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July 2012 Archives

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After ten years as a Cook County correctional officer, comedian Robert L Hines has begun to find the humor in his grueling former occupation. Now based in LA and performing stand-up across the country, Hines spoke with Our Town about his time as a jailer, his views on rape jokes and hecklers and why pain is comedy gold.

Our Town At first you were reluctant to talk about your work as a jail guard. Why?
Robert L Hines Well, it wasn’t a happy situation and it has nothing to do with the jailers, it has to do with the situation. These people have lost hope, and they feel like they have no other option than to go against the law. In your training, they tell you that you need a hobby because just doing that job itself will make you crazy, and you will hit a wall. So, I felt I needed to separate my stand-up [from] my jail life, because they had convinced me that if I gave the jail too much of myself, then there would be a time where I would burn out and wouldn’t be able to handle it. And I was not going to let anything like that get ahold of me. I don’t know if you know this, but generally black people will not get counseling. ‘I’m not gonna sit here and tell you my problems. It’s not your business.’ So to avoid all of those problems, I’m gonna keep this separate from this. Remember, I was at the jail for almost 10 years. I would end my shift at the jail, then change and go to the clubs. I left the jail in 2003, and I have only started doing the jail material in the last six months. So, it took some time—maybe, after you feel that you are no longer in danger— some time to look back and see the humor of the situation.

OT What convinced you to incorporate jail material into your act?
RLH A good friend of mine, Shay Shay—he’s a comedian, himself, he said I needed to share some of the pain I had, that pain was comedy gold, and that until I stopped being so stingy with it, I would never get the outcome I was looking for. But I was still pretty guarded. Then, last year I signed with new management, and my team said I was not really tapping into all the entertainment that I had to give. So, it was a combination of Shay and my management team both saying, ‘hey, listen, this is what’s funny, if you let it be funny.’ So, really in a very short amount of time, I have been dedicating a significant amount of my set to the jail material, and to my surprise, people are very interested. They are eating it up. It’s been outside of my own personal ability—outside of what I thought I could do. It has been amazing.

OT Why do you think audiences are interested in that material?
RLH I found that people are interested in what they have no experience with. There are a lot of misconceptions. For instance, people think you are relatively safe and separate from the prisoners. But, where I was, I was in direct contact with maximum security prisoners. So, I was in there alone with murderers and thieves and car jackers and I was unarmed. All I had was a black pen, a red pen, and a flashlight. Not the big-assed, ‘knock-a-bitch-out’ flashlight. No, no, no. I had the little ‘where’s my keys?’ maglite. From time to time the supervisors would say, “Officer Hines, why are you in there playing cards and dominos with those inmates?” And I would say, “Inmate? That’s my cousin. He’s got a name.”

OT Do you think getting to the audience to feel some of the things you felt—like getting them to feel scared or threatened— has anything to do with it?
RLH Definitely. That is a part of it, because that’s what you do when you are a storyteller. When I was a young stand-up, one of the things I learned from Bernie Mac is that the reason that this is an art is that you are painting a picture with words. The picture can go from being something beautiful to something horrific, and you need to understand that the words you use are very important. Like, he would say, “If you’re going to talk about a grape, I want to be able to taste the sweetness of the grape. I want you to be able to have rinsed the grape off and there still to be water on the grape. I want you to tell me every bit of your taste bud enjoying that grape. If you can’t do that, then you really can’t hang around me. You have to make that picture with your words.”

OT Who are your favorite comedians of all time?
RLH There are quite a few guys that make up the mosaic that is me. Some of the Chicago guys— Richard Belzer, Bernie Mac, Shay Shay, Daran Howard, Evan Lionel. Then there’s Eddie Murphy. And, of course, every black comic has a love affair with Richard Pryor, because he really changed the game. Before that, it wasn’t as theatrical. After him, everything was, you know— everybody was dramatic. And I also like Franklyn Ajaye quite a bit. When I was a young, like four or five, I would see guys on TV— like the Belzers and Franklyn Ajayes— and I would think, ‘That is the coolest job in the world. I want to do that.’ Because they would be so laid back, and so cool, and so happy on stage.

OT What are your thoughts on the recent controversy surrounding Daniel Tosh’s rape joke?
RLH I think that when you go to see Daniel Tosh, you are going to see Daniel Tosh, and you should expect that it is going to be sort of nasty, or mean, or whatever. I mean, you don’t go to a demolition derby and complain because there are cars smashing into each other— it’s just nonsensical. And I also believe that he has the right to say anything that he wants to say. But, I think that there is also a price to be paid for that freedom of speech. Okay, so it’s like the NBA player who was an ambassador for the league who said that he was, uncomfortable with, quote unquote, fags. So, you can say whatever you want to say, but the NBA can also do whatever they want to do behind it. So, when you make certain statements, you should be prepared for the backlash. My personal thought? There’s nothing funny about rape, so that’s not part of my act. For me, as a stand-up, I want you to leave my show happy. I want everybody to get laid after they get through seeing me. And I want all that sex to be consensual.

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Photo by Leigh Loftus

Sous Chef Valeria Benner doesn’t cook at home, still it sounds like she eats better than I do. All I know how to do is steam. Hard to mess up, except when you forget it’s even happening and all the water evaporates and the broccoli turns black and sticks to the pot so you douse it with paprika and black pepper and pretend you were going for Cajun which is kind of pathetic because no one else is home so you’re only lying to yourself.

Not that I’ve ever done that. Nor has Chef Benner, I’m certain.

Throughout her time in Chicago, Benner has moved from the acclaimed Pump Room at the Ambassador East Hotel to Lockwood Restaurant at the Palmer House Hilton. There she works closely with Executive Chef Stephen Henry who she calls an “incredible mentor.”

I spoke with Benner about Wisconsin food and Chicago dining and generally tried to make her feel sorry for me so she’d swing by and make me something edible. No luck so far, but the day is young.

Our Town Where do you find inspiration?
Chef Val Benner I find inspiration in the food itself: watching it grow from a seed all the way to putting it to bed for the winter. Gardening and farming are a passion of mine and the whole process of growing food and raising livestock really drives my passion for the food itself. I think every chef should get their hands in the process and experience it to truly understand  and appreciate their art. Hell, I think every person should. Maybe they'd have a better appreciation of how their food gets to the table.

OT How did you develop your current menu?
VB Its basically a partnership between the local farmers and Lockwood. I keep up with what's looking good at the local farms and in my rooftop garden and then create the menu based off of that.  I like to make sure we have a little bit of everything for everyone and that each dish is approachable. Each item on the menu has an element that may be new or interesting to the guest, which keeps it interesting.

OT Who are some chefs that have influenced you?
VB People often ask me this and I have to admit that I really don't pay a lot of attention to what other chefs are doing. I don't watch the TV shows, read their books, or go to "hot" or high end restaurants. I don't even know that many chefs, really. I think the only chef I honestly I aspire to be like is Ferran Adria (but what self-respecting chef doesn't?) My reasons aren't on the culinary end though; he has inspired people around the world to be creative and think outside the box and that will have a lasting and positive impact on the world. That's the kind of stuff I want to do - I want to change the way people look at food. I could write a book about my feelings on that.

OT What’s your favorite Chicago spot for casual dining?
VB It depends on my mood. I either catch tacos & whiskey at Bullhead Cantina, gorge myself on the Korean wonders at San Soo Gab San, or grab Dim Sum in Chinatown. I'm a bit of a family diner fanatic as well. I appreciate little mom and pop spots: I'm supporting local families and farmers and often the food is better than the popular spots... definitely better for the price!

OT It looks like you grew up in Wisconsin. As a fellow Wisconsinite, I have to ask what did you find to eat there? I feel like it’s improved since I was a kid, but growing up we pretty much had...German food.
VB I lived in Wisconsin for over 10 years and I did most of my serious growing up there (I was in Michigan until I turned 16.) I have to admit that I have been incredibly lucky in my food experiences there. I worked in the famous Mifflin Street Co-op and learned all about sustainability, organics, farm-to-plate, etc before any of it hit the mainstream (this was 1997 through 2003)  I learned to wild-forage from all the amazing wild areas so I know how to find morels, fiddlehead ferns, asparagus, wild carrots, fraises... and the list goes on. I worked a block from the state capital in Madison and used to wheel my cart down to the Farmers Market (the best in the country!) twice a week and picked up whatever looked good and based specials and menus off of that. I also have friends and family who are hunters so I'd often have fresh venison, rabbit, duck and pheasant. On our farm we had beef, lamb, goat, chicken and pigeon. I didn't realize it while I was growing up, but now that I'm in the thick of my career, I now realize how incredibly blessed I am to have the life I do.

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My Significant Other is quitting smoking today, but that isn’t what this post is about. I bring it up because when you write a blog the criteria for which no one has ever fully articulated, you can pretty much say what you want.

Everyone thinks I should be excited that SO is quitting. Granted, there is an element of excitement to living with someone who might at any moment make a passive-aggressive comment about where you put the mail. Still, if I craved that brand of excitement, I’d date me. Instead I chose someone who self-soothes with toxic chemicals and now she’s gone and changed.

I won’t dwell, though. It’s like my sainted grandmother always said, why complain about your SO quitting smoking when you could interview the owner of an ice cream truck made for dogs?

Grandma knows best. And so does Donna Santucci, at least when it comes to gluten-free dog treats. The founding owner of Fido to Go, Santucci provides Chicago’s canines with cookies and doggie ice cream. Santucci, a seasoned dog and cat groomer donates ten percent of sales from one of the dog-friendly treats to a designated charity. This July, funds go to the U.S. Soldiers to bring their pups home from overseas and in August sales will benefit the Chicago k-9 unit. Our Town spoke with Santucci about her business’ birth and future.

Our Town How did you develop your recipes?
Donna Santucci I wanted to feed my own dog, Maddie treats that were wholesome, gluten-free, and without any additives and sugars [so] I began developing a slew of recipes that fit the bill. Soon, I was supplying treats and baking doggie cakes for the pets of family and friends.

OT What inspired you to open Fido To Go?
 DS With demand growing for my great-tasting At first I thought of opening a store which could combine my grooming business and collection of gluten and allergen-free dog treats and cakes, but one day, as I watched an ice cream truck stop at the beach and the kids lining up to get a treat, the idea for a mobile doggie treat food truck was born. I wanted to bring something fun and unique to the dog community. Why not give back to the one’s we love and bring us so much joy?

OT What would you say to someone unwilling to pay a higher price for a more nutritional dog treat?
 DS The old saying is true, “you get what you pay for.” These furballs are part of our family and nobody wants to see someone we love suffer from allergies, fatigue, tummy upset and ear infections. In the long run, it may be better for everyone’s pocket book to feed our pups high quality, healthy and nutritious pet food and treats. The more expensive route? Back and forth to the veterinarian’s office.

OT What’s your best selling treat?
 DS Dogs are similar to humans, they all like different flavors so, it depends what your dog likes.

OT Any advice for someone looking to open a small business?
 DS Follow your passion and be educated in the business you plan to open. If you are solely in it for the money, you’re at high-risk to fail.

OT What are some future goals?
 DS Growing Fido To Go, whether it’s franchising or purchasing more trucks and opening a store. It’s too early to tell what our future holds. Maybe next season we will all find out.

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My dog is a fan. Photo by Patty Michels.

Follow Fido to Go on Facebook.

A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
IMPORTANT: the official Our Town site doesn't support comments. Join in the conversation by following facebook.com/OurTownBlog.ChicagoSunTimes and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez
and Facebook.

 


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Susana Darwin

I didn’t live in Andersonville back when the lesbian classic Go Fish was filmed here which is for the best because I would have shown up with a bullhorn.

There I would be, in the center of every frame, pleading with the filmmakers to reconsider.
“Think of the children,” I’d say, “the young lesbians who’ll be told by their elders that Go Fish is part of the Lesbian Canon, essential viewing. Once they discover the sort of dismal story lines and subpar acting their foremothers are passing off as art, we’ll lose hundreds, maybe thousands. They’ll join sororities or convents, they’ll marry men. Anything rather than be associated with this caliber of work.”
Then I’d handcuff myself to Guinevere Turner, but only because she’s really hot.

But there’s a new lesbian film being shot in Andersonville, and I have high hopes for this one.

Hatboxes, a short written and directed by Susana Darwin tells the story of Miriam, an orthodox Jewish mother and Nadine, a lesbian lawyer disconnected from her Jewish heritage. The two meet by chance and find themselves powerfully drawn to one another. Then I’m guessing hijinks ensues. Or at least brisket. Okay, no hijinks; this is a serious film. One which drew producer Etta Worthington (Jamie and Jessie are Not Together) as well as stellar Chicago actors Robyn Okrant and Kat O’Conner.

Our Town spoke with Darwin about everything from the challenges of both writing and directing to tichels.

Our Town What inspired your film?
Susana Darwin Hatboxes originated at a Christmas party in the 90s:  a man was there with his children, clearly Orthodox, [though] he was no longer observant.  I learned the story of his departure from Orthodoxy and wondered, 'What if a woman like me met a woman like his ex-wife and there was chemistry?' and started writing.  The script has always been scaled small, for manageability of production—I didn't want to try to start out with a big cast or hordes of marauding CGI monsters. I wanted to tell a story at human scale, but one that hasn't already been told from every possible angle.  

OT What are the challenges of directing a movie that you've written?
SD Nora Ephron said, "One of the best things about directing movies, as opposed to merely writing them, is that there’s no confusion about who’s to blame: you are.”  The greater challenge would have been NOT directing Hatboxes.  I wanted to do both, to take the challenge of leading production in addition to doing the writing work on the front end.

OT What surprised you about shooting the film as opposed to writing it. Did filming change your perception of the characters or your concept?
SD The story gained emotional heft in the hands of the actors.  On the shoot's last day, when we were to be filming the two most emotionally intense scenes, just watching the two leads, Robyn Okrant and Kat O'Connor, rehearsing gave me chills. Actors are not sock puppets, and you risk impoverishing the story if you treat them like that.  You can hear a line in your head one way, but an actor might utter it in a way that exposes some totally new idea.  That collaboration is part of what's made this so rewarding.

OT Who is your audience for Hatboxes? How do you think the Orthodox community will react to a love story between two women?
SD If Hatboxes gets any attention from the Orthodox community, there obviously could be some controversy.  Orthodox lesbians may appreciate onscreen representation, but there are risks for them saying so.  Both the main characters struggle with loneliness and connection, a person's place in her community, the roles that get assumed or prescribed that may or may not fit. We hope Hatboxes will find its audience not only among Jews and lesbians, since its themes are hardly unique.

OT How did you research the Orthodox traditions seen on screen?
SD I converted to Judaism more than 20 years ago, though my connections to the Jewish community have been lifelong.  I've been exploring Jewish practice and thought for all that time, but there were times when I'd dive down some rabbit hole or other—like, YouTube has some useful videos on how to tie tichels (women's head wraps).  I also talked to friends and acquaintances from across the spectrum of Jewish life, and even outside of it:  one friend was the go-to make-up artist for Orthodox brides for many years, and she had a particular perspective as an outsider that was helpful.

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I’m on my book tour, writing from a hotel in downtown Atlanta where I paid twenty bucks for a salad and my waiter told me that if you’re too nice to a stripper she’ll follow you home from the club like a ‘lost pup.’ You know what I could use right now? A personalized comedy roast.

Luckily, Cayse Llorens has my back. The brains behind CelebTango, Llorens aims to bring personalized comedy into your home (or in my case, freezing cold hotel room). While CelebTango also offers live comedy shows, Llorens says digital CelebTangos are more popular. Why?

“It’s a blast to interact with a star on the big screen,” says Llorens. “The comedian can be a headliner in L.A. who just performed at The Laugh Factory and they can step backstage and rock your party in Chicago. Your brother in D.C. can login and be a part of the fun. Oh yeah, and your sister who’s studying abroad in France can be the birthday girl you’re all there to roast. Afterwards, you can all keep a copy of the whole digital show to watch over and over or email it to grandma in Fort Lauderdale.”

Sounds great. Now can someone airlift me in a carrot that doesn’t cost 82 dollars?

Our Town What inspired you to form CelebTango?

Cayse Llorens Three of my favorite comedians performed at my birthday party in my apartment for my family and friends. The experience was magical: personal, interactive, and just an awesome new way to experience a live performance. My dad was basically heckling the comedians, but they loved it and incorporated him into the show. It was awesome, and every comedy club I went to after that left me craving the personal experience we had enjoyed at my party. I knew then that I had to share this experience with the world.

OT Why go through CelebTango when you could just go to a comedy club?

CL Imagine sitting in your living room watching a Dave Chappelle blu-ray on your 50 inch LCD T.V. Suddenly Dave comes alive and starts calling you by your name, teasing you about your abnormal fear of baby corn, and joking about the purple couch you’re sitting on. You joke back and you’re actually part of the show! Now imagine keeping an HD quality copy of the experience to share with your family and friends [so] you can show them a personal comedy experience you had with your favorite celebrity. That’s the magic of CelebTango.

OT How do your comedians customize their sets for a particular paying customer?

CL All of our customers fill out a simple questionnaire that we share with their Celeb. When the Tango happens, our comedians already know what really tickles your funny bone, what topics to be sure to include and what sensitive subjects to avoid.

OT What’s in it for the comedian?

CL It’s fun, convenient, and a great new source of income for both hilarious rising stars and world-renowned A-Listers alike. Fun because for the first time they can make a room full of people laugh until they cry through our sophisticated yet easy to use group video chat technology. Convenient because our comedians can perform a professional, celebrity-grade Tango from anywhere in the world with a laptop and high speed internet connection. New source of income because right now there are a lot of very talented comedians who basically only do 1 show a night, only on Friday and Saturday, and sacrifice a lot of opportunities across town or in another city. CelebTango empowers them to rock parties in LA, Chicago, the U.K., and Podunk Idaho all in the same night!

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July's Hot Writer: Laura Goldstein

My genre: Experimental Poetry

My literary influences: Harryette Mullen, Richard Brautigan, Suzan-Lori Parks, Gertrude
Stein, Lyn Hejinian, Elizabeth Bishop, Andrew Marvell, William Shakespeare, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Maya Deren, Caroline Bergvall, H.D., bell hooks, Jena Osman, Susan Howe, Marisol Martinez.

My favorite literary quote(s): “You will write if you will write without thinking of the
result in terms of a result, but think of the writing in terms of discovery, which is to say that creation must take place between the pen and the paper, not before in a thought or afterwards in a recasting... It will come if it is there and if you will let it come.”- Gertrude Stein

“Poetry ought to be as easy as painting by numbers. It should turn us into those emotions and feelings we could not experience in our own body.” -Tan Lin

My favorite book(s) of all time: Muse and Drudge by Harryette Mullen, After You, Dearest Language by Marisol Martinez, In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan

I’m currently reading: made by Cara Benson, No, I Will Be In The Woods by Michelle Taransky, Applies to Oranges by Maureen Thorson, The West Wind Review, 6x6 (Ugly Duckling Presse), The Aeneid by Virgil

My guilty pleasure book: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

I can’t write without: a pencil, television, traveling.

Worst line I ever wrote: “but you say don’t even try”

Laura Goldstein's poetry and essays can be found in American Letters and Commentary, MAKE, jacket2, EAOGH, Requited, Little Red Leaves, and How2. She has a number of chapbooks including Ice in Intervals from Hex Presses, Facts of Light from Plumberries press and her chapbook Let Her was released from dancing girl press earlier this year. Her newest chapbook, Inventory, was just released by Sona Books at the beginning of June. She currently co-curates the Red Rover reading series with Jennifer Karmin and teaches Writing and Literature at Loyola University.

A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
IMPORTANT: the official Our Town site doesn't support comments. Join in the conversation by following facebook.com/OurTownBlog.ChicagoSunTimes and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez
and Facebook.

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