Last Modified: Mar 28, 2011 02:10AM
Some of the signature characteristics of the Chicago Theatre are rarely seen by the public.
The backstage area of the landmark theater —which celebrates its 90th anniversary on Oct. 26 — features more than 10,000 autographs and murals from headliners and their sidemen and crew members. The autographs cover three floors on both sides of the stage.
Charlie Sheen appears there Sunday. The twisted hallways of his mind must look like the theater’s colorful ramblings.
Some pieces are works of art, like a color portrait of Marcel Marceau’s character Bip the Clown, signed by the late French mime during his March 1988 appearances. Others are quirky, such as country music legend Buck Owens’ signature on a staircase above a stairwell. How did he get there?
There’s a museum aspect to the memories, with vaudevillian Red Skelton’s clown caricature next to a 2008 autographed portrait of rhythm and blues singer Jill Scott. “Someone on their show will do the portrait,” said Javier Ayala, the theater’s manager and head of tour operations.
As he did with so many aspects of American popular culture, Frank Sinatra got the ball rolling.
He signed, “Have a super time, I just did ” on Sept. 15, 1986. The Chairman headlined several gala reopening concerts after the theater underwent a nine-month multi-million dollar renovation. “Everything had a fresh coat of paint,” Ayala said.
Underneath Sinatra’s signature is the message, “This is my kind of theater, my kind of town ” from his longtime opening act, comedian Tom Dreesen. The Harvey native lives in Sinatra’s shadow even in signatures.
On the same wall are the autographs of Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Roy Orbison and Bill Cosby, who returned to its stage last week.
The theater at 175 N. State is open for hourlong tours at noon Mondays through Thursdays and 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Saturdays ($12 per person’ ticketmaster.com). Private group tours also are offered via thechicagotheater.com.
“As many times as we can, we take them backstage to look at a limited amount of autographs,” Ayala said as he stood by a security door panel that was autographed by Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. on what turned out to be the final stop of the 1988 Rat Pack reunion tour. Martin went home after the Chicago stop and was replaced by Liza Minnelli (her father Vincent got his start designing costumes at the Chicago Theatre).
Locally born comedian Bob Newhart signed a wall space next to an embedded copy of his album “The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back.” Newhart signed, “A great pleasure visiting old haunts.”
Ayala looked at the cracked vinyl and said, “There’s artists we wish that would sign that haven’t. I asked Diana Ross to sign the wall. She said to me politely, ‘I don’t sign walls.’ ”
Others are generous. Chicago Bulls Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen’s signature with “No. 33” can be found near the stage-level John Hancocks of Diana Krall and Don Rickles.
Every signature seems to have a story.
Ayala walked up the stairs and said, “Here’s Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach when they were still friends. ... This is Prince when he was just a symbol. So he didn’t sign it, but someone drew the symbol.” There are signatures of dancer Rudolf Nureyev, salsa king Tito Puente and soul swooner Smokey Robinson. Someone painted a glorious smiling portait of Sammy Davis Jr. during his April 8-12, 1987, residency at the theater. Davis signed it. He had warm feelings for the Loop palaces, having cut his teeth seven shows a day in the late 1940s at the Oriental Theater.
Backstage security is tight, but that didn’t stop someone from literally ripping off David Letterman’s autograph from a paper “Late Night” logo after he did a week of May 1989 shows at the theater. “Conan O’Brien also did a week of shows here,” Ayala said. “We have his signature. I wish everyone he interviewed on the show would have signed, but they didn’t. One of his guests was Sen. Obama.”
Ayala, who grew up in Humboldt Park, smiled and looked at a mural on a staircase between the first and second floor. “David Copperfield and Penn and Teller are magicians,” he said. “They are competitive. David Copperfield performed here first in the 1980s. So what did Penn and Teller do?”
The comics mischievous faces are depicted dropping a refrigerator on a ghostly caricature of Copperfield.
How does Ayala verify the signatures?
“No one documents when it happens,” said the manager, who started part time at the theater in 1995. “But the stars are excited to sign. Once I picked up the phone and it was Toni Basil [who had the 1982 hit ‘Mickey’) telling me her dad worked at the Chicago Theatre. Her father had remarried, the new wife was in town and she wanted to see the theater. She told me, ‘Go up to the second floor and you’ll see my signature.’ That was her proof that the caller was really her.”
Ayala is pretty sure that former Beach Boy Brian Wilson drew and signed his own playful caricature near the stairwell going from the second-floor star dressing rooms to smaller third-floor dressing rooms.
Autographs aren’t allowed in dressing rooms, but one exception was made for Dean Martin. He signed in big, swaggering cursive in a small dressing room off of stage right.
“He didn’t want to climb stairs,” Ayala said. “It was at the end of his career. This is stage level. So it was an easier place to get ready, walk on stage and walk back. Now, when we ask where somebody is, we say ‘the Dean Martin Room’ and everyone knows what we’re talking about.”
The writing is, of course, on the wall.
Copyright © 2011 — Sun-Times Media, LLC