Everything about A-1 Entertainment and Concessions is big. Their offices and warehouses are on Ashland, a big street. They have four 21,000-square-foot warehouses. They rent out big equipment for big parties and carnivals: dunk tanks, moon walks, hot-pretzel machines, popcorn carts, huge tanks of helium. They organize big parties.
Howard Zusel, the president of A-1, is also big. He has a big beard and wears a big silver-and-gold watch, a big jeweled ring on his right hand, and another on his left pinkie. When he coughs, the whole office reverberates.
"Let me give you an idea of what we do here," Zusel says and pops a videocassette into his recorder. "Look at this. Would you look at this?"
It is New Years Eve at the Hyatt Regency O'Hare. Twenty-five thousand red, orange, green, pink, and black balloons are suspended by nets over the ballroom. At the stroke of midnight, the balloons tumble lazily to the ground, rows of colored streamers are released and fall simultaneously, and flash pots explode, giving off a rain of white light and smoke.
"Look at that! Look at that!" Zusel shouts from his chair, pointing at the image on the TV screen. "I get goose bumps looking at this today. No feeling like it in the world." He sits back in his chair and then leans forward again.
"Look at that! Six thousand people are screaming and cheering for something I did. Look at this. Those are people--6,000 people waiting for my show. Waiting for me. That's a thrill. Awesome."
Before he started his business of organizing corporate parties and renting concession equipment, Zusel was a clown. He still has a plaster clown displayed prominently in the corner of his office.
"I tell ya how this business started; it's kinda funny," Zusel says, leaning back in his large black leather chair. "Seventeen years ago I fell into clowning. There was a big party at Farwell and Wolcott and they were supposed to have a group of clowns . . . and they only ended up with two clowns. So, my friend called me up and said, 'I need you to do me a big favor. I need you to be a clown.' And I said, 'I don't know how to be a clown.' And he said, 'You don't have to. We just need bodies. I'll come over with a suit and makeup.'"
The phone rings and Zusel pounces on it. "Hello? Look. Look. We just buried my aunt. My family's in shiva."
Zusel concludes the conversation and takes a deep breath. He emits a large cough and continues his story. "I got a lot of pleasure playing with the kids. And Jerry Bishop was interviewing me for a television show and he asked the kid I was with 'What's that clown's name?' and the kid was confused or something because we were on Farwell Street and the kid said, 'Farwell.' Thus, Farwell the Clown was born."
A woman comes into the office and asks Zusel whether he's going to the Shriner's Circus. "I'm not goin' to the circus; I'm goin' to the fights," he says.
He leans toward me and says confidentially, "See, I'm runnin' concessions at the Golden Gloves."
In recent years, Zusel has hung up Farwell the Clown's long shoes in order to devote more time to his business. "I was a damn good clown," he says with pride. "I don't have the time to be a clown now--we book clowns. We have three retail factories, a ballooning factory, our own catering company. I don't want to get into figures, but this is a multimillion-dollar industry."
Zusel likes to talk about big figures. He likes to talk about the corporate picnics that he organizes for Fortune 500 companies, the casino-theme party he organized for a black-tie affair at Shedd Aquarium, the pony rides, the bingo equipment, the petting zoos. "We've got 150 game booths, 200 tanks of helium, two million balloons in stock, all in 20-gross boxes," he says.
To get to the nearest warehouse from Zusel's office, you have to pass by Zusel's caged African gray parrot. "I got parrots everywhere. I've got 'em in the house, in the office, in the warehouse. This one knows over 100 words."
The warehouse looks like a Twilight Zone storeroom. There's a wind tunnel that blows money around, a golden champagne fountain, life-size cutouts of hula dancers, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis, a snow-cone machine, a stagecoach, a roulette table, a craps table, a mock-up of the facade of the Biograph Theatre, multicolored backdrops, boxes of balloons, flashing marquees, a disco ball, a gyros spit, and even a dispenser that spurts out hot nacho cheese.
"Look at this," Zusel exclaims as he lifts a painted black box about the size of a wooden pizza box. "This is what the girls used to wear around their necks, and they'd come by and say, 'Cigars. Cigarettes. Tiparillos.' How many people do you know who rent out cigarette-girl trays?"
He points out a huge metal contraption. 'This is a pig roaster. See all the grease on it? We just got it back. We have to clean it."
He flicks a switch and lighted marquees start flashing, the disco ball starts whirling, and a spotlight starts whipping around. 'Look at this. How many people have a lighted marquee ticket booth? And you can put any message on it. That's why it says 'Any message here.' We've got all kinds of great stuff. All kinds of oddball stuff."
Attached to the warehouse is the wood shop where much of the equipment is made. John Shirley, a semiretired entertainer, is the chief woodworker here. Shirley, whose career has included appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show and Bozo's Circus, is applying white paint to small wheelbarrows he designed. He wears a light blue checked shirt and thin dark blue suspenders, and has a white mustache that curves into curlicues.
"This guy's the best," Zusel says. "He's famous for his magic props. He designs all this equipment. All the stuff we make in-house."
Shirley turns away shyly and concentrates on his wheelbarrows. Toward the back, a young man with long blond hair is painting a sign with red paint.
"We're like the silent giant," Zusel declares loudly. "You see something where 25,000 balloons go up in the air like we did at the anniversary of the Field Museum. Somebody does it. Who knows who? The balloons go up and everything's pretty, but nobody knows that Howard Zusel did that. I don't care if nobody knows we did it. Part of the spectacularism is all the glory the client gets for what we do. You can have a the glory from what we do. Just pay the bill."
He stops and rubs his forehead as we stand amid cardboard cutouts of orangutans and sunset and palm-tree backdrops. "There's a place in Woodlawn Cemetery that they call Showmen's Rest. That's where all the showmen are buried," he says. I want to be buried there. Because I want to be buried near all the showmen, all my brothers." He lets loose with a big cough.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lewis Toby.