Tag Archives: Chicago Tribune

Dessert for Theater Buffs

CBR_Logo2Bigger, Brighter, Louder:
150 Years of Chicago Theater As Seen by
Chicago Tribune Critics
by Chris Jones

Bigger, Brighter, Louder by Chris Jones is a treat for avid theatergoers, sort of like an extra helping of ice cream. The book covers 150 years of Chicago theater as seen through the eyes of Tribune theater critics. This review looks at the book through the eyes of those in the seats and those reading the paper to help decide which shows to see. The view from this perspective is very good.

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Author, writer, and critic Chris Jones

Chris Jones, the chief theater critic for the Chicago Tribune, has put together a tightly packed history from the first anonymous theater review of March 25, 1853, when the paper had a circulation of around 1,000 to his own May 5, 2012, review of The Iceman Cometh.

The task of choosing which reviews to include out of the tens of thousands of critics’ reports was huge. Jones has selected 101 reviews he believes are representative, woven together with his narrative and some features and interviews highlighting special events.

The title Bigger, Brighter, Louder is a perfect fit for the concept. It also raises hope for more photographs than there are. Physically the book appears rather sedate. The content, however, is not. Although one can understand production/availability restrictions considering the amount of material involved, there is no rule against wishing. More pictures would have been fun.

The book lists the Tribune critics whose work is included, and their reporting styles reflect the changes in what has been considered “proper” and in vogue over time. George Putnam (aka Peregrine Pickle) was the first reviewer. He spoke of the “personation” of Mr. Joseph Jefferson as Rip van Winkle. There is a considerable display of the great Claudia Cassidy’s opinions ranging from “twenty-one-gun salutes” to “walk the plank,” with never a doubt about what she meant. Reviews through the years have chronicled the broader range of behaviors and language now common on the stage.

In addition to being an excellent reference tool for Chicago stage history, many of the reports provide insights into related events. One of these was the Iroquois Theatre fire, the worst theater fire in American history. Six hundred people died on December 30, 1903, just over a month after a lavish opening night for the beautiful new building with Eddie Foy performing in Mr. Blue Beard. That show was still playing at the time of the fire. The review of the theater’s opening night by Tribune critic W. L. Hubbard and the accompanying story describing Mr. Foy’s brave behavior in trying to keep the audience calm, along with the experience of cast members and others during the ordeal, is one of the most gripping sections of the book. The Iroquois fire was blamed on shoddy construction and inspired many of today’s fire codes.

Bigger Brighter LouderA less harrowing incident: Early in December 1912, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt was a guest at a banquet at the University Club. He slipped away during dinner to meet Jane Addams at Hull House. As Miss Addams’s guest, he reviewed the second act of “Justice” presented by the Hull House Players. The President’s review included, “Impressive—most impressive. The act is excellently written and surprisingly well-acted. I must have the book … I wish I could stay for the rest of the performance.” Then he stepped into his waiting car and was whisked back to the banquet. From its beginnings in 1889, the theater was a substantial part of Addams’s work at Hull House.

In more recent decades Chicago theater spread outside the Loop into smaller, innovative venues which became Second City, Steppenwolf, and other companies which now have a growing presence on Broadway. The first review Chris Jones wrote in 2007 as critic for the Tribune was for Steppenwolf’s August: Osage County by Tracy Letts. The production then moved from Chicago to Broadway for a long run, and the movie version is in theaters now.

Bigger, Brighter, Louder is a natural for those already hooked on the theater. It also may appeal to others such as those just starting to attend stage shows and to movie die-hards who are wondering what some people find so fascinating about live theater.

Four-Star Review

October 2013, University of Chicago Press
Theater/Regional History
$27.50, hardcover, 357 pages
ISBN: 978-0-226-05926-6

—Reviewed by Betty Nicholas

Learn more about Bigger, Brighter, Louder
Read more about Tribune writer Chris Jones

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A Prescription for Good Writing

CBR_Logo2Chicago Flashbulbs:
A Quarter-Century of News, Politics, Sports and Show Business (1987–2012)
by Cory Franklin, MD

IN THE LAST GREAT DAYS of the Powerhouse Newspaper Columnist, the late, great Jim Murray, who wrote about sports for more than thirty years at the Los Angeles Times, guaranteed his place in the Metaphor Hall of Fame when he noted that Rickey Henderson’s strike zone was “the size of  Hitler’s heart.” But Murray was no isolated titan; in those days, terrific columnists were thick on the ground: Art Buchwald, Mike Royko, Murray Kempton, Molly Ivins, Jimmy Breslin, Edna Buchanan. Alas, they have no real peers today, for their natural incubator, the daily newspaper, is the bloodiest and most public victim of the digital revolution.

9780897337182_FCChicago Flashbulbs, a wonderful collection of short-form essays, many of which originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune, suggests that there’s still hope for readers who appreciate the general-interest newspaper column. The collection reveals its author as a man of parts, a writer of great skill and eclectic cultural discernment. Cory Franklin, whose work has appeared the New York Times, Jerusalem Post, Chicago Sun-Times, and New York Post and has been excerpted in the New York Review of Books, is also an award-winning physician who served as Director of Intensive Care at Cook County Hospital. In this volume, he has gathered and categorized his prolific newsprint output into as fine a collection of newspaper columns as anything published back in the glory days of the form.

That a general-interest columnist be a person of parts is an important qualification for this kind of writing, for one can never be certain what topics will be grist for the deadline mill. Chicago Flashbulbs is roughly divided into themed sections: “Entertainment,” “People,” “Life,” “Current Events,” “Sports,” “Chicago,” etc. Not surprisingly, given the author’s profession, some of the strongest pieces are in the “Medicine & Science” section, which includes Franklin’s ruminations on the AIDS epidemic (he started writing about the disease in the 1980s), shifting boundaries in medical ethics, Medicare reform, purported links between vaccines and autism, and the national nursing shortage. The “Chicago” section includes pieces devoted to athletes—Ken Holtzmann, Dick Selma, Derrick Rose—as well as Franklin’s excoriation of Chicago’s WBEZ for dropping jazz programming (although the piece is undated, this presumably appeared in 2006.)

“Chicago” also includes my favorite Franklin piece, “Letter to a New York Friend,” which internal evidence suggests was published in 2008. It begins like this:

 “Here in Chicago, where the audacity of hope began, everyone is beginning to believe that it just might happen this fall. A lot of people believed it never could happen. Generations went through their whole lives desperately hoping against hope to see it. They eventually grew old and went to their graves, disappointed and empty. Before those people died, for years the words of pundits and experts cut them to their marrow—they said it was impossible, or, at least if not impossible, it might take another hundred years before the country would actually see it. But now even the experts acknowledge this might finally be the year. Even today, it’s not a sure thing, even money at best, but if it does happen every single person will tell their grandchildren they were alive to see it, even those who don’t like the idea now.

Several hundred words later, it ends like this:

“What’s that you say Barack Obama? An African-American becoming president? Well, that would be remarkable. But that’s not what I was talking about. Truth to tell, haven’t really been paying much attention to politics, so don’t know much about him.

No, I was talking about the Cubs winning the World Series.”

Among the memorable pieces in Chicago Flashbulbs are “Life’s Final Snub: Getting Cheated on Your Obituary,” “Uh Oh, Oh Jeez: Let’s Go to the Teleprompter,” “The Platters and the Civil Rights Movement,” “The Greatest Baseball Player Ever,” and “The Death of EveryMom,” the last a reflection on the death of Barbara Billingsley. Chicago Flashbulbs closes with a well-constructed long-form essay about the legacy of the U.S. military herbicide Agent Orange.

That not all of the pieces note original publication dates is one shortcoming of Chicago Flashbulbs; the other is the curious lack of a Table of Contents. These peccadillos aside, Academy Chicago is to be commended for this compact, handsome collection of ephemera from a very gifted writer.

Three-Star Review

June 2013, Academy Chicago Publishers
Regional/Commentary
$22.95, paperback, 304 pages
ISBN: 978-0-8973-3718-2

—Reviewed by Patrick Quinn

Read some of Cory Franklin’s work at PoliticalMavens.com.

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