookie, however, is a happy surprise. Catcher Geovany Soto is batting .375 with 19 doubles, a triple, nine homers and 31 RBIs in 45 games since being called up from the minors last September 3. He was named the NL Rookie of the Month in April after leading all rookies with 5 HR and 20 RBI. "Geo" has fallen a triple short of hitting for the cycle three times already this season, and it's only May 7.

I was happy for Kerry Wood last night, getting the job done to mark the anniversary of an earlier feat. Hopes are high that the 2008 Cubs can do likewise: they last won a World Series in 1908.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


Last week was the anniversary of Lee Elia's big day, but now it's Kerry Wood's turn.

Ten years ago today, in just his fifth major league start, Cubs rookie phenom Kerry Wood tied a major league record by striking out twenty Houston Astros in a nine-inning game at Wrigley Field.

Wearing number 34 in honor of fellow Texan strikeout artist Nolan Ryan, Wood pitched like him too. Every Astro struck out at least once, and 3-4-5 hitters Jeff Bagwell, Jack Howell and Moises Alou, three times each.

Wood whiffed the first five batters he faced, and also struck out the side in the fifth, seventh and eighth innings in becoming just the second player ever to record 20 Ks in a nine-inning game. A third Texan, Roger Clemens, who called Wood after the game to congratulate him, did it twice. (Randy Johnson also matched the feat in 2001, but was denied recognition because his game went into extra innings.)

Wood allowed only one base hit, on a ball that glanced off third baseman Kevin Orie's glove and was ruled an infield single. Orie would rather have been charged with the error, as the Ricky Gutierrez shot proved to be the lone hit Wood surrendered all day; of course, only seven Houston hitters managed to put the ball in play. Wood had to settle for a one-hit shutout.

Striking out any twenty big-league hitters in a single game is an amazing feat, but Wood did it against a first-place team known for its solid hitting. Houston's starting lineup included surefire Hall of Famer Craig Biggio and onetime Rookie of the Year and National League MVP Jeff Bagwell. Three of their starters were batting over .300 at the time and the vaunted "Killer B's" (Biggio, Bagwell and Derek Bell) were all in their prime.

It didn't matter. They all looked foolish against the 20-year-old rookie, twisting themselves into knots trying to hit the kid. Then again, even an all-star team couldn't have touched him that day. His stuff was ridiculous, with his curveball breaking over three feet and his fastball hitting 100 m.p.h. on the radar gun. Some of his breaking balls looked like they were headed for the dugout when they crossed the plate.

Craig Biggio did manage to reach base by getting hit by a pitch. It figured that the lone plunkee was Biggio, who recently retired just short of the all-time Hit By Pitch record.

Not only was Wood in an untouchable zone, he was also locked into the mindset of his catcher, Sandy Martinez. "We were on the same page," Wood said after the game. "Every sign he put down I already had the grip in my glove. It felt like we could have gone out there with no signals."

The fans in the stands eventually ran out of "K" signs to track Wood's progress, but they kept cheering for more, and he kept dealing.

As the game wore on, Wood just got better. Starting in the seventh inning, he struck out six straight batters, and ran it to seven when pinch hitter Bill Spiers went down swinging to open the ninth inning. This broke the rookie record of 18 strikeouts in a game.

After Biggio grounded out, the smallish crowd roared its appreciation and desire for Wood to finish in style. He did so, getting Derek Bell swinging to finish with an even twenty Ks. Thus did the 20-year-old Wood become only the second big-league pitcher ever to strike out his age. Bob Feller also pulled off the unusual feat in 1936, when "Rapid Robert" struck out 17 batters at age 17.

Wood was probably the beneficiary of a league-wide mandate to expand the strike zone, as home plate umpire Jerry Meals was generous with his strike calls. However, this hardly diminishes Wood's remarkable accomplishment. He was so far ahead of the hitters that the whole spectacle looked unfair. They might as well have been swinging a piano leg.

Wood's masterpiece overshadowed a fine performance by Houston starter Shane Reynolds, who struck out ten Cubs. Like Wood, Reynolds struck out the side in the first inning; thus, the game's first eight batters went down on strikes. Reynolds also pitched a complete game, surrendering only one earned run en route to a hard-luck 2-0 loss.

Recalling Johnny Vander Meer, the "Dutch Master" who pitched back-to-back no-hitters in 1938, Wood fired 13 more strikeouts in his follow-up appearance for a remarkable 33 strikeouts in two games. He went on to win 13 games that season, after which he was named the National League Rookie of the Year.

Sadly, "Kid K" would not manage a single strikeout the following year, as his now-familiar decade of injury problems began. In hindsight, one can't help but wonder whether Wood's magical 1998 season ruined his arm, just as some believe Steve Stone's extreme breaking balls during his 25-7, Cy Young Award-winning 1980 season compromised the rest of his career.

In May of 1998, though, the future looked bright for Kerry Wood. I can't imagine a more fitting pair of initials than K.W.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Calling all U.S. Americans

Recently it was all about books and the New Yorker around here, but now we're giving equal time to things that are dumb.

No celebration of stupidity would be complete without the following instant classic. Yes, we've all seen it, but with 24 million YouTube views and counting, it has earned a permanent home on BB&B (that's what my marketing people are urging me to call Ben Bass and Beyond).

In sum, this empty vessel of a woman makes me sigh on several levels:

Friday, May 2, 2008

Dept. of Duh

"My mother was a woman."
—Don King, on a recent Howard Stern Show

Airplane Maintenance: Maybe Not a Place to Skimp

Some Scientists Argue We Are Built to Coo At the Sight of a Baby

Your investments tanking? You're not alone
[Chi Trib; front page, no less]


Thursday, May 1, 2008

On charity

Last night I attended a cancer benefit that raised a lot of money for the cause.

Today, though, I'm feeling guilty. So tonight I'm attending an anti-cancer benefit.