What's in a Name?; Space for Sportz | On Culture | Chicago Reader

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What's in a Name?; Space for Sportz

Just in time for its 25th anniversary, ImprovOlympic loses its brand.


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When ImprovOlympic producer Charna Halpern met improv legend Del Close, the dialogue went like this:

She: "How'd you like to make 200 bucks and some pot?"

He: "What do I have to do?"

The year was 1983, the setting was the lobby of CrossCurrents cabaret, and the answer was "Teach one three-hour class for me." It was the beginning of a 16-year partnership of chutzpah and madness that--right under the nose of Second City--shaped Halpern's company into the home of long-form improv and made it for many the place in Chicago to cut your improv teeth. The deal was sealed, Halpern says, over a cup of coffee after that first class. (She confided that she thought improvisation could be more than little games. Replied Close, "Well, maybe you're not a twit after all.") Now, coming up on its 25th anniversary, ImprovOlympic is about to lose both Improv and Olympic from its name.

Halpern had launched her company two years earlier with another legendary innovator, David Shepherd, who'd coined the name "ImprovOlympic" with an eye to the ancient Greek celebrations that included theater, dance, song, and sport. Their partnership was over almost as soon as it began, with Shepherd continuing his work on the east coast and in Canada. But last week Shepherd materialized, in town for the 50th anniversary of the Compass, a troupe he also cofounded, and still going strong at age 80. In the early 80s Shepherd had already held improv competitions in New York and elsewhere; Halpern, then a student at Second City's Players Workshop, suggested that they get some teams together here. They started out in what is now the Second City E.T.C. space in Pipers Alley and soon were creating teams based on jobs or other "affinities": a bunch of rabbis was dubbed the God Squad, a clutch of psychologists was called the Freudian Slippers. But for the politically oriented Shepherd, who wanted to revolutionize theater, improv was not about comedy. "It was satirical, but serious and psychological," he says. They split, he adds, when "Charna went off on sheer comedy."

Close had been working on the Harold, a new long form for improv, since the 60s. "If you'd like to close your theater for a while and work with me," he suggested to Halpern that first night, "maybe we can change the face of improvisational comedy." She shut down for three months, and they hammered out a formula that blended her stock of improvisational games with his concept of repeated scenes that eventually converge.

But that was only half the story: because everyone interested would need to be trained in the new form, Halpern had the rationale for the open-admissions training program cum club that's been ImprovOlympic's economic engine ever since. Students make their way through six levels of classes (currently $245 per eight-week session), and the best are plucked out to perform on teams. Tuition includes a card that gets enrollees into ImprovOlympic shows free, guaranteeing decent audiences for all performances and customers for the cash bar. Capitalizing on the strong group bonds that improv breeds, Halpern has created what she calls a "family" atmosphere, where alumni return to teach and perform, and "no one ever really leaves."

After years of schlepping from one space to another, ImprovOlympic got a permanent home and relative financial stability a decade ago when Halpern's cousin bought the former Swedish American Club on North Clark, just south of Wrigley Field. It now holds two theaters, two bars, three classrooms, and the IO office. The rent's gone from $6,000 to $20,000 a month, and Halpern says property taxes jumped by $20,000 in the last year alone, but she's enrolling about 800 Chicago students each session, and since 1997 has had a successful LA branch, IO West.

Halpern says that though she and Close were much more than business partners, they were never lovers (he was known for stunningly bad hygiene and a near lifetime of addiction to anything he could get his hands on). Having groomed the likes of John Belushi, Chris Farley, Bill Murray, and Gilda Radner, the cantankerous Close was ImprovOlympic's great resource, and Halpern took on the job of getting him through the rest of life. She moved him out of the roach-infested apartment he was living in when they met and, in '98, when he couldn't breathe, took him to the doctor who diagnosed his fatal case of emphysema. Her story about his final hospitalization is the stuff of an ImprovOlympic monologue: intubated, unresponsive, and given up for as good as dead, Close woke up long enough to lose the tube, spout a massive final tirade, and enjoy a living wake of a farewell party before ordering up enough morphine to take him out. He died in 1999, just before his 65th birthday. Halpern carried out his last wishes--presenting his skull to the Goodman Theatre as a permanent prop for Hamlet and ensconcing his ashes in an urn at ImprovOlympic.

With the help of former students like Noah Gregoropoulos and IO West's James Grace, Halpern's prospered since then, but she's about to face an identity crisis. In the mid-80s, when the owner of a stand-up comedy club threatened to sue because he'd trademarked the word improv, she put up a fight. But after forking out $72,000 last year to settle a discrimination suit for hosting a weekly ladies' night in LA, she says she has no intention of going head-to-head with the International Olympic Committee, which has also been on her case for years. "I could see it if I was calling myself the Olympics and causing confusion, but I'm not," she says. "No one comes here with a javelin trying to sign up for classes."

On the other hand, Halpern reasons, ImprovOlympic isn't about competition anymore; the name has been a misnomer almost since Shepherd left. By the time a crew of alumni--including Mike Myers, Saturday Night Live vet Rachel Dratch, MADtv's Stephnie Weir, and Conan's former Late Night sidekick Andy Richter--gather to perform at the Chicago Theatre August 27 in honor of ImprovOlympic's upcoming 25th anniversary, her business will be known merely as IO. No matter, she says: the dust of Del will still be there, working its magic from the altar over the bar.

Space for Sportz

Way cheaper than a finder's fee: ComedySportz's current space at 2851 N. Halsted (which has also been home to Saint Nicholas, Organic Touchstone, and Steppenwolf) is slated for condo development. The company has to be out by February, and they're looking for 7,000 to 10,000 square feet with a clear span. They're offering a year's worth of free tickets to the person who comes up with it.

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

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