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Del Close/ An Uncensored Oral History

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By Ted A. Donner

Del Close, a Kansas-bred second cousin of Dwight D. Eisenhower, became the presiding genius of Chicago's Second City. He acted there until he was fired in 1965, and came back in 1972 to direct shows over the next decade. But in 1988, when he showed up for this interview, Close hadn't set foot on the Second City stage in five years. He'd been acting, writing comic books, and doing research into the untapped potential of improvisational theater. He'd nourished the long-form improvisation called the Harold in the fresh soil of Charna Halpern's ImprovOlympic. At the time, the legendary director's view of Second City was pretty jaded; he thought it had become commercial and formulaic. Actually, the theater was changing, and our interview was a sign of that. The new owner, Toronto's Andrew Alexander, wanted to create a house organ, Inside the Second City. I was the box office manager then, and Alexander had made me editor. My interview with Close was supposed to launch a series of discussions with alumni about the state of the art. But Inside the Second City folded before its second issue, which is why the tape of this interview--along with a tape of a 1982 interview with Close--was still sitting untranscribed in a file drawer when he died last week of emphysema.

As I set up the microphones, Close spotted former cast member Richard Thomas in the theater.

Del Close: (to Thomas): And so what are you going to be doing, directing in the E.T.C. or here?

Richard Thomas: I don't know, right now just the touring companies, and I'm running some workshops. I have sort of an idea for a new improvisational form.

Close: Great, we need to get more forms. I love Harold but I'm getting really cross-eyed just looking at the fucking thing.

Thomas: I also want to put up a one-man show. It seems like that's something that's a lot easier to do here than in New York.

Close: Oh Lord yes, or LA. I'm working on a one-man show too. I've been slow at it, but I want to do "An evening with Charles Fort"--do you know who Charles Fort is? No? Well, good! Charles Fort was a--well, I look a little bit like him. The fatter I get the more I look like him. He was into things like unexplained frog falls and falls of blood and unidentified flying objects and the like. He was talking about all this in the 1920s and 1930s. He was a very influential thinker because, basically, he was one of the first critics of science. Science in those days was pretty arrogant, scientists didn't think they had to explain anything. Everything could be explained through the newly discovered laws of physics. So he spent a lot of time collecting weird newspaper clippings and defying scientists to explain them to him. So I want to put together an evening of his books. He's written four books, so it's a big, mind-busting job trying to just read through this shit. Anyway, so Ted, here we are. You've got me back in the Second City after five years. I was here five years drunk, five years sober, and now five years gone.

Donner: So what are you going to do with the next five years?

Close: I'm going to try and quit smoking, believe it or not. I'm never going to give up marijuana. I just love it. It makes me a better person, it's good for me. But these things are--I'm getting particularly old now. I was boogying with a baroness in New York, and after six minutes I was gasping for breath. And you know, if I can't even dance a jitterbug with a fucking baroness, you know, I've gotta give up cigarettes! It was a party at DC Comics. As you may know, I've been writing comic books with John Ostrander.

Donner: I just picked up a copy of Wasteland, your comic book. Another autobiographical piece in this one?

Close: I guess it's what every writer does. I mean you base your fiction on stuff that's really happened to you. I took the kind of stories that I used to tell endlessly either onstage or in workshops, and of my own life, and I fictionalized them a little bit and made them into comic book tales.

Donner: There was one in a recent issue about a magic show--

Close: About Dracula and the Tomb of Terror, right.

Donner: How close to reality was that?

Close: Very close, very close. The theater did not burn down or blow up, but somebody did shit his pants when we threw worms at him. And that was the real line, "You call this entertainment, I just shit my pants!" A line I will never forget. So everything was basically true except the apocalyptic ending where the theater burns down. The story about me roller-skating through the sewers of Chicago and firing on rats was also completely accurate. It's a story I've told several times. You know, I'm old now, and I'm tired of telling these stories, and I catch myself in a conversational situation, falling back into an old storytelling mode and thinking, "Oh Close, hasn't anything new ever happened to you?" So after writing a comic book story and seeing it in print, I feel like I'm--well, I don't have to tell this damn story anymore! I've delivered it to the public, now it's over with.

Donner: What happened in New York?

Close: Ron Giovanni? OK, I was doing The Tempest down at the Goodman, and opening night I got a phone call from Greg Mosher [the former Goodman director who'd gone on to New York City's Lincoln Center]. I thought he was calling to wish good luck, you know, foolish me, he would never do such a thing! And he asked me if I wanted to direct his show. And we went through this long, involved audition process, we auditioned over 400 people and a bunch of stars. Basically, to make a long story short, two weeks into rehearsal all I had was Second City people in it. I had a great cast, Bruce Jarchow playing assorted characters including Alexander Haig, and I had Rob Riley playing Reagan. It was wonderful. Two weeks and a day into rehearsal, um, basically for a whole series of reasons we discovered that we just did not have a show. It was not anyone's fault in particular. It's just, partly it had to do with attempting to do fast and light-stepping satire in this big bureaucratic institution. You know, like at Second City, if you want to add a character in the show, you just went backstage and got another hat. There, if you wanted to add another character, you'd have to have a conference with the costume designer, you had to have measurements and, you know, reestimate the budget, and on and on. So it was this heavy-footed damn thing. They wanted us to be those wild and crazy guys from Lincoln Center, if you think about that for a moment, and it just doesn't fit. So in a way I'm trying to avoid saying we discovered we didn't have a script. After two weeks of rehearsal we had to bag it. It cost them 180 grand.

Donner: That must have been frustrating.

Close: It wasn't so frustrating as it was just kind of a terrible, painful moment of clarity. Here, there's always a way to fix it. You put off the opening another three weeks. Something can be done. But there, with all the machinery and all the stuff--none of us did a bad job, it just didn't come together. So I got really lucky. The same day we made the decision to bag it I got on the phone with my agent here. And he said, "Well great, I've got you up for a movie and the director happens to be in New York right at the moment. Why don't you go on down to his hotel?" So I did, and I got cast in the new $15 million Blob, which is why I'm going to be leaving tomorrow for Louisiana. Which is a lot of fun for me because I had just written a story in Wasteland about the last Blob movie, Beware! The Blob, starring Larry Hagman, Burgess Meredith, and all. So I'll be the only veteran Blobster in this version of the Blob theme. I'm one of the few survivors. I play a Lutheran minister who suffers an attack of apocalypsosis, I suppose. He decides that this Blob is the thing that's been predicted in Revelation and that he himself therefore must be the Antichrist. He's got some fragments of the Blob in a mason jar and he's waiting for the word of God to unleash this on the earth for the second and final time.

Close went on talking about his acting.

Close: My whole damn career has been improvisational cabaret, and a great slice of it here. But you know, after a while you can't slice any more sausage. When I left here I had three months' severance pay, which was absolutely fine, and I thought, "Shit. I think I'll be that person that we all know is going to get rich after a while. I'll be a Chicago stage actor." It struck me as kind of a-- "Well, this might be a suicidal gesture I'm making here." But boy it turned out, saving my artistic ass. I didn't realize how good an actor I'd become in 25 years of directing. It turns out I've become a fairly good actor indeed. And I've got the Jefferson awards to prove it. I got into [New York] because the casting woman had seen me in Hamlet [directed by Robert Falls at Wisdom Bridge]. I never expected anything to come of Hamlet, except the joy of doing it. Because it's Chicago after all, nobody discovers you in anything here, you just do your work for its own sake, which is one of the great joys of working in Chicago as opposed to, say, New York. You know, as soon as something becomes a hit in New York it's not a play anymore, it's a tourist attraction, it's a monument. You go and you see it. Here you're always performing for your friends and neighbors. You can never kiss off a single performance, because you know you're going to bump into somebody that was there that night.

Donner: What did you work on at that point besides Hamlet?

Close: Well right after I left Second City I got into a play down at the Goodman with Elaine May. And Elaine was the one that called my attention to the fact that I should take acting seriously, that I should not be just knocking off the drugs for two months every year and going down to do A Christmas Carol to get my union card punched. So as soon as I decided to be an actor again, I realized that I had to start living a different kind of life.

Donner: You quit drugs.

Close: The first step in getting me off drugs was Belushi's death, actually. And I immediately threw my crap away. Well, it was a process. It took about a year and a half. You know dope fiends are hard to get away from. Getting off drugs was a lot easier than getting away from people who were bitterly resentful that I was off drugs. Because when you stop drinking, everybody kind of says, "Good for you man." But when you stop taking drugs, that you've shared for so many years, they start behaving like chicks that you've betrayed. And they start laying plots to get you stoned again. And I just finally caught on. I smoke marijuana. I take hallucinogenics maybe three or four times a year. But those are health drugs you know, those are the things that are actively good for you.

Donner: You've been doing the Harold for a good part of the last five years.

Close: I don't want to bitch about it too hard, because it's what we've done and it's basically the right thing. I mean we've turned it into a competitive sport--it seems to be working very well. I was looking for something to do and Charna was looking for a new angle on the ImprovOlympic thing. Now we've got maybe 30 companies around the country that can do it, and fairly well I might add. So it's turning out well.

Donner: What role do theater games play in your classes?

Close: Without meaning to toot my own horn too much, rather than teaching them specific games we've been working on this notion of developing new games on the spot. It's more a matter of looking at things in a game-making way. So new games erupt in the middle of Harold, for example, and sometimes they work and sometimes they don't. But so far as I'm concerned, there are enough games. I invented a lot, Viola [Spolin] invented a lot, Don DePollo invented a lot. My idea of adding to the art of improvisation is not inventing 20 or 30 more games, it's an approach to improvisation. It's a strategy of looking at everything onstage as if it's a game. Period. End of paragraph.

Thomas: I find I'm increasingly less articulate about improvisation. The more I teach workshops, the more I find that the way to express my understanding is through actually improvising.

Close: Here's an example. We're not going to ever teach anyone something called the "laundry game." Right? But suppose the three of us are in a laundromat and someone opens the door of the washing machine and says, "Look, there's something strange in here." And we all go off and investigate. Suddenly we're off on some sort of mystical journey inside the washing machine, in that mysterious cave in which your socks all get lost. Or suppose we're in a laundromat and all of a sudden the machines start talking to us. Now these are not games that you would set up and rehearse. What we want people to understand is the way Viola thought when she invented her games, the way I thought when I invented my games. We want our students to understand that it's a matter of instantly adapting something to the circumstances, so that no game is ever done without the knowledge that this game is being played to illuminate a particular point. And that point is usually the theme that the audience suggested. There's a game that came up maybe three times in one of the Harolds which became progressively less interesting because it was repeated. It's a game where people offstage use shoes on one of the upper levels of the stage. So you just see a shoe up there talking, and another shoe--we'd call them the Nike family. You know, Mrs. Nike, Mr. Nike, and the children. And another peculiar shoe will come in and they'll have a reaction to it, you know, basically just using the shoes as props. That's not a game you'd ever teach to someone--it just happens.

I've always had ambitions beyond what Second City does onstage. That's one of the reasons I'm not here anymore. There was no opportunity to expand the Second City format beyond what was commercially sound. God knows there's nothing wrong with that! You've got a shitload of salvage you have to pay. But after a while there's no real excitement there or enthusiasm there anymore. I tried to find a lot more of that in doing plays. And I mean films are really exciting because I'm ignorant about them. You know, I've only done six. It's also what's exciting about comic books, at my advanced age, 53. Here I am having to learn a whole new field. Terribly exciting.

Thomas: Someone pointed out to me that Second City is 27 years old. It strikes me as being a kind of make-or-break period. I can't speculate commercially. But I think this entire format of chairs, lights up, lights down...For 27 years in one form or another you had six or seven people in varying degrees of success and they go through it. It's getting to a point where it's played itself out.

Close: You go blind after a while working on it, and even if it's good it's hard to respond to it because you've seen dozens of things that are so similar to it.

Thomas: I think the dynamic that made Second City commercially successful was the dynamic of risk and trying new forms, and the Harold is a good example. What's that from? Harold Ramis?

Close: It's just a completely random name that I didn't think of. Bill Mathieu, Second City's original piano player, named it. The swine. Naming my best piece of work Harold. One thing they need at Second City I think is not me, but somebody like I was 20 years ago. You know, some wired young turk of a visionary who comes in and says this is what it's got to be. You know, like that guy who didn't exactly pull it off at the Organic [Tom Riccio]--the guy from Cleveland who came in and said, "Nobody in Chicago knows anything about art."

Donner: You don't see many long pieces here.

Close: Bernie [Sahlins, the former owner] used to get very nervous when I would do long pieces. Like one of the more successful pieces at Second City was "Casablanca." Every time it's mentioned in Bernie's presence, someone would say, "Yeah, that was great. Yeah, that was funny. That was really a fun idea to take off on Casablanca." Bernie would say, "Yeah, but it was too long." And my feeling was that it was too short, it should have been about 50 minutes long, we should have done the whole damn thing. When you do a show like the shows here, you get people who like one scene or another. "I liked this bit. I liked that scene." But when you do a scenario play, it's a matter of whether you liked it. At the end of the evening you succeed or fail as a totality. The audience accepts or rejects the thing as a whole. Somehow that's less of a smorgasbord and more of a coordinated meal. More of a challenge for the chef. Second City would be foolish to take that risk. On the other hand, it's so satisfying to the artistic end, maybe they're foolish in a way not to do that.

Thomas: If there isn't another inspiration, other than to put people in the seats and make money, it's not going to work. That's not management's problem. That rests with the actors, who need to say they want to do three or four shows a year and who will work at it, who want the show to be constantly changing.

Close: The year before I left, Bernie agreed to do three shows a year, whether we needed to or not. You know, like taking a bath every week whether you need it or not! The promise wasn't forthcoming, but at least he understood it. Yeah, let's close some of these turkeys before we all get bored with our work, because boredom with work tends to infect the undertaking. I'm having the same problem with the guys doing Harold, with our opening game, where we take one suggestion and break the thing up into this kind of pattern. What tends to happen is that they turn that into a bit. It's exactly like here. If you and I go out and take suggestions, don't tell me we're not going to have a terrific two-man comedy act in a matter of three nights! But is the point to take suggestions and to use the audience's mind? Or is the point to go out there and do a two-man comedy act? We tend to forget why we do certain things...

You know, the director has to be the one with enthusiasm. He simply cannot go stale. And there are not that many of us around that either can do that or are willing to do that, nor is the management always willing to give the kind of wild ideas that are necessary to make the work grow the sort of respect that's necessary. A lot of the best ideas I had when I was here got treated as though they were symptoms of Del's peculiar behavior. So by the end of my tenure here, I became very frustrated. If I can't use my best ideas in the place that is paying me money, what the fuck am I doing here?

Donner: There was always some conflict between you and Bernie. It would be resolved, every time, just before the show would open. Somebody's head would roll and the show would open.

Close: That's true. I have come to realize that some of the pressure that Bernie put on me was generally good for the shows. So in a way I miss that. But I don't miss it enough to ever want to direct another Second City main-stage show.

Things change. A few weeks after Close and I talked, Andrew Alexander and producer Joyce Sloane talked him into coming back and directing one last show, The Gods Must Be Lazy. Close fired most of the actors he'd inherited and hired a new cast laced with ImprovOlympic veterans. The era of "chairs, lights up, lights down" was on its way out.

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