Mark Homstad, theater critic in the 70s, on the Reader's early days | Feature | Chicago Reader

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Mark Homstad, theater critic in the 70s, on the Reader's early days

'I didn't intend to create a publicity-seeking controversy, though it may have helped provide an initial marker of the paper's critical independence'


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Download the Reader's first issue—October 1st, 1971. (PDF)

I was the Reader's first theater critic more or less by accident. I ended up with the job because the person Nancy Banks initially wanted to do it was out of town, and she asked me if I'd fill in. The show was Whores of Babylon at Kingston Mines, then a Lincoln Avenue coffee-house and occasional venue for live theater. The production was a camp pastiche, a series of sketches consisting of sexual gags and transvestite burlesque that ranged from pop culture parody to outre titillation. It was pretty much a hit-or-miss affair—mostly miss, in my opinion at the time. Some of the bits may have been more lively than I gave them credit for, but a lot of it was pretty slack. I felt that many of the performances lacked energy, which some people might have mistaken for camp irony.

Reading my review now, after almost 40 years, I cringe at some of the sentence constructions. The words work awfully hard to make their points. What also strikes me is a want of tact, a missing sense of proportion that feels like an absence of restraint. Still, the piece pretty much said what I intended and it ran just as I wrote it, probably because I finished so close to deadline—hurriedly handing off the last of the freshly typed pages to Bob Roth in a late Monday night pickup at my apartment—that there simply wasn't time to edit it.

And so, without really planning it that way, my first professional (if unpaid) drama review, which appeared under the nom de plume "J. Leland," ended up being a decided pan, if a somewhat overemphatic one. Tom Rehwaldt, one of the paper's founders who in those early days worked as the distribution manager (i.e. chief paper-delivery guy), among a number of other functions, told me later that when he dropped off the next week's batch of papers at Kingston Mines, the show's director threatened to string up the critic J. Leland should he ever show his face there again. Tom told the director that he personally knew J. Leland and said he really wasn't a bad guy, but the director was implacable and pointed to a stick drawing of the hung critic posted on the theater's bulletin board.

I didn't intend to create a publicity-seeking controversy, though I had the sneaking suspicion Bob Roth and Bob McCamant were actually a little pleased about it. It just added some more punch to the paper's first issue, and it may have helped provide something of an initial marker of the paper's critical independence, which subsequent—and much better—Reader critics have more successfully practiced and upheld over the past 40 years.

One last note: The pen name "J. Leland" paid homage to the film Citizen Kane. The character Jed Leland (played by Joseph Cotten), Kane's one-time best friend and moral conscience, parts ways with Kane after Kane's unsuccessful run for governor of New York and ends up writing theater criticism for Kane's newspaper in Chicago, including a review panning Kane's wife in her operatic debut at the Civic Opera House. It seemed fitting that the first issue of the Chicago Reader should reference a movie in which the last line (after the closing credits) is: "I think it would be fun to run a newspaper!

Mark Homstad attended Carleton College with the Reader founders. He wrote about a half-dozen reviews and one cover story for the paper as "J. Leland," but his working life was spent with the Veteran's Administration, where he ultimately became a decision review officer. He retired a year ago.

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