Back in October, 2013, I saw an offbeat production at the Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois which was one of their rare shows brought in from an outside company. It was from The PigPen Theatre Co. called, The Old Man and the Old Moon, and I thought it was wildly inventive, joyously clever and wonderful, writing a long review of the show, which uses live action, shadow puppetry, offbeat stagecraft and music. .
Four years passed, and then in 2017, The PigPen Theatre Co. brought The Old Man and the Old Moon to the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. My friend Peter Carlisle, the former mayor of Honolulu, was in Los Angeles for a visit (the whirling dervish adventures of which I wrote about at length...), and then was heading down to San Diego on business. I browbeat him into getting tickets for the show. He called me shortly after it ended to enthuse about how it was one of the best evenings in the theater he'd ever had.
The great news for people who live in Los Angeles is that The PigPen Theatre Co. is bringing The Old Man and the Old Moon to the Wallis Annenberg Center in Beverly Hills for two weeks in March!! Before I go any further, here's a trailer for that San Diego appearance. No clips can do the show justice -- it's unique -- but you'll get the slightly sensibility of it.
The Wallis is a wonderful theater, and very good venue for the show. When I saw it back in Glencoe, it was a jewel box of a theater done almost in the round, which is an ideal setting, though one few places can duplicate. But the Wallis has an intimate feel to it, and should be a wonderful spot for the show.
This isn’t a “You should consider going if you live in Los Angeles" recommendation. This is a “If you don’t go you will be doing yourself and your loved ones who you should go with a disservice.” It’s not that I can swear you and Stella absolutely will LOOOOOVE the play. I think most people will, but it’s an offbeat folk tale, so who knows. But I know it's borderline impossible to no greatly appreciate the tremendous theatricality AND (most importantly) this isn’t a play you can see any time, some day in the futurein a revival. It’s unlikely anyone else will ever do this show, it’s the PigPen Theater Company or nothing, and I don’t know if you’ll ever get the chance.
The show is unique and superbly, joyously done. And it’s a joy for adults and kids. This is not a “kids show.”) When I saw it, the audience was probably 90% adults. And they were enthralled.
You can get a link for tickets here.
Just get tickets. Now, when you've finished reading this. Do yourself a favor. Because you likely won't get a chance to see it again.
And here is that original article I wrote about the show back in 2013 (before the Writers Theatre had built its new, impressive theater center with two stages and an auxiliary arena). It includes a couple of videos from that 2013 intimate production -- neither of which, as I said, will give you a full sense of the show. But it's close enough.
The Old Man and the Old Moon
October 24, 2013 I've written previously about the Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois -- about 30 minutes north of Chicago. This is the tiny company that began life crammed in the back of a bookstore, with just 50 seats, but would get the main theater critics from the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times to review their shows. And then they moved to a "big" venue of about 140 seats in the Glencoe Woman's Library Club (while retaining the bookstore site) -- regularly getting the New York Times and Wall Street Journal to review their productions, as well. One of their premieres, A Minister's Wife, even went on to Lincoln Center in New York. I saw a great production of the musical She Loves Me -- the next year its star, Jessie Mueller, got a Tony nomination as Best Supporting Actress for the revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.
The point here, despite the tiny size, I've seen several brilliant productions there -- and last night added another to the list. It was the Midwest premiere of a new play, The Old Man and the Old Moon. It's written and performed by a 7-man troupe, the PigPen Theatre Co., which began life as theater students at Carnegie-Mellon.
It's hard to describe the play fairly, but that's one of its effervescent, enthusiastic, non-stop charms. In an opening narration, we're told that "At one time, the moon was always full. Not once a month, but every single night." The play tells why that was and how things came to be the way they are now, centered around the tale of an old man who fills in the moon with light every night (because there's a leak in it), and has to go on a journey after his wife, when she takes off unexpectedly to travel across the world. Meanwhile, the moon continues to leak.
The evening begins nonchalantly, performed on a thrust stage that the audience nearly surrounds. On an affectionate set that looks sort of like the dock of an old world Louisiana bayou, a musician steps out 10 minutes before the start of the play and begins plunking quietly. Tuning up, you may think. A bit later, a guitarist joins him, and they strum a bit together, warming up perhaps. Then a fiddler and an accordion wander in. And the music slowly, subtly builds, as the audience keep chatting among themselves. But when a mandolin, drum and another guitar come by, and the rhythm picks up the pace, and the music begins to swell, the audience's attention is now palpably riveted and carried by the pulsating Celtic rhythm -- and by the time they stop, the audience is cheering.
And as they wander off to take their places, you realize that this isn't the orchestra playing backup, this is the cast! And we are into the show, having this lovely folk tale told to us, with Celtic-style songs, shadow puppetry, strobe lights, hand puppets, and all the actors playing multiple roles, performing and singing the songs, and handling most of the special effect homemade props and puppets themselves, largely in sight of the audience.
It's very episodic, not my favorite kind of storytelling, but this is done with such energy and pacing -- along with a whimsical plot, crisp structure, sly humor, and continual foreshadowing -- that it all works beautifully and joyfully, leaping from scene into scene (sometimes literally) to the point that, at the end after 100 minutes with no intermission, you're almost out of breath, despite it being such a low-key folktale at heart.
I had a few minor quibbles. The play isn't overly substantive, though there is a depth to it which grows movingly as the evening progresses. Also, I found that the lively, evocative music usually overwhelmed the singing -- however the songs tend to be more atmospheric for establishing the mood, rather than to advance the story or character, so the music generally suffices. And very near the end, I started to get every-so-lightly anxious for things to wrap up soon, since it is episodic, but you can tell clearly that you are coming to the end, which helps immeasurably, and it's still so endearing that that carries you over this slight hump, and it's all smooth sailing (again, literally...) from there, to its rollicking, thoughtful conclusion.
(I have to mention here one, personal favorite hand puppet, which also shows the involving, homemade feel of stagecraft throughout the evening -- using just a half-gallon, plastic milk bottle with its blue cap for the nose and the strands of a big mop, they create a hilarious, endearing, spot-on sheep dog.)
There are two reactions I had during the show (as it was apparent did most of the audience)-- utter pleasure at something so deeply whimsical, smart and involving, and admiration for such total, rare creativity, using theater craft to its fullest.
When I spoke briefly afterwards to some of the cast, they said it was the first time they'd played the show on a thrust stage, and agreed with me that it was an ideal venue for the play, since the audience surrounds the action and feels part of it, which is much of the show's sensibility, being narrated and all. What helps too is the intimacy of the Writers Theatre itself.
As you can tell, I quite liked The Old Man and the Old Moon. (That shall herewith be defined as -- it was great. Wonderful theater.) And little that I wrote here does its cleverness and charm justice.
Here's a video that might at least give some sense of that.
And this is a fun video about how they do the shadow puppetry –
Thanks to prompting from Eric Boardman, he reminded me of a terrific article written by Neil Tesser -- longtime jazz expert and broadcaster in Chicago, and Google Chicago music critic -- about the history of the Amazingrace coffeehouse on the Northwestern campus, which I referenced at length last night. Though this is at far more length, meticulous and fascinating. It was written for the Fall, 2011 issue of Northwestern magazine and is as definitive a piece on the legendary music spot as you'd want to find. With Steve Goodman on the cover, no less... It's a wonderful telling for those interested. And happily, thanks to archives and the Internet, you can find it here.
I'll just add one more thing -- the article's author Neil Tesser, along with my NU roommate Jim Backstrom and myself, did a Sunday morning humor-music radio show together that included sketches we wrote (often during the show -- hey, this was college...) and performed, Sunday in the Cellar, broadcast from the basement of Annie May Swift Hall.
Now that CES is over and I can change focus a bit, I want to get back briefly to Bob Gibson and Shel Silverstein. And today, it'll just be Shel Silverstein.
This is the song he wrote for the movie "Postcards from the Edge" which got an Oscar nomination as Best Song, "I'm Checking Out" (of This Heartbreak Hotel"). It's really wonderful, and I think bowled people over how good Meryl Streep was singing it. And had no idea it was written by Shel Silverstein. It's a shame she didn't get to sing it live on the 1991 Oscar broadcast, since I think it would have blown the roof off the place. But she was late in her pregnancy, and wasn't allowed to fly. Instead, Rebecca McEntire sang it, and did a very good job. But...if only.
As I noted the other day, I have a sense that Shel Silverstein's involvement with the movie dates back to the 1950s in Chicago, since he's an unlikely choice to write the big closing song for the movie -- especially since the score was written by Carly Simon. Silverstein has long been a staple in the city, and Postcards from the Edge was directed by Mike Nichols who got his start also in Chicago as a member of the Compass Players, the precursor of The Second City, and as an announcer on WFMT classical radio. So, my guess is that he and Shel Silverstein became friends at the time and over the subsequent 40 years. And Nichols felt his old friend was the right choice to write the number.
The song didn't win. That went to "Sooner or Later" by Stephen Sondheim from Dick Tracy. It was perfectly good song, and deserving. But I much prefer "I'm Checking Out." My sense (right or wrong) is that "Sooner or Later" was helped by the fact it by by SONDHEIM and sung by MADONNA and had high cachet. Again, it's a good song. Mainstream (and I don't mean that pejoratively). Not more country. But this below is the song I would have preferred.
(It's the full song itself, but cuts off right before the joyous reprise and closing credits, which I'll embed, as well.)
By the way, for those who like to note such things, Shel Silverstein's credit for writing the song comes along at the 2:26 mark.
As a bonus, here's Reba McEntire's Oscar performance --
As as a quick additional bonus -- here's Meryl Streep at the premiere of her movie, One True Thing, when she spots Reba McEntire and goes over to thank her. (It comes around the 1:00 mark if you want to jump to it.)
The other day, I noticed a few billboards around town promoting an upcoming two-part miniseries on the History Channel for a production called Project Blue Book. You may have seen them yourselves in your own towns, or seen ads for it.
Project Blue Book was a program created by the U.S. Air Force to study the phenomenon of Unidentified Flying Objects, and it was run by a civilian astrophysicist, Dr. J. Allen Hynek. The mini-series focuses on Hynek and an Air Force officer who assists him. and is about what happens when Hynek begins to suspect that he is being used by the government.
I mention this all for a very specific reason. It's not that I'm especially interested in UFO's. Rather, that when I was at Northwestern, I took.an astronomy course, "Highlights of Astronomy" which was taught by an eminent professor there -- J. Allen Hynek!
It was a large class, held in an moderately-sized auditorium seating a few hundred, because it was an extremely popular course since Dr. Hynek was a major name on campus. Not because people were necessarily all that fascinated by astronomy, but because near the end of the term he always gave a two-day lecture on...UFOs.
(I will bet cash money that after I post this, people will come out of the woodwork and write that they too had Dr. Hynek's class at Northwestern. It was that popular. People took the class. Lots of them, for many years. And it was very good, too. UPDATE: I've already won the bet -- someone who read this who took the class corrected me with the proper name. In the first draft, I called it "Introduction to Astronomy." And I've heard from another, as well, within the first couple hours, so we're up to two so far.)
At this point, it should not be shocking to know that I really don't remember all that many details about the class after the passage of years, other than I enjoyed it. He was a wildly-knowledgeable fellow and a great communicator who could get erudite things across on a popular level. But I still do remember three details from the class that came during his (of course...) UFO lectures --
One is that Hynek said that after a while the Air Force very much wanted to close down Project Blue Book, but they had a problem. By regulation, they were not allowed to shut it down until every case was classified. And there were about 30 files that could not be explained. The cases weren't proof of UFOs, but the project hadn't come up with anything that could account for them. So, what the Air Force did was that they classified these 30 cases as "unidentified" -- and then could close down the program. And did.
The second thing I recall is that Hynek said when he realized the Air Force was going to be shutting down the program, he was concerned that the papers would be buried, so little by little every day he made copies and sneaked them out, so that he would have a set of everything. While it's possible that this mini-s production is based on those papers, I believe I read on the site that a few years ago everything for Project Blue Book was declassified, so it's likely based more on that.
And the third detail from the class I remember is that Hynek made clear that while he didn't believe there was proof of UFOs, he felt there was too much that was unexplained, and that it was foolish of us to think that in the mass vastness of the universe we were the only planet with living creatures. To show have massive the universe was, he used a "visual aid" of sorts. I don't remember exactly what it was he specifically demonstrated, but he had a roll of paper by his desk at the bottom of the raked auditorium of probably 40 rows going up 150 feet. And he had a student take an end of the paper and walk it up to the top of the last row, as the paper unrolled, then walked it across the back row and all the way down to the desk at the bottom. And one inch represented something like a million miles -- and the distance of all the unrolled paper represented something like the distance from Earth to Mars, which was the shortest distance from us to another planet. He then put that in context of the other planets in our solar system, and then other solar systems and on and on...
The Project Blue Book mini-series begins on the History Channel next week, on Tuesday, January 8, and I think the second part runs the week after. You could check out the website for the production here, which is filled with lots of articles and videos on the mini-series and its background and the science of it all. There's also a specific article about Dr. Hynek himself here, if you'd rather just read that.
This is how they describe the plot of film --
"Dr. J. Allen Hynek (played by Aidan Gillen), a brilliant yet underappreciated college professor, is recruited by the U.S. Air Force to spearhead a clandestine operation called Project Blue Book. Along with his partner, the debonair Air Force Captain Michael Quinn (Michael Malarkey), he is summoned to investigate UFO sightings around the country and use science to discover what really happened. However, when some encounters cannot be explained away and cases remain open, Hynek begins to suspect that he has been duped by the government into a larger conspiracy to cover up the truth. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War and rising Atomic Era, each episode will draw from the actual Project Blue Book case files, blending UFO theories with authentic historical events from one of the most mysterious eras in United States history."
And here's the trailer --
I really can't wait for this. It is so bizarre to think about watching a TV mini-series about a college professor you had. But he was quite a renowned fellow. In fact, he was the technical adviser on Steven Spielberg's movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And not just the technical adviser, but that very title, famous as it now is, was a phrase coined by Hynek himself in his writings, breaking down what the different levels of encounters are. Furthermore, Spielberg gave Dr. Hynek a cameo in the movie. And it's such an intentionally-focused, prominent cameo -- not just a random body stuck in a crowd scene -- that decades after the movie was released, I'd describe the moment to people (and still do) and they remember it, because it stood out so much...and because Hynek really looked like a classic astronomer from Central Casting.
(The scene comes during the big, final sequence when all the scientists have gathered in a semi-circle, and the UFO has appeared. The door opens, and an alien being steps out. There is then a huge close-up of one of the astronomers with a pointed goatee who steps forward from the crowd, takes his pipe out of his mouth and gets a closer look, as he fills the screen. That was Dr. J. Allen Hynek, and Spielberg's homage to him.)
Here's a very nice, short featurette on Close Encounters and Hynek's importance to it. You'll see that Close Encounters cameo footage of him, and Spielberg and cast members talk about the good fellow. One note: at one point, actor Bob Balaban refers to him as Dr. Allen J. Hynek. It's not, it's J. Allen Hynek.
As I said, I can't wait.
Trump's former tax attorney in Chicago, Ed Burke (who's also a city alderman), was just charged by the U.S. Attorney's office with federal charges of extortion. It's moments like these where I harken back to Trump telling us again he only knows The Best People. And that that's who'll he'll hire. I'm certain he'll continue to shovel this malarkey to us, and that his base will eat it up, tasty as it is to them.
As we've seen in his administration, time and again, this is the precisely kind of crooks he hires. Not just from all the guilty pleas from the Special Counsel's investigation, but cabinet members and other on staff who've had to resign from controversies, many of which are expected to lead to criminal charges. It's stunning that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross still has his job. Let alone isn't in prison.
But then, when that's the kind of crime family operation you've run for 40 years, that's who you know. And that's who you hire.
This article here in Raw Story puts the story in its Trump perspective. And this is the original article from the Chicago Sun-Times which is the foundation of the report with details of the charged-extortion.
I love the Art Institute of Chicago. In fact, I still am a member and try to make a visit there on every visit to the city. I've periodically posted here photos of some of their great collection -- like Grant Wood's American Gothic and Edward Hopper's Nighthawks. Or Georges Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jette, and...okay, you get the idea. Well, as it turns out, today is the 125th anniversary of the place. (And by "today," I mean yesterday when I meant to post this...) And this is a very nice, short minute-and-a-half video they made for the occasion -- The Art Institute of Chicago: The First 125 Years.
I was hoping to go to today's Northwestern football game, but the only seats were near the endzone, so I figured it was not to be. But then for a series of unexpected occurrences -- which began with me contacting my good, close, personal friend Morty Schapiro, president of the beloved Northwestern, about a totally different matter (well, okay, perhaps "occasional email buddy" is closer...) -- and with a helpful assist from Bob McQuinn (to round out the tale), it ended up with me getting a ticket on the 37-yard-line. Huzzah.
What's additionally odd about this is that my dad had had season tickets to Northwestern for 51 years -- and I went through the exact same gate to get to the seats. (They were one section over, but still... The same gate!) While that initially struck me as wonderfully bizarre, I realized that it probably made sense. He had his tickets from being on the medical school faculty, so these are probably the same NU section. Odd that it maybe hasn't changed much in all this time, but it seems reasonable.
By the way, not to worry, this isn't all about sports. I'll get to the other part in just a moment. But it would be inappropriate to overlook the game -- since Northwestern was an underdog, and playing #20 Wisconsin. And they won! 31-17. The game wasn't even that close, as NU had a lead 31-10 with about 7-1/2 minutes to go.
The thing is, Northwestern is actually a bizarre team this year. They lost to Akron (who lost to mighty Central Michigan today). And had to come from behind in the last minute to beat both 1-7 Rutgers and 0-6 Nebraska. Yet they're 5-3 and just beat #20 Wisconsin. And lost to #5 Michigan by only three points, when Michigan came from behind in the fourth quarter to score with only four minutes left. I can't figure it out. They are either the best 5-3 team in the country, or the worst 5-3 team in the country. But I'm glad they've won five games. One more win and they're eligible for a bowl game.
Making the day all the more fun is that, as part of the kindly offer of a ticket to the game, I also got invited to the "president's pregame brunch" that's held at a building in the stadium parking lot. A bit more elaborate than a tailgate party. Scrambled eggs, frittatas, lox and bagels, grits, muffins, croissants, biscuits, yogurt parfaits, fruit and lots to drink, including some stronger libations. A wonderful way to start the day. They even had a small contingent from the NU marching band come in and play three school fight songs and the alma mater (the latter written to the music of Brahms Variations on a Theme by Haydn...)
By the way, for those of you who watch Pardon the Interruption, you can know that Michael Wilbon is a bit Northwestern support and has an NU football helmet behind him on the set. In fact, he's also a member of the university's board of trustees. If you've ever wondered, though, if it's mainly for television and a sports show -- it's not. Though that should be eminently clear, it was nailed down for any doubters when he was there at the pregame brunch and even served as host for the few presentations. (After talking with my pal Morty, I briefly greeted Wilbon who had come by to visit with the president. At least that's my assumption, since I don't think I was his first choice.)
For those who like to take notes, that's Morty Schapiro off to Wilbon's right in the dark purple sweater. Next to him is the school's excellent athletic director, Jim Phillips.
When Schapiro gave his speech, it was clear why he's been so successful at the school. He was not only charming, he was extremely funny in his comments and off-handed quips. Afterwards, though, I told him that much as I liked visiting with it, it was his wife I wanted to meet, and he introduced us.
I wasn't being facetious. His wife, Mimi Rothman Schapiro, is a fellow-Writers Guild of America member. She's written half a dozen TV movies, most (if not all, but I'm not sure) for the Lifetime channel. Among them, she wrote A Promise Kept: The Oksana Baiul Story, about the Russian Gold Medal figure skater, and the challenges she faced. (You can see her other credits here, including an episode of Diagnosis: Murder.)
What really impressed me though is something that requires a bit of background.
I first came into contact with Morty Schapiro, when I wrote a lengthy piece six years ago about two stories that concerned my dad and his 51 years having season football tickets to Northwestern games. It got to his attention, and offered a wide range of kindnesses to my dad -- like sweatshirts, scarves, caps and other paraphernalia from the school's recent Gator Bowl win, as well as an invitation to see a game in the president's box. That got us in email contact, as I said, and we've lightly stayed in touch over the ensuing six years.
Anyway, when Morty brought me over to his wife and introduced us, her first words were -- "I loved the stories you wrote about your dad!" I was floored. You have to remember: we'd never met, never spoken, never exchanged emails, the articles were written online and not anything I'd sent to her, we'd had zero direct contact -- I think at most maybe she had been aware of my novel, The Wild Roses, and had perhaps bought a copy six years earlier -- but that's it. We were absolutely total strangers. And six years later, he first words to me were an immediate recognition and reference to the article I'd written about my dad. We also talked about Los Angeles where she's from, and us both working at the Universal Studios tour (me as a tour guide, her at the Prop Plaza area). As I told Morty afterwards, "You married well."
The whole event was enjoyable. Tom Brokaw was there, since his granddaughter goes to Northwestern, and it was Family Weekend. (I had a brief chat with him, because I wanted to mention we had a friend in common -- news producer Clare Duffy, who I've written about here often, usually during the Olympics when she covers them, producing Brokaw's pieces. He said, "I don't just know Clare Duffy, we're joined at the hip.") Also there was Mike Adamle, a football great who was the Big Ten MVP and earned All America honors. I mention this because we had had one class together -- not quite a highlight for him, I suspect, since he was a senior and I was a freshman and...well, he was the Big Ten MVP and had no idea who I was. But it was a small class, about 20 people, so I remember him because...well, he was an All American. He went on to play in the NFL for six years, broadcast for NBC, and later co-hosted the show American Gladiators.
And after all that, Northwestern won the game.
I've been seeing some terrific theater during this Chicago visit. (The elves taking care of the homestead are jealous...)
Today, I went to an enjoyable, richly produced and funny and touching, though somewhat-slight play in its American premiere from London’s Old Globe, Nell Gwynn, about one of the first actresses on the British stage, who went from (probably) prostitute to famed actress to mistress of King Charles. It’s at one of my favorite theaters here, the Shakespeare Theater – the lobby is gorgeous -- not in an ostentatious way but beautifully designed with clean, but textured lines and lots of wood and brass, and the inside is designed so that the stage looks like the Globe. A small troupe of musicians sat in the boxes in the back.
This is one of the things that impresses me about Chicago theater – not only does the public support so many companies, like the Goodman Theatre, Steppenwolf, Victory Gardens, Timeline, Apple Tree, Northlight, the Writers Theater and more, but most of them have wonderful theaters, not just “spaces” to put on plays.
Also, the day before I saw an enjoyable world premiere play at that Writers Theatre in Glencoe, which is another theater I love. It’s the one I’ve mentioned that began life in the back of a bookstore, but expanded to a 115-seat theater in the Women’s Club…and a couple years ago completed a wonderful new structure with two theaters, both quite intimate – this one I was at the other day seats only 90 people and was a wonderful venue. The play was Witch, a very funny drama that’s a sort of Faustian story between an up-and-coming emissary of the Devil and a woman who the town people think is a witch. (“They think I cast a spell on them, but all I did was ask someone to move her bucket.”) And a second plot about the lord of a castle, his son and a poor man with aspirations that interweaves with the main story.
By the way, I knew that they get the main theater critics in Chicago to drive out her in the suburbs to review their productions, as well as the New York Times (even when they were in the bookstore) and Wall Street Journal on occasion. And I knew (as I've written) that Jessie Mueller performed here before going to Broadway to win a Tony in Beautiful. (I saw her here in She Loves Me.) But I just discovered that Carrie Coons did a Tom Stoppard play there in 2011 before she got a Tony nomination for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and starred in the mini-series of Fargo (for its third season) and the recent The Sinner, as well as other things.
And then there was also the pretty good play,Curve of Departure, that I wrote about here the other day that starred Mike Nussbaum.
I've long been impressed by the quality -- and support -- of theater here. And this trip has just confirmed it all the more.
There's a point to this all, bear with me.
The other day, I went to see a play, Curve of Departure, at the Northlight Theatre in suburban Skokie, just north of Chicago. I've been to the Northlight before -- it's a very nice facility of a little over 300 seats that's surprisingly part of the local Doubletree Hotel. The four-person play written by Rachel Bonds has gotten very good reviews, and I enjoyed it though found it a bit unfocused. But what got me there was that one of the co-stars, playing the patriarch of the family was Mike Nussbaum.
Mike Nussbaum is a hugely popular actor in Chicago, all the more impressive since he came to acting late, changing careers from being partners with his brother-in-law running, of all things, a pest control company). But it worked out awfully well for him, since he's been at it now for well-over 50 years. In fact, Acators Equity lists him as the oldest-working actor on stage. That's because he's 94. And he was spritely and vibrant on stage the other night, giving a fun, lively performance full of texture and enthusiasm.
You probably would recognize Mike Nussbaum, because he's done tons of movies and TV shows, with a distinctive Chicago accent. (Though he plays a character from New York City in Curve of Departure and uses a good New York dialect.) His most recognizable roles are most likely Men in Black, where he played the kindly shop owner who "splits apart" to reveal that the tiny alien leader is living inside this human shell. And also he had a major role in Things Change, the terrific movie written and directed by David Mamet, opposite Joe Mantegna and Don Ameche. In fact, he has a long history with Mamet, who got his start in his home of Chicago, and has appeared in numerous Mamet plays in the city, as well as the original Broadway cast of Glengarry Glen Ross. And also many of Mamet's movies. His versatility is extensive, and maybe 10-15 years ago he had the starring role in King Lear at the well-regarded Chicago Shakespeare Festival Theatre.
Which brings us to the point here.
It's that Mike Nussbaum got his start acting in summer camp at Camp Ojibwe in Wisconsin, appearing in plays written by one of the counselors -- my dad, Edward Elisberg! My dad didn't stay in the theater, becoming a doctor which was his first love since literally age 10 when he wrote a poem about wanting to become a doctor, but he's always felt great affection for Mike Nussbaum's very long success.
And I know that my dad's story is absolutely true and not one of those parent tales that gets embellished over the years. That's because about five years ago Mike Nussbaum was starring in another play at the Northlight Theatre, Better Late, which was written by my friend Larry Gelbart. Because I was going to be in town, Larry got seats for me and my dad, as well as my cousin Susie, and we all went to see it. The play was wonderful, and afterwards we hung around in the lobby waiting for the actors to leave the dressing rooms. (That's where they depart at the Northlight.) When Nussbaum showed up, I went over and introduced myself as a friend of Larry Gelbart, and we had a nice chat about that -- and then I mentioned that I believed he also know my dad, Edward Elisberg and pointed...and immediately his face lit up, he threw his arms out and shouted, "Eddie!!!!" My dad came over, and they had a warm, terrific conversation.
(To be clear, this wasn't the first time they'd seen each other in 75 years. They didn't cross paths often, very rarely, in fact, but I do know that they briefly visited at the Shakespeare Theatre when Nussbaum did King Lear. And when he had that Household Pest Control business I mentioned, I assume my dad overlapped with him then because Nussbaum's brother-in-law partner was the father of one of my brother's friends.)
After the play the other night, I again waited around in the lobby for Mike Nussbaum to arrive from his dressing room. Again I introduced myself to him and noted that I was the son of Eddie Elisberg. His face once more broke in to a big smile, and he spoke affectionately of my dad. And I was surprised by impressed that he was even aware that my dad had passed away recently. So, clearly he kept up with the "old gang" -- though I suspect there isn't much of the old gang left.
I believe Mike Nussbaum has said that this will be the last stage play he appears in. (In fact, the show closed the very next night.) Though I suspect he'll keep acting in films and TV, since there's less of a physical and mental strain -- though he was often prancing around the stage the other night almost like a kid.
I have no idea what Mike Nussbaum will, in fact, be up to next, but it was -- and always has been -- a joy to see him.
Robert J. Elisberg is a two-time recipient of the Lucille Ball Award for comedy screenwriting. He's written for film, TV, the stage, and two best-selling novels, is a regular columnist for the Writers Guild of America and was for the Huffington Post. Among his other writing, he has a long-time column on technology (which he sometimes understands), and co-wrote a book on world travel. As a lyricist, he is a member of ASCAP, and has contributed to numerous publications.
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