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February 2, 2005

A Sentimental Journey at the Historic Shubert

From the Chicago Sun-Times, January 30, 2005

By Jim Woolley

On Jan. 23, the pre-Broadway engagement of "Spamalot" not only ended its five-week run at the Shubert Theatre, but also had the distinction of being the final show to play on the Shubert stage. For me, it was a sentimental occasion.

In 1959, my parents took me to the Shubert Theatre to see "The Music Man," hoping, they said, to get this theater nonsense out of my system. To this very day, I remember that June 13 performance from the second balcony, row L, seat 12. My heart was pounding as I entered the regal Shubert, resplendent in red, ivory and gold (the color scheme has since changed).

Until that Saturday matinee, my theater experience had been limited to cast recordings. Now, for the first time, I was hearing a live orchestra and seeing a curtain go up. All the elements were mesmerizing: the gorgeous score, the beautiful sets, lighting, costumes, and of course, the actors, led by Forrest Tucker (soon to become Sgt. O'Rourke on television's "F Troop"). With the downbeat of "76 Trombones," which begins the overture, I knew this was for me.

My parents' little scheme had backfired. Miserably.

During the ride home, I remember my mom telling me to get my nose out of the souvenir book (an extravagant $1). Not a chance. I devoured every word. Once home, I wrote Forrest Tucker a 13-page letter telling him how much I loved the show and his performance, and how, being a student, could not afford $4.95 (top price!) for a matinee ticket.

Forrest Tucker not only answered my rambling letter, but also invited me back to see the show as his guest! I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.

Two months later, while waiting with fans outside the stage door in hopes of getting his autograph, a man emerged and announced Mr. Tucker would sign autographs in his dressing room (can you imagine that happening today?).

As we were led across the stage to meet him, I became transfixed. Moments before, this space had been turn-of-the-century Iowa. Now it was empty, with only a bare light centerstage casting spooky shadows into nooks and crannies. I had never seen a ghost light, or fly loft with lights and scenery hanging in the air. And what was the purpose of all those ropes snaking up the wall and disappearing into the darkness? Backstage was mysteriously beautiful and intriguing, and I didn't want to leave.

I entered Mr. Tucker's room in an euphoric daze, handing him my Playbill and meekly uttering, "Thank you for the tickets."

Miraculously, he figured out who I was and said, "Oh, you must be Jim. I hope you enjoyed the show again." Painfully shy, I simply turned and left without answering. How I wish I could go back and thank Forrest Tucker, who died in 1986, for his profound kindness and generosity.

The Shubert then became my second home. I'm sure I saw every show that played Monroe Street through the '60s, including "Gypsy" (with Ethel Merman), "Mame," "Carnival!," "Hello, Dolly!" (with Carol Channing) and "Fiorello!," which ends its first act with the rousing "Home, Again." That's how I felt every time I stepped inside the Shubert.

Today, after three decades of working as a stage manager on Broadway, I had given up hope of ever playing the Shubert. But thanks to Eric Idle and his "loving ripped-off" tribute to "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," I finally had the honor of working on the Shubert stage.

Opening in 1906 as the Majestic Theatre (renamed the Shubert in 1945), this legendary flagship vaudeville house for the Orpheum circuit is now closed for extensive renovations. It will reopen in the fall with a new, corporate name: LaSalle Bank Theatre.

From the second balcony, I fell in love with the Shubert and theater. Working on this historic stage, where I saw so many luminous performances, was a wish fulfilled. It was nice to be "Home, Again."

("Spamalot" opens March 17 on Broadway at -- where else? -- the Shubert Theatre.)

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