Monday, June 30, 2014

You Can Fail Here: Chicago And The Second City

Chicago's Second City...wall of fame
The Second City's facade (gray building on the right) began as the Schiller Theater, the home of the German Opera Company in Chicago, and was designed by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler in the 1890s. This portion was salvaged when the building was razed in 1960.
One of the best things I ever did for myself as an aspiring writer was take acting classes. It was also one of the best things I ever did for myself as a human being. I'll get to the why of that soon. First I want to fill you in on the where--as in where I took these magical, life-changing acting classes.

In Chicago there's no shortage of places to study acting. Theaters are to Chicago what pubs are to Dublin. "Good puzzle would be cross Dublin without passing a pub," wrote James Joyce in Ulysses about his hometown. "Good puzzle would be cross Chicago without passing a theater (or a hot dog joint)," writes me, here, about my hometown. Some sources put the count of theaters in Chicago at over 200. Some also claim this makes Chicago the true theater capital of the U.S. I don't know enough about American theater to back up or challenge that claim. But I do know that Chicago's contribution to American theater--and world theater--is pretty significant.

Chicago is, after all, the Second City and the home of The Second City, the improvisational theater troupe that revolutionized comedy theater in the U.S. and beyond when it first opened its doors in 1959. The Second City is also where I took those magical acting classes, and where I recently joined up with a walking tour of Chicago's Old Town neighborhood on a brisk Sunday morning.

Balloon house architecture in Chicago's Old Town neighborhood.
In Old Town.

Seen in a chocolate shop window in Old Town. Money, guns, and high cholesterol--the story of Chicago.
I was happy to be one of only 2 or 3 locals on the walking tour--happy because the number of out-of-towners on the tour (from L.A., Oakland, New Jersey, Texas, Mississippi, and Idaho) shows that Chicago's claim to comedy and theater fame isn't bunk. But it would be hard for the rest of the country not to know about Chicago's comedy reputation, considering the number of successful comedians and actors Chicago's improv scene has produced. The Second City's list of Mainstage alumni includes Bill Murray, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, John Belushi, Joan Rivers, Del Close, Alan Arkin, Chris Farley, Tim Meadows, Steve Carell, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Eugene Levy, Gilda Radner, Ed Asner, Nia Vardalos, George Wendt, Amy Sedaris, Rachel Dratch, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Shelley Long, Peter Boyle, Mike Myers, and John Candy.

Second City alumni John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, Rosemary Radcliffe, Eugene Levy, and Gilda Radner, in 1974, pic on entranceway to The Second City theatre in Chicago.
And that's just from the Mainstage. Famous names who have taken classes at The Second City Training Center (without going on to perform on the Mainstage) include Amy Poehler, Halle Berry, and Jon Favreau. Other improv schools in Chicago, like iO and Annoyance Theatre, can boast of having taught Vince Vaughan, Jason Sudeikis, Seth Meyers, and Jane Lynch (as well as a good few of the names already mentioned above) a thing or two at the start of their careers. After Chicago, many of these actors went on to join the cast or writing crew of "Saturday Night Live," the longest-running sketch comedy show in American television history. From "SNL" it was typically on to Hollywood. In other words, there's an excellent chance that if you've ever had a really good laugh some night watching TV or at the movies in the last 50 years, you've got Chicago to thank for it. (You're welcome, world.)




Considering Chicago improv's solid record of churning out future stars, it only makes sense that the most famous improv theater of all would milk its reputation for tourism purposes. The Second City has long promoted itself as a must-see attraction for visitors to Chicago, and its walking tours of the Old Town area are nothing new--there was a tour on offer by the theater going back at least 10 years ago. After a few years' hiatus of the original Second City tour, the current walking tour was created by Margaret Hicks, a Chicago tour guide, author, and improv performer. Hicks leads the tour twice a week--on Sunday mornings and Wednesday early evenings--from May through October. The tour lasts about an hour and a half to 2 hours and costs only $15 per person. (Hicks has her own tour company that offers a few other walking tours of different areas of Chicago, called Chicago Elevated. She didn't tell me this, as I turned shy and forgot to ask her a few basic questions about herself after the tour, but I stalked, er, Googled her later and found her Twitter account and FB page--I've provided links in case you'd like to stalk her too.)

Margaret Hicks in front of the Twin Anchors. I could not for the life of me get a picture of her with her eyes open this day.
Margaret Hicks shows us a Chicago home with a plaque on it, so naturally we had to stop and look at it.
Hicks's version of the tour offers a bit of general Chicago history (i.e., the Great Fire of 1871, neighborhood architecture, and, ahem, local corruption) along with stuff about the beginnings of The Second City, the rules and philosophy of improv, and gossip about some of The Second City's famous alumni. The gossip is the best part of course. Everyone wants to hear about John Belushi's wild days and genius, about Chris Farley's loyalty to Chicago (even after finding fame in New York and Hollywood) to the end of his life, about Gilda Radner's pure joy for performing and making people laugh, about Harold Ramis's Chicago-based inspiration for his blockbuster Ghostbusters (even though the film was set in New York), and about how Mike Myers and Joan Rivers actually kinda sucked at improv.

St. Michael's Church in Old Town. Part of the church survived the Chicago Fire of 1871. This is also where Second City alum Chris Farley went to mass regularly.
The Twin Anchors bar and restaurant in Old Town. Fans of the films Return to Me and The Dark Knight might recognize this place.
Just a few blocks from The Second City and Piper's Alley, the Twin Anchors was a favorite hangout of Frank Sinatra. By the way, that dude on the right is having his novel made into a movie by Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro.
But is the tour funny? That's the question. The answer is Yes...and. (Improv in-joke there.) Hicks manages to get a lot of mileage--and laughs--out of Chicago's history of violence, corruption, and general weirdness. She gets in a lot of jokes at the expense of New York too...maybe even too many. Like any true Chicagoan, I think New York City is inferior to Chicago, even something of a craphole to be honest. I will never understand why so many foreign visitors who travel to the U.S. consistently limit their sightseeing here to those 4 American hell zones known as New York, DisneyWorld, Las Vegas, and Hollywood, and completely bypass the country's actual gems, such as our national parks and wilderness areas and genuinely lovely and interesting cities like Austin, San Diego, New Orleans, Portland, and yes, Chicago. Saying that, I think too much ribbing or comparison to other places during a tour can wear itself out a bit. Comparing Chicago to New York over and over only tends to expose those infamous "second city" insecurities that earned us the nickname in the first place.

The Sears Tower as seen from an Old Town side street.
Up the street from The Second City,a bit of Old Town and old Chicago history.

In Old Town. Not a theater, this is a horse-and-carriage company and stables.
Comedy competition in Old Town. The difference between a club like Zanies and The Second City is that Zanies is strictly stand-up (i.e., scripted) while The Second City is improv and experimental.
More famous faces.
Speaking of which, Chicago's branding as "the Second City" by Mr. A-Hole J. Liebling back in the 1950s is covered by Hicks on the tour, as she explains how and why The Second City theater appropriated the nickname for itself. And in between the laughs, Hicks does a good job making clear how seriously Chicago takes improv. Before this tour, I never knew of improv's surprising beginnings as a tool invented by Viola Spolin for helping immigrant and inner-city children. Spolin's son, Paul Sills, a student and theater director in the 1950s at the University if Chicago, borrowed his mother's techniques to form the Compass Players, the first improvisational theater group in the United States, and later The Second City. Not content with just making audiences chuckle, the early players and improvisers of The Second City created comedy that satirized and commented on current social and political issues and set down rules for improv that encouraged players to perform as a team, stay in the moment, follow their instincts, keep the momentum of the scene going, and play up to the intelligence of their character and audience.

List of Second City alumni inside the theater building.
Find the famous name.
These rules aren't as easy to bring to the stage as some might think, especially night after night. If you don't believe it, try taking an improv class yourself and see how you fare at it. Along with improv rules, The Second City also created a full-fledged training program for aspiring improvisers, comedians, and actors. Hicks lays it all out on the tour, explaining that while anyone can take beginning improv classes at The Second City, getting to perform on the Mainstage takes several years' commitment and a little bit of good timing. Aspiring players must first take at least a year's worth of improv classes before auditioning for The Second City Conservatory, where they'll learn how to put together sketches for a revue and perform on the school's smaller stages such as Donny's Skybox. After two years with The Conservatory, students can audition for The Second City's touring company and gain a few more years' experience. The end goal of all this apprenticeship is to get hired as one of the resident actors on the Mainstage or with the e.t.c. cast. Getting to the Mainstage is far from a given for Second City alumni. Hicks explains that there are only 12 spots altogether between the Mainstage cast and the e.t.c. cast, and unlike The Conservatory and the touring company, there's no auditioning for the Mainstage. Cast members are instead chosen by a combination of luck, talent, and reputation--i.e., there's a spot open, the theater company knows who you are and has taken notice of your skills and development, and you haven't burned any bridges or stepped on too many toes (but have maybe held onto a few coattails--that's allowed) to get this far. If all these stars are aligned, you might get the tap on your shoulder by the company. Might. If not, I suppose there's always New York or L.A. (Who's the "second city" now, bi-coasters?)

There's another specific requirement on the way to The Second City Mainstage, one that's required even before auditioning for The Conservatory. Improv and comedy writing classes aren't enough. All aspiring Conservatory students must have completed an acting course before auditioning. And that's kinda where my own experience with The Second City comes in...

I've never auditioned for The Conservatory. And I'm not a former improv student. What I am is a woman who had wanted to be an actress when I was a kid, but never pursued it in any way. I was extremely shy for one thing...I still am. Plus it was made clear to me when I was young that such dreams weren't realistic. "You want a nice clean job," I remember my mother telling me when I was young and mentioned something about wanting to be an actress. What she meant was some position in an office or a school maybe, something stable. I didn't have the confidence back then to push ahead with my dreams anyway, but I didn't have the practicality in me to entirely forget them either. And there was the shyness problem anyway--really the biggest obstacle. (In defense of my mother and father, I came to understand that their point of view comes from being born into the Great Depression to uneducated parents and growing up during a world war in urban poverty--in my father's case--and working-class--in my mother's case--with little education of their own beyond high school. They didn't have much stability or financial security growing up. They wanted to be sure their own children did. And one of the last occupations that provides stability or security is acting.)

Outside the Mainstage entrance, by the box office.
Famous faces on the box office wall at Second City.
But in the winter of 2006-07 I made a decision to make some changes in my life. I was living on my own in Chicago with a full-time job and friends and my family living fairly nearby. But I was habitually bored and pretty lonely. A new year was approaching and I decided I'd try to shake things up a little in my life, maybe get out more, meet some people, make some new friends, volunteer somewhere. Some time in 2006 I'd picked up a flyer about acting classes being held at some studio in the city, and I thought 'Maybe you should finally give this a try.' A few months later I was watching an episode of "Cold Case" where a cab driver named Dennis goes after his dream of being an actor, lands a role in a community production of "Cabaret," but then gets rubbed off on opening night. "Dennis was brave," the lady detective taunts the production's musical director, who as it turned out murdered Dennis out of jealousy. 'I wanna be brave,' I remember thinking. So I decided then and there to go ahead and sign up for acting classes somewhere, even if it was sad and cheesy that my inspiration was an episode of "Cold Case."

On the box office wall. Stephen Colbert would be so proud of me turning a night vegging on the couch watching "Cold Case" into the beginning of a creative journey. ;-)
I chose acting classes at The Second City because of the theater's reputation. I didn't consider that such a reputation would probably just make my jitters worse by the time the first class session began. I was a nervous wreck the day I took the Brown Line to the Old Town neighborhood for the first class--and I was a nervous wreck pretty much every class session after. It never got easier for me--the jitters and the fear. I just got a little braver at living through it.

The acting program at The Second City Training Center at that time consisted of 3 levels (I believe they've since added on 1 or 2 more). In a nutshell, in the first level you worked on a monologue, in the second you got a partner and worked on a scene, and in the third you worked on scenes and monologues from a specific, more challenging playwright (in the case of my group, we worked on Tennessee Williams). All 3 levels were taught by Michael Pieper, a theater director from San Diego (by way of Nebraska) who created the acting program at The Second City. He'd probably be embarrassed for me to say it here, but I came to regard Michael as something of an angel. Though a big man with a fullback's physique, he was nothing like the scary and demanding "Master Thespian" type teacher I expected. He was never pretentious, never insulting or unfair. He had no interest in making a student feel inferior or unable or as if he or she had no right to be in his class. Michael taught us acting based on the Method technique, pioneered by Stanislavsky and later Lee Strasberg. We rarely did anything improvisational in class. We worked with scripts, we learned beat work, we memorized lines, we rehearsed, we learned how to audition. That isn't to say we never experimented--Michael in fact encouraged this. I remember one class in the first level where we all practiced our monologues over and over, out loud and at the same time, using different accents, different emotions, different postures and positions, no matter how seemingly inappropriate some of these accents or emotions or movements might be to the scene. The idea was that you never knew what such experimentation and play and creative open-mindedness would trigger in your interpretation of a character and scene, what complexities and nuances might develop. Don't worry about making a fool or failure out of yourself, Michael would tell us. Just play. Use your body. Get out of your head. Live in the moment.

Ordinary Chicago setting, a few blocks from The Second City.
Chicago home.
Our city in a garden. Under the el tracks in Old Town.
In the second level this experimentation and play was used more in service to specific senses and in calling up specific memories to help you emotionally develop the scene. We had exercises where we had to all walk around the room with our eyes closed while trying to identify our scene partner by the sound of her voice or by his smell. Trust was also a big focus in this level, and it was around this time when I began to be aware of how much these classes were helping me. I have a lot of problems with trusting people. And of course, it's had an effect on my relationships with other people. Until acting classes, my not getting to know and connect with other people easily was always something I'd blamed on my shyness. And despite being an emotional person, for years I'd been stuffing my emotions, shutting them down essentially, after a particularly difficult time in my life around 2001. That emotional repression definitely affected my attempts at acting in the first level--Michael summed up my final performance of my monologue (from The Widow's Blind Date by Israel Horowitz) by telling me, "You're holding back." Considering my monologue was of a woman who'd been gang-raped at 18 finally confronting and moving in for revenge on 2 of her attackers 20 years later, there was no place for holding back. (Sidenote: In case you were wondering if we worked on comic plays and scenes in class, what with this being The Second City and all, the preceding sentence should answer your question. No. No, we did not work on funny stuff in class. Not even close.) By then I had already signed up for the second level, and Michael singled me out of everyone else in the first level to tell me, "I'm going to push you. Just so you know. Be prepared."

He wasn't joking. He did push me, and everyone in the second level class. This was the level where you had to start trusting your classmates and scene partner (and really, the audience) by opening up with your emotions. This meant exercises like getting onstage and sharing memories of highly emotional experiences in your past with the entire class. It was scary as hell, but an essential part of moving forward with your creative (and I'd say personal) development. And it created a bond with your classmates that made performing (and for me, coming to class) easier and more natural.

Another thing about our second level classes was that they were held in the Mainstage theater. So every week we rehearsed onstage alongside the spirits of crazy John Belushi and young Stephen Colbert and in between the tables and chairs in the audience section. Looking back, I wish I'd thought to take some pictures during class, even once. But I was always so nervous before every class, it never occurred to me how fortunate and cool this experience was and that I might take a picture or something for memories' sake.

Piper's Alley marquee advertising Second City productions. Piper's Alley houses The Second City.
Self-explanatory.

Serious face on the facade of Second City's entrance. German novelist Fritz Reuter or Parks and Rec cast member Nick Offerman. You be the judge.
By the third level, our class size had dwindled considerably since the first (which had several sections). By this time, you were sticking with the program either because you were serious about acting or loving the experience of learning about acting...or maybe both. I stuck with it because I knew it was helping me to grow and face up to certain issues in my life. I would also see a change in my writing after these classes--more emotion, more vulnerability, a little more trust. Just play, I try and tell myself when I'm worrying too much about a piece of writing. Use your heart. Get out of your head. I have acting classes to thank for opening me up. And I loved the teacher and my classmates, some of whom I still count as good friends today. In all honesty, I never got over my stage fright or shyness enough to audition--and every time I had to give my final performance of a scene or monologue I struggled to keep my legs from shaking. But I also learned this is normal and typical for a great many actors and performers. One of my classmates was a young woman who studied improv at iO in Chicago who told me she felt like vomiting every night right before she had to go out on stage. You feel sick and nervous not because you're weak or not brave or not prepared, but because you're doing something that you care about, something that matters to you. You're basically presenting a piece of your creative self to an audience, offering them a gift, making yourself vulnerable, and taking a risk of failure as much as success.

Michael told us from the very first class to not be afraid of failure. Failure is just a part of life. It shouldn't stop you from taking risks. If anything, it should free you. If there's a chance you might fail, then you might as well go for it. Michael would say, "If you're gonna fail, at least fail big." And funny enough, Margaret Hicks, the tour guide of The Second City's walking tour, left us with a similar philosophy. The greatest thing about both The Second City and Chicago, she told us at the end of the tour, is that you can fail here. In New York everyone is looking to get ahead. In L.A. everyone is looking for the agent or producer in the audience who might hand them a great career. In Chicago? "In Chicago, no one is watching you," said Margaret. In other words, get over yourself. We're the Second City, the Third Coast, The City That Works...which means we're the city that gets on with it and keeps trying. In Chicago, life, success, failure, all of it is much like improv. Improv differs from other kinds of theater and from stand-up comedy in that it's unscripted. This means that if you're an improv performer and you have a bad night on the stage, you can at least just let it go and not worry about it again--it's gone. But it also means that if you have a great night onstage, you have to let it go and can't relive it again--it's gone. The glory is in the moment and in the risk. "If you fail, fail again and fail better," Margaret tells us at the end of the tour. The beauty is that you can fail here--in the Second City and at The Second City--Chicago won't hold it against you.

Improv was born in this town for a reason. Chicago says, 'We're all improvising, we're all working off script. We're all making it up as we go along. Win or lose, pass or fail, hit or miss, just embrace it. Live in the moment. Enjoy it." That's your Second City, baby--second to none.


Mozart looks out from the facade of The Second City theater. The genius liked a good laugh.
Can't stop, won't stop. Seen on a Chicago street corner.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

A Wayfarer In Her Natural Habitat, Part 7: Lake Michigan

Sunset over Lake Michigan
I trust a lake. Because the lakes I've known are tender places, maybe the tenderest spots on the skin of the earth. Lakes have been giving to me, and to everyone I share them with--not like their sisters the seas, so selfish and treacherous, so fickle and taking. Oceans are bitter, biting, killing--lakes are sweet. Sweet as breezes, sweet as sand softened by the night, sweet as cold, fresh water.

In the center of my country, there's no other kind of water--no bitter waters, no selfish seas. Instead there are as many freshwater sources as there are twists in a tornado's walk, as there are circles in a hawk's life of flight. In the central north of my country the lakes are more mighty than many. We call them great--the Great Lakes. We don't say it as a boast. We say it as respect. The Great Lakes give us inland people their water to drink, their fish to eat, their sunsets and sunrises to adore, their waves to watch, their coolness in the summer, their thick skins of ice to test in the deep freeze of winter. They give us horizons and views that coastal people claim to only know, that coastal people don't even know we inlanders possess. Which means they give us secrets too. They give us mystery that adds contours to the unending flatness of the surrounding lakeland, that adds magic to the bleakness of a forgotten flyover region. They give us refuge from the sense of emptiness and dullness that so many inland and Midwestern and flyover people are told is their hopeless affliction, a hopelessly bland and benign character the fault of their hopelessly bland and benign home landscape.

Sand sculpture on Lake Michigan beach
Milda's Lithuanian market, small-town scene in Michigan, USA
Sign in a closed storefront in a small town on Lake Michigan. It was May.
"Flyover-country complex" is no joke. I used to think I was deficient. Not just ordinary--but deficient. Bland. Naive. Too sweet. Too nice. Too Middle American. I used to go long distances to other places because I thought what I needed to know, to experience, to be, was absolutely lacking in the place where I came from. Other places had all the answers, all the necessary experiences. Other places had all that was worth giving and all that I needed to take to stop being so deficient. Mountains, oceans, canyons, culture, tradition, exoticism, authenticity, depth, meaning--everything I needed, everything that couldn't be found back home. One of those first other places was a place on the sea, surrounded by ocean, neighbor to mountains and cliffs, devoted spouse to tradition...and to isolation. Its abundance of everything I'd lacked, everything I was deficient in, shocked me and overwhelmed me. Hooked me too. I believed I had nothing to bring to the place--and it had everything to give me.

Me on beach in Union Pier, Michigan
Penny sunset, Lake Michigan
I had my first real encounter with the sea there, my first ocean swim. All my swims growing up had been in fresh water, if not in public pools. It's not that I didn't know seawater is salty--it's that I hadn't thought about it at all before entering the sea, that I hadn't prepared for a significant difference. I remember how the taste of the seawater choked me when I accidentally swallowed a bit. I gagged on the bitterness. The salt water stung my eyes and nostrils. I unthinkingly brought the back of my hand up to wipe away the salt flavor and stinging, like I would in a lake, and just dosed myself with more poison. Because that's what the sea felt like to me at first--like poison. (Recently I learned I'm not the only one from my part of the world to have this kind of reaction to the ocean. From Indiana man Kurt Vonnegut: "I am one of America's Great Lakes people, her freshwater people, not an oceanic but a continental people. Whenever I swim in an ocean, I feel as though I am swimming in chicken soup.")

There were other unusuals--the ways of tides confused me at first, I distrusted the depths of the swimming areas off the beach, there were jellyfish in the waters to contend with at times, and seaweed often clung to me fiercely and wrapped itself around me as I tried to swim, like lost children only recently re-acquainted with a long-estranged mother. And unlike the shorelines of Lake Michigan, I could see land across the waters from the beach of this otherwhere place--the mainland. The view from the shores of the Great Lakes are limitless--from the Atlantic though...well it seems it all depends where you stand.

Union Pier beach, Michigan
Warren Dunes, Michigan
I adjusted with time to saltwater swimming, just as one adjusts to the greater bitterness (and less sweetness) one experiences in life over time. Now, I no longer find seas so strange and foreign shores so foreign. I also no longer find my home landscape so lacking. Perhaps I'm even not so deficient, and never was to begin with. Perhaps it's oceanic people, seaside and saltwater people who need the broader point of view, who need to come to my part of the country and re-discover the reality and importance of freshness and sweetness, rather than people from my part of the country going off only to reckon with bitterness. Maybe the moral goes something like this:

Tell you something," the raven said. "I was flying over the Midwest once." He stopped abruptly, closed his eyes for a moment, opened them, and began again. "I was flying over the Midwest. Iowa or Illinois, or some place like that. And I saw this big damn seagull. Right in the middle of Iowa, a seagull. And he was flying around in big, wide circles, real sweeping circles, the way a seagull flies, flapping his wings just enough to keep on the updrafts. Every time he saw water he'd go flying down toward it, yelling, "I found it! I found it!" The poor sonofabitch was looking for the ocean. And every time he saw water, he thought that was the ocean. He didn't know anything about ponds or lakes or anything. All the water he ever saw was the ocean. He thought that was all the water there was.” -- Peter S. Beagle, from A Fine and Private Place

A backpacker traveling through the Midwest
Midwestern outdoor decor. Bíonn chuile dhuine lách go dtéann bó ina gharraí.
When I first started this blog, I infrequently would put up a post with the title "A Wayfarer In Her Natural Habitat" and then name the place I was posting about. I'd share pictures of me in this "wayfarer's habitat"--i.e., some place I'd traveled to, some place usually on the hit list for world wayfaring types: Australia, the salt flats of Bolivia, New York City, Paris. The idea was that for travel-lovers like me, the world is my habitat, the world's roads are where I feel most at home. Sort of a "citizen of the universe" meets "anywhere but here" philosophy. But then I stopped traveling so much, and I forgot about the "natural habitat" theme. And after seeing so many other parts of the world--and trying to judge them gently as a good traveler should--I think I started to see the parts of my own world more gently, more generously, with more sweetness.

This blog has noticeably been focusing more on places in the American Midwest--inland places, flyover places, freshwater country, sweetwater states. Mainly because these days that's all I can afford. Economically and emotionally. Bitterness has been a surprising running theme in my writings since this blog started (here and here, for example). I used to write of its necessity and naturalness in life and the landscape. I still stand by that point of view. Bitterness serves a purpose. But like everything else, bitterness has to make room for other tastes, other flavors, other sensations and spaces. Sweetness has its purpose and place too. Just as flyover folks have their own depth and authenticity, the Midwest has its own beauty and mystery, and lakes have their own limitless horizons. And me, supposedly deficient, naive, too sweet, too nice me...I even have my own depth and beauty and limitless views, my own sweet, perfect, whole, freshwater/flyover woman integrity.

This blog began as the record of a person going to see other places in the world. This blog now asks those other places to consider returning the favor. These writings are me asking other places to come and see me.

Round Barn Winery in Baroda, Michigan
Vineyards, towers, and flatlands
Sun bicep, Lake Michigan
Outside Nani's Cafe in Union Pier, Michigan
Amazing lemon rosemary muffin with pine nuts...and mason jar
Pink door, dandelion lawn, Midwestern home
My sisters and I at a winery in southwest Michigan
Sunset into dune grasses at Lake Michigan
Freshwater breeze and a thick book, Lake Michigan, USA

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Groundhog Day Zero: Woodstock, Illinois

Woodstock Square in downtown Woodstock, Illinois
Groundhog Day-zero in Woodstock, Illinois
If you had to send a postcard addressed to "Happiness," and you had to send it to an actual physical place in the world, where would you choose to send it? What address would you put down? Would you send it to yourself? Would you send it to a small town in the American Midwest? Or do those very ideas--that happiness could be right where you're standing, or right in the middle of cornfield country--make you laugh, or even cry?

This is a travel blog, which means it's a blog kept by someone who clearly likes to go places away from where she currently is. And where she currently is is indeed a town in the Midwest. No, not a small town, and not an isolated one. Instead a suburb of Chicago, a very near outgrowth of a major American city with all the advantages that affords. But still, not in itself a town people know much about or brag about or come to visit on purpose. Not a tourist draw, unlike Chicago itself...and unlike many of the other places I've written about on this blog over the years. Where I live is no one's idea of a dream vacation spot. And while I'm sure there are plenty of people living here who rather like the town, it's probably not the kind of place most people envision when told to imagine their own, personal "happy place."

It's really unlikely anyone anywhere would pick any place in the Midwest as her "happy place." For most people, the American Midwest is synonymous with monotony and boredom. We have no mountains or ocean coasts here. The land is flat, and you can drive for hours and hours passing only cornfields and farmhouses with nothing to break up the monotony but billboards and the occasional turn-off to a fast-food-and-gas oasis. In the wintertime, when the sky is gray and the fields are empty of crops and cows, the landscape is especially bleak and dull. Of course, there are cities to see in the Midwest, some of them quite exciting and mighty (i.e., Chicago), some of them once mighty (i.e., Detroit). And there are some interesting small towns to see too, some quite quirky and some with important histories attached to them. But in comparison to what other, more spectacular parts of the country and world have to offer, the average tourist couldn't be bothered with quirk and cornfields. In fact, in my own world travels I've heard most folks equate the idea of a vacation anywhere in the Midwest as a punchline at best, a punishment at worst.

Breathtaking Midwestern scenery
Illinois. Or Iowa. Maybe Wisconsin--who can tell the difference?
Midwesterners aren't fools--they know how the rest of the country sees their home turf. And some of them would even agree. When you grow up Midwestern, the message impressed on you from the world beyond is that you should try to escape as soon as possible because you can't possibly be happy (or fulfilled or sane or cultured or even intelligent) "stuck" in "flyover country." Opportunity is elsewhere. Happiness is elsewhere. Away from the Midwest. Outside the borders of Illinois and Iowa and Kansas and all the rest of the heartland. Definitely. Just ask Dorothy.


Of course, by the end of The Wizard of Oz (a film and story that happen to be one of the greatest portraits of the Midwest, despite all the fantastical elements), Dorothy learns that life over the rainbow isn't necessarily happier or better than life down on the farm in Kansas. Prettier, maybe--but not happier. Happiness equals home to Dorothy; moreover, the ability to return home (i.e., to tap into her source of happiness) is a power she's had all along, as she learns at the story's end.

There's another American film with a Midwestern connection that offers a very similar message--though it's far less fantastical, far more mundane in setting and style, crowd-pleasingly clever and comical, and surprisingly wise and philosophical. The movie Groundhog Day, like The Wizard of Oz, is basically about an unhappy person discovering the happiness within himself, to the extent of even coming to appreciate the ordinary in this world. Like Dorothy, the hero of Groundhog Day, Phil Connors, comes to his appreciation and acceptance of the ordinary through an experience with the extraordinary--but whereas Dorothy's experience of the extraordinary involves being tossed into a new place of tremendous beauty, color, and adventure, Phil's experience involves being stuck in the same place and immersed in a hell of repetition, stagnation, and a perpetually crappy weather forecast.


OK, but what's the connection with the Midwest? Groundhog Day is set in Pennsylvania after all, in a town called Punxsutawney that's famous for its real-life annual Groundhog Day forecast. Well, it's set there but it wasn't filmed there. The town you see in the movie is really a small town in northern Illinois over an hour's drive from Chicago, called Woodstock. You can even see the town's name displayed, over and over again, in most of the "Ned scenes" of the movie, when Phil's annoying former high-school friend turned annoying insurance salesman Ned Ryerson spots Phil on the street and runs over to push his wares on Phil, with the blue storefront of Woodstock Jewelers serving as witness to the cringe-inducing scene (and Phil's torment) day in and day out.


Like the sign says...Ned's corner, in Woodstock, Illinois
Now, a word about the picture directly above--the plaque one. This is just one of many plaque shots I got on a recent visit to Woodstock. And all of 'em Groundhog Day affiliated. See for yourself:





Clearly, if you're an aficionado of plaques, you couldn't pick a better place to visit than Woodstock, Illinois. Seriously though, with little else to go on in terms of drawing tourists, Woodstock has milked its Hollywood connections for all they're worth. Along with the plaques everywhere reminding locals and visitors alike that they're essentially walking all over a former film set, the town hosts an annual  Groundhog Day celebration, timed with the actual holiday, that features such activities as a walking tour of the movie sites, a screening of the movie, a dinner and dance, a bowling night, a pancake breakfast, a chili cook-off, some guy dressed up in a big groundhog costume, and an actual groundhog weather prognostication ceremony in the town square.

Some might find the idea of a town basing its whole tourism industry on its appearance in a single movie rather desperate and sad. But Woodstock is hardly the only place in the world to try to turn a rather tenuous connection to fame into a potential local money-maker. I've been to other towns with even shakier pop-culture connections--everything from being named after a game show to being name-dropped in an Eagles song--that have tried milking the famous-for-15-minutes cow even harder. Besides, Woodstock is genuinely a lovely little town, with an old town square largely free of chain stores and restaurants (the only one I saw on the square was a Starbucks) and instead filled with independently owned shops and restored to run-down historical buildings. Many of the homes in Woodstock are of the rambling old Victorian type, full of character and mystery. And quirk? You want quirk? Woodstock's got loads of it--numerous incongruous touches ranging from a combination sushi restaurant/mini-golf park to a Buddhist center founded by a Sri Lankan monk. After Groundhog Day rolls past, the town looks forward to other celebrations and events such as harvest festivals and farmers markets, a jazz fest, an annual Haitian Idol battle-of-the-bands contest that raises money for Haiti's earthquake recovery efforts, a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony, a "Dick Tracy Days" thing that promotes the town's Chester Gould museum, and a Prohibition Era-themed pub crawl named after Orson Welles (who, like Chester Gould the cartoonist, lived in Woodstock for a time).

The Woodstock Opera House--the tower is where Bill Murray's character jumped from on one of his many Groundhog Days

Old-timey car in Woodstock town square
Old-timey cigarette butt snuffer
Old-timey storefronts

Working it

A lonely view from inside the former Tip-Top Cafe
The Tip-Top Cafe is now a Mexican taqueria
The alley where Bill Murray's old homeless friend dies. Nothing is overlooked on a Groundhog Day walking tour in this town...nothing.
Public service announcement in the homeless man's alley

Doors in space

Old-timey window dressing. Things A Woman Wants To Know...

The old courthouse in Woodstock, Illinois
I'm guessing they make an exception for groundhogs
Typical beautiful Woodstock home...and yes, this was the B&B in the movie
Let's live here...We'll rent to start
OK, so it's no Chicago. No place but Chicago is. And maybe you wouldn't want to live in Woodstock, even if you wouldn't mind an afternoon visit. Maybe the thought of spending eternity in Woodstock would drive you to a million suicide attempts, just like Bill Murray's character in Groundhog Day. Well, guess what? There are people living in Chicago--and New York, and San Francisco, and London and Paris and Rome and Beijing and every other major city and glam spot on earth--who feel the same way about life in Chicago (and New York and Paris and so on) as Mr. Phil Connors does about Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania and as Dorothy does about Kansas. There are people on the coasts as miserable as some people in flyover country. And there are people in small Midwestern towns as happy with their lives and fulfilled in their surroundings as people living in so-called paradises. Happiness is either somewhere inside you or it's nowhere.

You can take one of the makers of Groundhog Day as an example. The movie's director and co-writer, Harold Ramis, was himself a Midwesterner who found success and fame in Hollywood but chose to return to Illinois after 20 years of living on the west coast. Ramis was born and raised in Chicago, went to college in St. Louis, and returned to Chicago to start his comedy training and career at Second City. He got good enough at comedy writing to finally leave the Midwest and move to New York and then Los Angeles, where he hit the big-time with films like Animal House, Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters, and of course Groundhog Day. Some time after completing Groundhog Day, which many critics and fans consider to be his best work, he moved back to Chicago from L.A. In interviews he spoke of how "liberated" this decision left him feeling. A creative and successful person finding fulfillment and freedom in flyover country--who woulda thunk? Ramis passed away earlier this year in February (the month of the groundhog!) at the age of 69, in Chicago. The city mourned his death and plans a public memorial this spring--presumably when it's no longer cold and gray like it was every day for Phil Connors and like it was for every Midwesterner this entire long winter past.

But that line ("It's gonna be cold, it's gonna be gray, and it's gonna last you the rest of your life") is Bill Murray's. Or rather, Danny Rubin's. To be accurate: Murray says it, Rubin wrote it. Either way, both have solid Midwestern connections and credentials. Murray was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, and like Ramis, he got his start at Second City before success in New York on Saturday Night Live and later in Hollywood in films. He has yet to return to live in Chicago, like Ramis did--and perhaps he never will. No bother--he's never lost his Chicago accent or his devotion to Chicago sports teams (it's probably fitting that both the star and director of Groundhog Day are/were Cubs fans, since the history of the team is as much like Phil Connors' day in the movie as anything can be--they lose game in, game out, year in, year out, for...oh, over 100 years now). Murray's face--scarred, crumpled, un-pretty, un-perfect--is the kind only the streets and stages of Chicago can produce. As for Danny Rubin, Groundhog Day's creator and screenwriter--Rubin grew up in Florida but studied TV, film, and radio at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and spent years working and writing in Chicago before heading out to L.A....where he says he could stand to live for only two years.

I have no idea how these men wound up in Woodstock, Illinois, to make their movie--why Woodstock was chosen for the filming rather than Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, itself or any other place on earth. But I do think that the choice of Woodstock was dead-on. And I do think the Midwestern connections of Ramis, Murray, and Rubin aren't irrelevant to the movie's success and genius. Groundhog Day offers the kind of message that only people usually dismissed as "flyover folks" can deliver with conviction and unpretentious wit and wisdom. I think only someone who's had to suffer through the kind of long, truly wretched winters of the Midwest, only to be relieved by an often deadly tornado season in the spring, surrounded by flat landscapes without a single mountain or palm tree grove or deep canyon or thick forest to soften the bleak view, can truly understand the necessity of locating happiness someplace inside yourself rather than someplace straight out of an upscale travel magazine spread. What those travel magazines sell anyway is not happiness, but paradise. And there's a big difference. Paradise you can buy. Happiness you can't. But if you're satisfied with that so-called ordinary spot where you're standing right now, you can probably rent to start. ;-)

I found these cute old people (ahem, my parents) sitting on the bench in the square by the Gobbler's Knob plaque
Me. On the spot.