By Jack Helbig
Andrew Moskos and Jon Rosenfeld were sitting in a coffee shop in Amsterdam four years ago marveling at the city's attributes when Moskos just said out of nowhere, "Hey, there's no improv here," and began mapping out a plan to start a Second City-style theater.
"My immediate reaction was you're crazy," recalls Rosenfeld. "Andrew has a history of dragging me into crazy projects."
Rosenfeld and Moskos have been friends since they were in the same third-grade class in Evanston. "We used to do little shows for our class. Magic shows and Mad magazine satire sketches."
And as adults they've often performed together in Chicago's crowded improv scene. (Both have put in time at the ImprovOlympic.)
Moskos's idea seemed crazy, but it did have its attractions--mainly the idea of living in Amsterdam.
"We only had one more day in Amsterdam," says Rosenfeld, "and we spent it asking people if they would go to a show like this."
"The word improv meant nothing to the Dutch," Moskos says. "When we tried to explain it to them, they would automatically confuse it with stand-up."
Moskos and Rosenfeld left the city convinced that Amsterdam was ripe for their scheme.
"For the rest of the trip," Rosenfeld recalls, "all through Europe, we wrestled with the idea: What is our first step? How do we get others to join in?"
They decided they'd open their theater, called Boom Chicago, in May 1993, giving themselves one summer to make it happen.
As soon as they got back to Chicago they set about rounding up a team. First on their list was English major turned tech geek Ken Schaefle. They asked him if he'd be their soundman, lighting designer, and carpenter. Schaefle jumped at the chance.
Actors, though, were a much harder sell. "It was like, How about this? Come with us. Drop your life. Trust us. There were people on my ImprovOlympic team I wanted to go, but they said it was too risky or it was their year, they were sure, to get hired by Second City." Eventually they found three improvisers--Miriam Tolan, Lindley Curry, and Neil McNamara--to join them.
Late that fall Moskos and Rosenfeld went back to Amsterdam for a week to look for a theater. One of the first places they found was a "sleazy little salsa bar" called Iboya.
It was either run-down or romantic, depending on your view of things," says Rosenfeld. The Dutch have a word, gezellig. On the positive side it means cozy and warm: good drinking, good conversation, a good vibe. It also means small. Iboya was very gezellig."
It also had the advantage of being only half a block from the "Times Square of Amsterdam."
Moskos and Rosenfeld approached the manager of the club and were immediately rebuffed. "He was a very safe, conservative guy," Rosenfeld remembers. So they looked at a number of different places, but they kept coming back to Iboya.
The place was just too gezellig to let go easily. So they tried again. The manager wasn't in, but a "seedy-looking" guy behind the bar said perhaps he could help, since he was the owner. Moskos and Rosenfeld explained their idea to him and, according to Moskos, "he was totally with it." The owner overruled the manager, who was his son-in-law, and Moskos and Rosenfeld returned to Chicago with a space to perform in.
The following May they returned to Amsterdam, three other improvisers in tow. At first things were rocky.
Iboya's manager, still bitter about their going over his head, wouldn't let them rehearse in the space until the second the lease went into effect.
"We rehearsed under a railroad bridge on the edge of town," Moskos remembers.
"Probably confirming everyone's worst fears," Rosenfeld adds.
Adding to the tension was that all six of them were crammed into a narrow five-story house meant for, at most, four occupants.
The two women in the company shared one bedroom. Moskos and Rosenfeld shared another. And Schaefle shared the breakfast room floor with McNamara.
"I slept behind the refrigerator, wedged under the stairs," Schaefle remembers, "and every 20 minutes the refrigerator cooling cycle would kick in and wake me up. Every night I tried to fall asleep within that 20-minute cycle and achieve REM before being startled awake."
But those inconveniences were nothing compared to the culture shock they experienced when they started performing. The first thing they discovered was that their audience hardly understood their television references. Even painfully familiar bits, like the theme to The Brady Bunch, sank without a trace of recognition. But they just ate up the sort of material that can put American audiences to sleep--current events, geopolitics.
When it came time to take suggestions from the audience, Moskos and Rosenfeld ran up against the famous Dutch reserve.
"It's very un-Dutch to shout out suggestions in a theater," Moskos says. "Also, people were reluctant to smoke in the theater, even though we said it was allowed, because smoking broke the sanctity of the theater."
Moskos and Rosenfeld figured out that they had to begin each show by teaching their Dutch audience how to act more "American." They warmed up audiences by teaching them three lines--"I want my Big Mac and I want it NOW," "Waiter! Where is the ice in this Coke?" and "How much is that handgun in the window?"--each sentence spoken with a very bullying, ugly tone.
The one thing they didn't have to worry about was the language barrier. "The Dutch speak great English. I always make this joke that the bus drivers in Amsterdam speak better English than the bus drivers in Chicago."
The first few weeks of their run Boom Chicago attracted audiences in the single and low double digits. But then Moskos had another idea.
Moskos and Rosenfeld were going to make up flyers to hand out on the street, but Moskos was convinced "if you have given someone a flyer you have given them garbage." So they decided to pass out maps of Amsterdam with information about Boom Chicago printed on the sides and back.
"But Andrew said if we are going to give them a map we might as well give them a guide to Amsterdam."
"Let's face it," Moskos said, "improv isn't in the top things people want to see when they're in Amsterdam. So we created a guide that led people to the top things that were in Amsterdam. The naughty things, like the red-light district and the drug scene. Everyone vaguely knew it was legal, but not how legal. And where do I go and not get ripped off? Also restaurants. And answers to odd questions like why are the buildings slanted and what's up with the canals?
From the moment Moskos started handing out "The Boom Paper" audiences began to pick up. By the end of the summer they were selling out. Moskos and Rosenfeld extended their stay two weeks and made plans to come back a year later.
For three summers running Moskos and Rosenfeld have gone to Amsterdam, performing their show from May to October. They return to Chicago every winter, as they did this year, to replenish their cast from Chicago's improv scene.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andrew Collings.