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Laugh Now, Eat Later/South African Serenade/Final Curtain/Thanks but No Thanks

Former ImprovOlympic honcho Franck Janisch is building his dream one business at a time.

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Laugh Now, Eat Later

The restaurant half of the complex Frank Janisch is trying to cook up just north of Montrose in Uptown was still a construction project waiting for an electrician last weekend. Frankie J's MethaDome Theatre, a 51-seat black-box walk-up, and Frankie J's on Broadway, the yet-to-come steak, seafood, and vegan joint, are the culmination of a dream for the chef and improv performer. He left his job as chief financial officer for Improv- Olympic a year ago to sink his savings into the restaurant-theater. Now, nine months behind schedule and $60,000 over budget, he plans to open the restaurant March 7.

The theater's been operating since October, along with a fledgling training center managed by Angela Farruggia of Chemically Imbalanced Comedy. CIC had just lost its performance space at the Prodigal Son on Halsted a year ago when Farruggia saw a notice about Janisch's project on a bulletin board and signed on to help. The theater is named for the building's previous incarnation as a methadone clinic; it's also been a church, a funeral parlor, and an art gallery. Janisch has kept it booked five nights a week with a lineup that includes Cleetus Friedman's song and comedy solo Cracker, the Company Store's Verbatim Verboten, and the cockney-on-speed dark comedy Mojo. Janisch is also planning on doing a little stand-up himself, when he's not running the kitchen at Frankie J's. The theater, with its antique wooden church seats and parquet floors, rents for $50-$100 for a two-hour performance slot and $15 an hour for rehearsals. "Frank's not looking to make money off the actors," Farruggia says. "The restaurant is supposed to subsidize the theater."

A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who's combined cooking and comedy in live performance and on the Food Network, Janisch bought the building last year for $400,000, started to demolish the interior himself, and quickly attracted a picket line of union sheet-metal workers and five stop orders from the city. "It took me four months to get rid of those," Janisch says. Now he's flush with a new $100,000 loan and a pot full of his trademark optimism. He'll offer the one-night class "Marketing Yourself in Show Biz" February 5 at the MethaDome and if all goes well will soon be serving up a musical cooking show on Tuesday nights at Frankie J's: he'll cook a three-course dinner for the audience while crooning ditties like "You Are My Broccoli."

South African Serenade

The last time Jeff Spitz appeared in this paper, he was getting ready for the premiere of his documentary The Return of Navajo Boy at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival. As a result of the movie, Spitz says, the EPA has investigated the effects of uranium mining on Navajo land, and one of the people he interviewed has been able to collect $100,000 for lung damage. But the greatest rewards, says Spitz, who's been making documentaries about grassroots struggles since 1985, are the unexpected ones: Navajo Boy reunited the Cly family with a brother who had been missing for 40 years, and then it led Spitz to South Africa and his next project.

When Navajo Boy was chosen to represent the United States at an international public-broadcasting conference in Cape Town last May, Spitz went too. After the screening an executive from the South African Broadcasting Corporation approached him. "There's not a black family in this country that can't relate to that Navajo family," she said. "How can we tell our stories like they told theirs?" She introduced Spitz to her colleagues, they talked till 3 AM, and Spitz came away with an invitation to work on another documentary. "But," they told him, "to understand this country, you must go to Robben Island," where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners had been held and tortured. When he arrived at the island, now a major tourist destination, he was met by an ex-prisoner tour guide. For the next four hours he saw the maximum security prison through this man's eyes. "You cannot exaggerate the power of that experience," Spitz says.

On the way out he picked up a CD in the gift shop. A week after returning home he played it--and realized he had found a way to "put a human face on the struggle." The CD featured songs and stories performed by three former prisoners, onetime members of the armed wing of the African National Congress. "These were men of about my age, Zulus who had left their families in South Africa to train in Angola under Cubans with Soviet weapons," Spitz says. The three men, Muntu Nxumalo, Grant Shezi, and Thembinkosi Sithole, will share their "life journeys" in the film Spitz is making with South African filmmaker Mickey Dube. This time he's working under the auspices of Groundswell Educational Films, a nonprofit company he and his wife, arts marketing consultant Jennifer Amdur Spitz, formed last spring. Spitz will be filming when the Robben Island Singers make their first American appearance at the Field Museum February 2. The filmmaker, who's still hunting for funding, says everyone in the audience will be invited back for the premiere in a year or so.

Final Curtain

The opening of Shepsu Aakhu's play Kosi Dasa at the Victory Gardens studio was postponed last Saturday after real-life tragedy struck. Aakhu (aka producer Reggie Lawrence) got word the day of the performance that cast member Al Boswell had died in an auto accident the previous night. Boswell was on his way home to Gary after the second of the play's two preview performances. "Most of the cast went out for a pre-opening celebration at a bar after that preview," Lawrence says. "Al wanted to go home to his wife." Boswell, who had recently retired after a 36-year career as a public school teacher, appeared in many Chicago theaters over the last decade and had been looking forward to devoting more time to his acting. The opening has been rescheduled for tonight, Friday, January 25.

Thanks but No Thanks

Scott Powers, Michael Phillips's editor at the Tribune, called about our item last week on the League of Chicago Theatres party in honor of the new critic. Regarding those pesky gifts the league was threatening to shower on Phillips, Powers said: "When we realized this was in the offing we made it very clear to the League of Chicago Theatres that this was not an appropriate gesture. Michael did not accept them."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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