A Tour of the Historic Chicago Theater with Drew Perfilio

I’m thinking, Sinatra stood here.

I’m also thinking, I can’t believe I used to work here.

Drew Perfilio walks me across the stage. Eleven years ago, we both worked out in the lobby, tending bar. It was a pickup gig for me at times, a full-time gig at others. At one point in this city, it was one of four jobs I was working while I tried to make ends meet. I left the theater after a while, and eventually Chicago. Drew stuck with both. Now, he’s in charge of every bartender, barback, and cocktail server in the joint, and responsible for every drop of liquor that they pour.

Which is why he can take me on the stage when the theater is dark.

“I love my job.” he tells me. And that’s important, because the hours in a gig like his are brutal. When the season is hopping, fourteen and fifteen hour days are normal. He’s letting me stay in his apartment, and I watch him drag himself home at two in the morning more than once during my visit. His wife and son are already in bed when he gets back, so we sit up and do what we’ve always done in the fifteen years we’ve known each other. We talk. We talk music. We talk philosophy. We talk poetry. We’re like Plato and Aristotle, only dumber.

Drew Perfilio, who is so punk rock he prefers his own earlier work.

A love of the music and the shows is one of the things that keeps Drew committed. But he also loves the theater itself, which has been a cornerstone of Chicago’s busy State Street since 1921, when it was constructed as a high end movie palace for the Balaban and Katz Theater Company. It quickly became one of the most popular venues in Chicago, not just for the novelty of motion pictures, but because it was one of the few buildings in the city where the public could experience air conditioning during the hot summer months.

The theater also featured live music and stage shows, and became well known for the opulence of its interior, which included murals across the ceilings, its gorgeous staircase, Tiffany glass, and two fountains near the edges of the stage which would actively pour water until theater owners noticed that everyone who sat near them had to constantly dart out to use the restrooms, at which point they were turned off.

This staircase was modeled on a staircase on the Titanic.

In the 70’s, the theater fell into disrepair. Attempts to keep it running as a movie house failed. Before it was shuttered for repairs in 1985, it was reduced to showing second-run films to an audience that included drunks sleeping in the aisles and prostitutes taking care of business with customers in the shadows.

It could have gone by the wayside, but a massive development project by a preservation group saved the old dame and converted it back to its 1930’s grandeur. On September 8, 1986, Mayor Harold Washington flipped the switch to turn the lights back on. Two days later, the theater officially re-opened with a performance by Frank Sinatra.

Today, the theater focuses on stage shows by performers ranging from Jerry Seinfeld to Arcade Fire, as well as older musicals like A Chorus Line, Cabaret and, of course, Chicago.

The view from the stage. The suspended balcony provides a good view from any seat.

In 2013, the theater hosted a tribute to one of my favorite writers: the film critic Roger Ebert. For two and a half hours, friends came to offer tributes to the great storyteller who had lost his battle with cancer that April. Ebert and his one-time nemesis turned longtime friend Gene Siskel used to watch films slated for their famous show right here in the balcony. Today, a plaque dedicated to Ebert resides in front of the main entrance, while directly across the street sits the Gene Siskel Film Center, dedicated to the equally brilliant critic who passed away in 1998.

The history of the performers is written on the walls. Drew walks me down below the stage, past the various green rooms and communal dining areas for the performers. Murals of the shows are painted in blocks the walls, then criss-crossed with the signatures of the cast. At the top of one staircase, there is a door painted purple and dedicated to Prince, adorned with the symbol he used for a name during his “The Artist Formerly Known As…” phase.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 The Prince Door. Carol Burnett’s animated likeness and signature are just to the right.

None of these are views I could have had eleven years ago. Until Drew gave me the tour, I’d never seen the lower levels of the theater, never even came close to the stage. I think I’d been inside the main auditorium just once.

Now, I could take in the suspended balcony, which so panicked the public that the theater owners placed thousands of pounds of sandbags in the seats and had newsmen photograph it so audiences would be assured they wouldn’t plunge to their deaths. Likewise, I could take in the murals on the high ceilings, the gold leaf and the ornate designs carved into the stone. I could stand on the stage where Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra had their reunion. I could sit in the box seats where the rich and powerful of Chicago have sat for 95 years.

Drew gets to see this every day, but the beauty of it isn’t lost on him. He talks through every arc of the building’s history, right down to what kind of wiring was installed when he poured his first drink on his first shift as an entry-level bartender. He can tell you the ways the different shows will be staged and which shows are going to do what kind of business. It’s his job to know this stuff, of course. But you can sense the thrill he gets from being part of it.

It’s been a decade since we worked here together, at the same level. I never would have considered moving upward, but that’s the difference between us. Drew is a Chicagoan, and there are few buildings more synonymous with the city than the theater that bears its name. For him to have a substantial role in making it run is a point of pride, and it should be. His story speaks to the work ethic embodied within the city’s DNA. By simply doing his job well, he’s become a part of this theater’s history—and by extension, of the city itself.

The Chicago Theater is located at 175 N. State Street in downtown Chicago. Their website can be found here, and has a list of upcoming shows.

Advertisements

Waxwing Music: Hurray for the Riff Raff

hurrayfortheriffraff2

Back on the scene.

Here’s my latest piece for the wonderful Waxwing Literary Journal. This is on the amazing Alynda Lee Segarra and her band Hurray for the Riff Raff, her new album The Navigator, and the question of identity in a world intent on grinding that down. I hope you enjoy.

You can read the story here: Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Lee Segarra Navigates Identity in Turbulent Times

More soon…

Jazz in the Shadow of Scott Fitzgerald: Welbourne Farm, Virginia

IMG_0195

An annual trip to Loudoun County, Virginia, where a Civil War era farmhouse serves as the unexpected home for annual festivals of music and dancing.

Loudoun County is the kind of place where Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan might have felt right at home (well, Daisy, anyway). It has, today, the highest median income of any county in the United States. The town of Middleburg is dotted with images of foxes, attesting to the county’s major pastime of fox hunting. Equestrian pursuits dominate the leisure time of county residents, and the landscape is peppered with ranches and stables. On a Sunday morning, it seems every customer in the Common Grounds coffee shop is wearing riding boots, especially the kids. The Kennedy’s once rode horses here, and the revered horse dressage publication The Chronicle of the Horse shares a building with the National Sporting Library, a museum dedicated solely to “country pursuits,” such as fox hunting, steeplechasing, and polo.

Scott Fitzgerald’s characters would have thrived here. Or Thomas Wolfe’s. And, in fact, they did. Both Wolfe and Fitzgerald came to Loudoun County in 1934 and stayed at Welbourne Farm, the home of a socialite named Elizabeth Lemmon. Fitzgerald actually wrote a story there called “Her Last Case,” which was set at Welbourne Farm, sold to the Saturday Evening Post, and was regarded by Fitzgerald as an unmitigated piece of crap.

imagephoto: Handout/Newsday

Can’t win ’em all, Scott.

I’ve actually stayed in the room where Fitzgerald worked. I even wrote at the same desk (I’m not actually sure it was the same desk, but it was a desk in the same room, so I’m going with it). And I can assure you that the only thing that Scott Fitzgerald and I have in common is that we both failed to write anything worth a damn while sitting at that desk.

Loudoun County might seem an unlikely spot for jazz, but extreme places breed extreme characters, and I have met few men in my life more unlikely, more packed full of contradictions, than Welbourne Farm’s current owner, Nat Morison.

IMG_0189Nat Morison, about to growl at me.

Nat is one of those guys who you start out describing with a sentence like, “If you looked up ‘character’ in the dictionary…” A Virginian so tied to the state as his own “country” that he will only drink the one bourbon produced within the Commonwealth (Virginia Gentleman). An enthusiast of the Civil War and keeper of the original owner’s Confederate history who is also an enthusiastic supporter of Barack Obama. He’s never sent an email, never owned a cell phone, never logged onto a computer. He is a very funny, very complex, and very unique man. Unique enough, in fact, to have a movie made (loosely) about him.

I met Nat through my friend Michael Magro, a clarinetist and fellow baseball enthusiast. Michael is the driving force behind a band called the Loose Marbles, a New Orleans street band that started specializing in traditional jazz at a time many thought traditional jazz was a quaint, and probably dying art form in the city where it was born. IMG_0712Like a lot of bands in New Orleans, it has a rotating cast of musicians and can vary in size from a quartet to upwards of fifteen players on stage at a time. Out of luck, friendship, and barely passable skills as a rhythm guitarist, I am occasionally one of those band members.

Nat Morrison fell in love with this band the first time he heard them and has been inviting Michael, and whomever he brings along with him, to the house for concerts ever since. They perform two shows a year, one at the beginning of summer and one at the end.

And I got invited because I know baseball.

When I was first introduced to Nat, we immediately began talking baseball. And not the baseball of today, mind you, but the baseball of the early 20th century. This is something I’m good at. So when Nat asked me who scored from third on Fred Merkle’s “Boner Play” in 1906* and who was on deck when Bobby Thomson hit the “Shot Heard Round the World” in 1951** and I knew the answers to both, he invited me to come visit Welbourne.

Let this be a lesson to all you elitist writers who dismiss sports as primitive diversions and meaningless amusements. I know baseball history, and therefore I got to write in the same room as F. Scott Fitzgerald.

There is a routine to these visits. The musicians arrive on Thursday or Friday, cook up big meals for themselves, and join Nat and his wife Sherry on the front porch of the home to drink Manhattans IMG_0681and play music until we all pass out from exhaustion. On Saturday is the concert, when folks from all over Loudoun Country arrive in their seersucker suits and summer dresses to dance to the bands on an improvised stage. The bands generally play three sets each (two bands in early summer and three in late summer), and often continue playing well past when the party is over and the guests have either gone home or found a spot to stay in the house.

And on Sunday, everybody plays stickball.

Understand, this is not an ordinary stickball game. This is a half century old tradition pitting two branches of local families against each other. A series of games are played throughout the summer and when the totals are tallied up, the team that has won the most games wins that year’s title and bragging rights until the following summer. On the front porch is a board showing the name of the team that has won every year going back to the 1960’s.

It’s a strange setup, and while the details are different, it harkens for me back to an imagined weekend in the English countryside sometime in the Victorian era, when musicians often had to rely on patrons to exist, and whose patrons would arrange performances for them at the grand parties where anyone who was anyone was invited.

But maybe that’s going back too far. Maybe this is closer to the world Scott Fitzgerald wrote about, roundly rejected in his writings, and yet was irresistibly drawn to in his life. The beautiful settings. The monied couples. The grand parties. The marvelous musicians playing marvelous things. It’s something out of the past, and the music of choice reflects that. Jazz standards of the 20’s and 30’s, spirituals, old string band numbers. Stickball in the afternoon and chess on the back porch. Drinks in the evening while the self-avowed “curmudgeon” who owns the joint opens his mail. Dogs, everywhere.

IMG_0182

Robin and Tomas rehearse before the show.

You come to Loudoun County and you are instantly confused. You come to Welbourne Farm and you’re even more confused. People like to use cliches here like, “You travel back in time.” But that’s nonsense. The place is old, and there’s a lot of the Old World about it, but the 21st century is outside tapping its foot. The place remains rooted not in the past, but in its own way of being. It continues to function seemingly independent from the rest of the world. Maybe that’s why Fitzgerald had such a hard time writing about the place. This isn’t so much an island as it is a sandbar, and those who stand on it can see the shore but don’t have much interest in going across. Every time I go back there, everything still seems aged, but in exactly the same way as when I left. Even the dogs never seem to get any older.

On Sunday, I performed the last of my weekend duties when Michael connected a microphone to an amp so I could do the play-by-play on the stickball game. In between, he would play organ music from various ballparks, and I would hawk non-existent products and give goofy introductions to each batter. Another musician squeezed rubber chickens and hit wood blocks for sound effects. We always try to make the broadcast sound like something forgotten, something that you don’t hear anymore. It’s the only language that sounds intelligible in this corner of the world.

IMG_0203

Barnabus Jones on trombone and Aaron Gunn on fiddle. Yours truly, just behind, struggling to read the chart.

*–Moose McCormick

**–Willie Mays

 

Welbourne Farm operates as a bed and breakfast now. You can see about making reservations here.

The Loose Marbles can be found here. One version of them can be seen just below:

LUKE WINSLOW KING

rs_Luke-Winslow-King-BW_Jason-Kruppa

Luke! Stop with the pretty!

 

Well my good friend Luke Winslow King has himself a brand new label for his brand new album. And if that isn’t enough, yours truly authored the liner notes.

For those of you who aren’t hip to what the kids are doing these days, Luke is an impossibly pretty man of high talent and good nature, who comes from a fine family and puts on a hell of a live show with his trio (a.k.a.—The Ragtime Millionaires). He’s out there on the road as I write this, performing and recording with his partner in crime, Esther Rose, and their chaperone and guardian angel, Cassidy Holden. I highly recommend you check them out when they swing into a fine establishment near you.

Here’s the website for their new label, Bloodshot Records. They have Luke’s album on the cover AND a picture of a Chicago Hot Dog. You can’t beat that.

And here’s Luke’s personal website. Note the reappearance of above too-damn-pretty photograph.

Here’s a little clip of the trio at a live performance in Oxford, Mississippi. Give it a listen. They are fine young kids who call their mothers and they deserve your support.

 

 

Now go buy the album. I’m all kinds of published in it.

images

The King Records Story, and Song of the Day 12/15/11

Today, two versions of a little gem off the great Cincinnati label King Records, whose old building at 1540 Brewster Avenue now stands as a Rock and Roll Heritage Site. I’m always drawn to the various sounds that various cities produce. Every town has its own rhythms, its own music, from the trains barreling around Chicago’s loop to the steamboats blowing past St. Louis to the clip clop of mule hooves all around New Orleans. New York may house the biggest labels, and L.A. may be home to the world’s greatest dream factory, but when the story of American music is written, it tends to find its strongest voice in the towns that grow their music right out of the ground.

Some labels had a sound so distinctive that they are forever identified with the cities that spawned them. Chess Records in Chicago. Stax and Sun in Memphis. Motown in Detroit. Every label tells a story. It’s the mark of not only the producer, but the engineers, the distributors, even the recording studio itself.

What made Cincinnati’s King Records unique was that they controlled every step of their process from one building. When you walked into that old factory on Brewster, you could find artists recording, engineers mixing, and a small crew of people pressing and printing every record, sometimes in quantities as small as a few dozen, then shipping them out to every radio station and record store they figured would gain them and audience, even if it meant building the audience one station and store at a time. It was on-demand music of a style that big labels were too impatient to emulate when their money came from mass production, and that smaller independent labels couldn’t emulate, as they didn’t have the same resources.

Originally, King Records focused on country music—“If it’s a King, it’s a Hillbilly!”—while keeping a race records label—Queen Records—on the side. Eventually, the race records, as they were known at the time, would be absorbed into King as part of an emerging rhythm and blues catalogue that would soon feature the likes of Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, Billy Ward and the Dominoes, Little Willie John, and a very young James Brown.

It was this rhythm and blues market that King owner Syd Nathan focused on from the late 1940’s onward. By 1950, what had once been a strictly country outfit was well on its way to being regarded as the “king” of rhythm and blues labels. One of the turning points for King’s move from country to rhythm and blues came in 1949, as the label scored big hits on both charts with the song, “Why Don’t You Haul Off and Love Me.”

Wayne Raney, a country musician from Arkansas who established his greatest wealth with a harmonica business, co-wrote the song and recorded it for King. By September of 1949, the song soared to the top of Billboard’s Country and Western charts—ending the sixteen-week reign of Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues” at number one.

Shortly after Raney recorded his version, Syd Nathan, seeing its potential in a different market, passed the song along to a talented rhythm and blues saxophonist named Bull Moose Jackson, who had already scored number one hits on Billboard’s Race Records chart with “I Love You, Yes I Do” (1947)—which was the first R & B record to sell a million copies—and “I Can’t Go On Without You” (1948).

Jackson’s version, dotted with handclaps and driven by driving saxophone blasts, roared up Billboard’s newly named Rhythm and Blues chart (it was called the Race Records chart until June of that year), reaching number two in late November and sticking there for two weeks, behind Louis Jordan’s “Saturday Night Fish Fry.” As 1949 rolled over into 1950—with the Golden Age of Rock and Roll inching ever closer—King Records left behind its country roots for the new, swinging sound of rhythm and blues.

Today, we’ll give a listen to both versions of a track that stands as a signpost in the history of one of American music’s great labels. First, let’s give a listen to Raney’s version, a bouncy hillbilly tune that became Raney’s biggest hit:

Next, the swinging version recorded by Bull Moose Jackson and his Buffalo Bearcats. Sadly, not many people remember the Moose these days. Like King Records, his remarkable contribution to the body of American music is largely forgotten. If enough people hear songs like this, however, that shouldn’t be the case for long.