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In Performance: talk of the town

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It's a few minutes after 11 on a Friday night, and a crowd of about 30 people has come to Chicago Filmmakers to see the latest edition of Talk Show With Johnny White, a 90-minute variety program with live interviews, music, games, and screenings of locally produced films and videos. The 29-year-old White has been staging the show since March on the first Friday of each month. Despite the late starting time, the overall mood is festive and relaxed, no doubt abetted by a keg of beer stashed off to the side of the raised stage.

Things finally get under way at 11:15 with a three-minute film showing White walking from his loft on South Michigan to Chicago Filmmakers on Division. He meets some sailors on his way and does an impromptu striptease. Soon he's joined in the act by a female companion. Then the film stops, and White barrels onstage wearing a long white T-shirt, a brown vest, boxer shorts, red socks, and sandals. He feels like he has to explain his appearance. "Well, just as I was getting ready to come here, I was putting on my jeans. They had a little hole, I lost my footing, and all of a sudden it was a really big hole. I figured, no problem, I'll just stop at the Gap on the way. Well, I picked up everything I needed for the show tonight--props, Ping Pong balls. I got to the theater, and I realized I bought everything but the pants."

White says he decided that the show must go on, but apparently not everyone agreed. His first guest, a local lounge singer who goes by the stage name Frank Caruso, is nowhere to be found. White intended to use him as a bridge between segments. His regular troupe is missing three players--one due to illness and the other two to paying gigs. White is unfazed. "This is my talk show," he says. "I talk about me a lot."

The TV talk show may be the locus of public discussion in America, but White figures that the only way to redeem the form is to recast it in his own terms. "I've been a television fanatic all my life, with nearly 30 years of viewing experiences," he says. Drawing from those years of experience, White includes takeoffs of various TV game shows. Last month's reworking of Beat the Clock began as an innocent spaghetti-eating contest and degenerated into an all-out food fight. White says he also wants to provide a forum for local artists who have few outlets for getting their work to the public. "I thought we needed a new way to promote Chicago artists."

White was born in Hammond, Indiana, but he spent his formative years in Tarpon Springs, Florida ("the sponge capital of the world"). While studying philosophy, theater, and film in college, he worked as an usher in movie theaters and practiced with an improv-comedy troupe in Atlanta. White came to Chicago six years ago to get an MFA at the School of the Art Institute, and since graduating he's worked on local movie shoots. Lately White's been trying to concentrate on finishing an original rock opera called Cinemaniacs, based on his jobs in movie theaters.

Starting last month Talk Show With Johnny White has been turning up on cable access channel 20. This Friday's edition will take place at 10 PM outside of Chicago Filmmakers, on the triangle formed by Milwaukee, Division, and Ashland. Guests include bassist Tatsu Aoki, filmmaker Tom Palazzolo, and Sister Quintella Caldwell, a 92-year-old African-American stand-up comedian. Tickets cost $6; call 986-1823.

--Patrick Z. McGavin

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Johnny White by Katrina Wittkamp.

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