April 1, 2013

Ode to the Lakeshore Theater - By Art Hinty

The good old days @ The Lakeshore Theater
First, I need to get you to understand this: I've always disliked Chicago. I was going to say "hated," but to earn my hatred you have to actively do something to harm me or mine.

Chicago never did that. Why would it? It had no need to recognize that I even existed, much less grew up, attended college, built a career a couple hours to the north. Up here in — scoff — Wisconsin. Ya-hey-der.

No, I couldn't hate Chicago. But I certainly can work up a strong case of dislike for an entity, just because of what it is. And like many of my fellow Wisconsinites, I disliked Chicago. The place is so big, so successful, so intimidating, so busy, so rich, so cool, so aloof.

To the moneybags from Chicago, Wisconsin is nothing but a playground; a woodsy, quaint place the Land of Lincoln license plates roll through (far too fast, by the way) to spend money in our Wisconsin Dells and Door County tourist traps.

Chicago's sports teams were always a little better than Wisconsin's. Its radio stations — at least the AM ones we could receive — were light years ahead in quality. Their highways actually cost money to drive on and still were often packed like parking lots and scary to negotiate. The talented people it sent to Hollywood and Washington always were prettier, sharper, funnier, far more abundant. Its middle-class people lived in homes my neighbors would call mansions.

God damn Chicago. Those Flatlanders. Those Fucking Illinois Bastards.

With few exceptions, that opinion served me well all the way through college. Why? Because Wisconsin had a drinking age of 18 back then (Illinois' was 21) and my college sat only 60 miles from the seemingly never-ending northwest Chicago 'burbs. As a result, thousands of F.I.B. punk kids — suburban brats, mostly — conned their parents into shelling out my school's more expensive, out-of-state tuition.

The kids told Mom and Pop about the school's nationally renowned accounting, marketing and finance programs. But as soon as their parents dropped them off, those kids headed straight to the bar, pouring ass-hat juice past their upturned collars and down their throats. And that, folks, was really why they wanted to come to my college.

Time mellows most opinions, though, and I eventually befriended some of those suburban Chicago kids. Then a few more, and more after that. My dislike for them softened considerably. I still dreaded visiting Chicago — but, as I began to notice, so did my friends, who lived in the vastly different world that was the northwest suburbs. They never ventured into the city unless there was a ballgame or a concert, bitching about the $12 drinks and the fuckin’ (well, a few of them seemed really fixated on ethnic slurs) and those fuckin’ Polacks (perhaps forgetting that I am one).

Many of my Chicago college friends moved away after graduating, and I didn't have to even think about visiting the place for the longest time. "I've avoided that damn Tollway for five years," I thought to myself on that day in 2005 (I'm guessing) when my friend, the comedian Doug Stanhope, told me he was booked into a place called the Lakeshore Theater. It straddled the Boys Town/Lakeside neighborhoods, Belmont and Broadway, a wicked piss from Lake Michigan.

I went there and fell in love with the place instantly. Not necessarily the whole city — that took longer — but definitely the place.

Long lines at the Lakeshore
They had just repurposed the place from music to comedy. Their advertising was edgy - one slogan was "Dane Cook Sucks And You Know It" - and they were booking people like Doug, Reggie Watts, Andy Andrist, Hannibal Buress, Doug Bensono, Maria Bamford ... well before those people caught whatever fire they've since caught.

There has never been a place like this in the comedy-free zone called Milwaukee. The people here don't "get" good comedy, only partly because it isn't offered to them. Back then, there were four clubs in Milwaukee and they booked whatever touring C-listers they could afford (unless, of course, King Kong Bundy or Rowdy Roddy Piper wanted a booking). No risks, no love for the game. Because their artistic vision doesn't venture past their bottom line.
Around here, the last thing anyone wants to do is push an envelope. They have rules for what words you can say and what topics you can broach. That's not comedy, that's commerce. Of course, you can't really fault the local clubs; they're in business to make money, not history. But still ... It's a wonder one of the places isn't named Chuckle E. Cheese.

Not at the Lakeshore. Art happened at the Lakeshore. And that was completely because of the guy who ran the place, a heart-on-his-sleeve, brilliant train wreck by the name of Chris Ritter. Chris and his lovely wife, Jessica, had operated other theater spaces in the city, and were brought on in part by Paul Provenza (one of the world’s shining lights of comedy, editor of the movie "The Aristocrats" and star of the TV show "Northern Exposure") and other partners as a part owner/manager.

Ritter was hired because he valued quality above all else. And it had to be HIS definition of quality — brutally honest, heartfelt, witty, sometimes spiteful, but always hopeful. Never did he tell a comic what words to avoid or which topics to skip. When it succeeded, it soared. When it failed, the crash was spectacular. Both were entertaining. Ritter's taste is rare. I know because while his is far more educated and experienced, it matches up almost perfectly with my own.

Like me, Stanhope is his all-time favorite. Like me, he believed artists such as Glenn Wool, Andy Andrist, Sean Rouse, Neil Hamburger, and there are many more, were geniuses no matter what crowds they drew. Small houses were the public's fault, not the artists'.

Chris Ritter, Doug Stanhope, & Junior Stopka
Some of the other talents he has brought to my attention - Jamie Kilstein, Reggie Watts, Brendon Burns, Jim Jefferies, Rick Shapiro, Jerry Rocha — have enriched my comedy life as well as my personal life. And meeting the local up-and-coming comics in Chicago — again, far more talented than the ones from my city, but full of the same hopes, dreams, foibles and insecurities — was a welcome side effect.

He also made time for schlubs like myself. He booked a show with "The Unbookables" — me hosting for Andrist, Matt Kirshen and Brett Erickson, with a guest set (wow!) by Reggie Fucking Watts. Another time, when Provenza was in town and a sparse crowd showed for a booking by someone or other, seven of us took the stage instead and played tag-team, telling stories until one bombed, at which point we relinquished the mic. Fun? None better.

Suddenly, this kid with the inferiority complex from second-rate Wisconsin had fallen completely in love with Chicago, Chicagoans, the whole package. I began to learn some of the insiders' tricks. Instead of paying $40 for parking in a ramp, I figured out how to park at a cheap or free meter and walk or cab my way around, like the locals. I even learned to park in the suburbs and ride the El into town.

They taught me to last-minute Priceline a downtown hotel on the weekends; that's how I wound up in the fancy Holiday Inn above the Sun-Times building for $35 one weekend. I got to know and patronize most of the businesses up and down both Broadway and Belmont. And someone introduced me to a Wisconsin-themed bar called the Northwoods, which was packed to the gills and fully Green and Gold for a Packers-Bears game. Heaven.

The Ritters took a liking to me and often threw me on stage when I visited. I got to walk in for free and then got stage time, to boot! They treated me like family, letting me visit backstage and meet people I never thought I'd get to know — including the Aqua Teen Hunger Force guys, the guys from the Broken Lizard movies, so many others. Even bigger names came through at times when I couldn't attend. Once, Robin Williams dropped in because he had heard so much about the place; he wound up doing 20 minutes just for fun.

Hannibal Buress
Sometimes, the plane would crash. I remember one Stanhope/Andrist/Brendon Walsh show... They had just passed a no-smoking law in Chicago, but there apparently was a loophole that allowed smoking as part of theatrical performances. So Stanhope could smoke on stage. But he didn't want to do it alone. So he set up six chairs on the side of the stage and allowed smokers from the audience to freely rotate in and out of the spots when they wanted to light up — as part of the show.

It made the news, and the fire marshal soon tugged that loophole shut.

That same night, we all were drunk for the late show, and Doug decided to make it a marathon. Ritter had set us up with a big backstage bucket full of ice and beer, and we put a nice dent into it. Smoking out back, Andrist found an American flag and appropriated it. He pushed the ice bucket onto the stage during Stanhope's set, then tried to light the flag on fire and extinguish it in the ice water. Stanhope one-upped that stunt without missing a beat. He glanced at the surprise event, then immediately turned, unzipped and pissed on the flag in the bucket. Andrist then dropped trou and plopped has ass down into the urine-soaked ice... and for the final 30 minutes of the 2½-hour Stanhope set, I was on stage mopping up the slop so that Jessica Ritter's head wouldn't explode.

A few months later, I spent a half-hour after Neil Hamburger's set with that same mop, sweeping up the dropped and broken vodka-tonic glasses and the “booze” that had been inside them.

Another time, I walked along the Lake Michigan shoreline with Glenn Wool as he got his head straight and headed back for the first of what were four knockout shows, recorded for his astonishing Stand Up! Records CD, "Let Your Hands Go."

And once, when I opened for Neil Hamburger at Schuba's in August, 2009 — my first time touring with a fairly big name — I walked the 12 blocks between the venues to say hello, and Ritter and headliner Jamie Kilstein allowed me to go up and plug the late show.

But all of that was more normal than not. Through the early days of the Ritters' run at the Lakeshore, things often got out of hand, on stage and off, personally and professionally. Chris will tell you as much, unashamedly and unapologetically. He was having such a blast with these comedy greats that he never wanted the party to stop. And so it didn't, getting bumped along by various artificial means until the business side of things started to shift from "it'll take care of itself" to "uh-oh."

Ritter cleaned himself up about a year and a half before the end of the ride. And the results showed — he was bright-eyed and attentive to business, he came up with fresh ideas and he started to pack the place and build a clientele of fans. The Lakeshore was getting a buzz, partly because Ritter wasn't.

But the acts he loved weren't the type to draw an audience of deep-pocketed patrons of the arts. And, apparently, even though the place made enough in its last year to meet its costs, the debt incurred from the initial renovation was not being sufficiently served. Trouble was looming.

So many people fell in love with the Lakeshore. When the place needed air-conditioning work last year, Patton Oswalt performed shows for no pay, raising enough to cover the five-figure costs. The staff turned over frequently — mainly because they were unpaid interns expected to produce like full-time veterans — but those who stayed did so because they loved the Ritters and the Lakeshore.

Stanhope played the place the first weekend of March 2010, selling out three of four shows. Everything seemed perfect; it was the happiest this recently jobless schlub (me) had been in months. Jessica Ritter told me of a health scare (which, of course, she defeated soundly).

And Stanhope came up to me at the end of the run and said "they love you so much here... they (the Ritters) tell me that every time you show up, the place just lights up and even the people who don't know you can tell." My heart was touched. My heart was theirs. Of course, it had been for a long time.

Then came the first sign of trouble: A Facebook posting by Ritter soliciting an investor to buy a 25 percent share of the place for $250,000. It could be spread out among multiple individuals in $10,000 increments. If I had been working, I would have bought one of those shares.

However, I was apparently in the minority. A week later, Ritter cryptically posted: "Who would want to step up and run the Lakeshore if I were to, uh ... disappear?"

I asked around some back channels to see if anyone knew what was up, and I heard a couple more under-the-radar things that concerned me.

And then, late in the afternoon of April Fool's Day, came the announcement:

Christopher Ritter is sad to announce that after eight wonderful years, the Lakeshore will be closing on April 10th. The Jim Jefferies weekend will be a two-day going away party. Please buy a ticket so I can pay some bills ...

Holy balls! It was all over! I arrived home, half-buzzed from a half-decent 10-minute guest set in Lake Geneva, to see the news, and, yes, I started crying uncontrollably. I called around and most had already heard about it. Everyone was in shock. Dan Schlissel, who had recorded many CDs there for his Stand Up! Records label, called because he wanted to talk. But we didn't really talk; we just sat there and sighed back and forth.

It truly was as if a friend had died. Many people felt the same way. I lifted the following comments off Facebook postings:

Corrie Besse: So much blood, sweat and tears went into that space. I wish and hope that as these doors close that new exciting ones await in your future!

Robert Buscemi: Sorry, Ritter. Damn it. I loved that damn place. Thanks for everything and best in whatever's next.

Junior Stopka: This was really the best and my favorite place to perform in Chicago. There definitely won't be another like it. Made me a better comedian. Sadness shots all around. Peace

Stacy Bresnahan: I am sorry... It is a great loss to this city, and as many have said there won't be another like it... that place will forever hold many memories and many laughs for me.

Jonny Watson: The Lakeshore Theater was always like the girl that I knew one day would leave me...

Adam Burke: Made us grimy little upstarts feel like world-class swells; loved every minute I had there offstage and on.

James Fritz: You, sir, were my Mitzi Shore, only more feminine. I told myself I'd never let a building make me cry again after 9/11, but this is an exception. Thank you and your staff for getting it. Thank you for giving me my dream gig on my dream stage.

Drew Freudenberger: I will follow these fuckers into hell.

Cody Shaffer: God, this hurts my soul.

A sad looking Art Hinty (upper right), with Co-owner Craig Golden
Me: I know you both poured heart and soul into the place, and you really did make something
magical there. Don't ever let anyone tell you different. It was like heaven to me, it really was, maybe a little because of the place but mostly because of the people.

I was there on that Saturday night when Jim Jefferies closed the joint with two sold-out shows. I bought a ticket in advance, but nobody had to know because once again, I just walked in like I owned the place, grabbed some guacamole and chips from the backstage "spread," and laughed and cried and cried and laughed and cried and cried.

I definitely wasn’t alone. On hand were dozens of my newly minted friends — many of whom are on the rise locally, thanks in large part to the Lakeshore's support of local comedy. The Ritters were there to collect all the love they have earned through their blood and sweat, their tears and laughter. The party lasted all night and then some.

And then it was all gone.

This literally was my favorite place in the world — a building that taught me to love a city — and the fact that it still stands and operates under a different name today merely emphasizes the fact that it's gone forever. It will never be the same. I will never be the same. Comedy will never be the same.

God damn Chicago.

Contributing Writer
Arthur Hinty
This essay was part of Arthur Hinty's book  "Saving Myself," available for $4 download or $17 paperback