Posts by: "Dave Hoekstra"
Our Springfield friends coming to FitzGerald's (far left Ruell Chappel, Nick Sibley, Abbey Waterworth, far right Donnie Thompson and the late great Bobby Lloyd Hicks on drums--

A few of our Springfield friends coming to FitzGerald’s in Berwyn (from far left Ruell Chappell,  Nick Sibley on guitar, Abbey Waterworth, far right Donnie Thompson (and there’s the late great Bobby Lloyd Hicks on drums).

SPRINGFIELD, Mo.—The unadorned beauty of American regionalism can be heard in the songs of Abbey Waterworth. The 20-year-old musician is majoring in History and minoring in Museum Studies at Missouri State University (MSU) in Springfield. Her voice is as pure as mountain rain and filled with the promise of the morning sun. Waterworth is on the fast train to be to the Ozarks what a pop-country Dolly Parton is to Appalachia.

Waterworth came up with the idea to make her latest recording “Rose Bridge,” a sincere tribute to music that was created in the sticky flotsam and jetsam around Springfield.

Waterworth sings and plays banjo, Donnie Thompson (Skeletons, Morells, Steve Forbert) guests on lead guitar, the late Bobby Lloyd Hicks sits in on drums and former Ozark Mountain Daredevils John Dillon and Supe Grande guest on mouth-bow and spoons respectively–lending that cute Ozark touch. The album was recorded at Nick Sibley’s studio in downtown Springfield and Sibley filled out the record by playing drums, bass, harmonica and keyboards. He hired trumpets, violins and cellos for finishing parts.

Around Springfield clubs and coffee houses, Waterworth is backed by her band NRA (Nick Sibley on guitar, Ruell Chappell on keyboards and Abbey), and NRA will headline the Springfield Jamboree at 8 p.m. June 1 at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn.

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Donnie Thompson and Waterworth will open the evening with an acoustic set. “Rose Bridge” features covers of the Brenda Lee hit “I’m Sorry” (written by Springfield’s Ronnie Self), “The Letter,” (written by Springfield’s Wayne Carson), “Blue Kentucky Girl,” the Loretta Lynn-Emmylou Harris hit written by Springfield’s Johnny Mullins and even the pop-rock hit “Sugar Shack,” written by Keith McCormick, who had lived in Springfield since the early 1970s.

All those Springfield songwriters are dead.

“I wanted to know everything I could about where I came from and where this music came from,” Waterworth said during a conversation in Sibley’s spacious studio. “My interest in music history became an interest in art history and history of culture.”

I wanted to know if her college peer group is curious about her roots music interest.

“No,” she answered quickly. “I told someone last year I was studying history and might minor in Ozarks History and they were like, ‘Really, Ozarks History?’ That sounds like the nerdiest thing.’ But that’s what pumps my heart. Every time I talk about it, it fills me with joy. People in my age group aren’t really considering where they came from–yet. I’m not sure when that happens or why I have thought about that forever.

“Maybe it is because my family was from around here and I was never displaced like lots of people were when they were young. Oral tradition lasts three generations. A lot of music and culture is being lost because oral traditions are going away and people aren’t recording it. Especially in this area, there’s lots of untapped history. It’s still kind of a secluded region and it especially was 50, 60 years ago.”

“It is an area people don’t think about.”

The album is named “Rose Bridge” as a tribute to one of Si Siman’s publishing companies. Siman was a co-founder of the Ozark Jubilee concert series and ABC-TV show that in the mid-1950s was the first to broadcast country music across America–from the since-razed Jewell Theater in downtown Springfield.

“Rose Bridge” was named after Si’s wife Rosie and Wayne Carson’s wife Bridget.

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Sibley said, “Abbey is only twenty, but has an encyclopedic knowledge of music of many genres and periods. She has an amazing voice. No auto-tune was used on this CD. She plays guitar, banjo and bass. She wanted to do her own interpretations of the varied types of songs that have come out of the Ozarks. Some were worldwide hits. Some are local favorites. And one is totally unknown–that would be mine.”

Sibley, a former member of the Springfield pop-rock-country-punk-surf band The Skeletons, wrote the novelty song “Cheesey Bread” for “Rose Bridge.” It’s just a few tracks ahead of the “Top Gun” Academy Award winning song “Take My Breath Away,” written by Springfield’s Tom Whitlock.

“Rose Bridge” is Waterworth’s second independent CD. Her 2015 acoustic self-titled debut includes Sibley originals, Elizabeth Cotten’s “Shake Sugaree (popularized by the Grateful Dead) and an honest cover of Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe.”

NRA has been playing around Springfield since 2014. The Nick Sibley-Ruell Chappell partnership began in 1974 when they debuted at a Shakey’s Pizza Parlor in Springfield. Chappell is a Springfield native who was a mid-1970s member of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils and in  1989 was a cast member of the popular musical “Pump Boys and Dinettes.”

A native of El Dorado Springs, Mo., Sibley has been writing and producing jingles for companies across America out of his Springfield studio. Sibley built the studio out of the shell of a former warehouse and has owned and operated the space since 1981.

The Ozark Mountain Daredevils and Brewer and Shipley of “One Toke Over The Line” fame have recorded at Sibley’s studio and Brad Pitt did movie voice overs there. “He still owes me forty bucks,” Sibley cracked.  “He was home for Christmas and he came to record on a Saturday morning. This was twenty years ago. He told me to send the tape to Miramax in New York and I never got paid. (Original ‘Newlywed Game’ host) Bob Eubanks did an ‘American Express’ commercial here.”

Sibley does spots for Lay’s Potato Chips, Bass Pro Shops and O’Reilly Auto Parts among others. Bass and O’Reilly are headquartered in Springfield. Ozark Mountain Daredevils Steve Cash and John Dillon laid down the original “O-O-O’Reilly” vocals, charging the company one dollar. “We do about 200 O’Reilly commercials every month here,” Sibley said. “I did the music 15 years ago. They come in and record in Spanish and English.” Sibley’s studio is just two blocks away from the late Lou Whitney’s studio.

Nick SIbley in his studio

Nick Sibley in his studio

Springfield’s music history is deeply rooted in NRA.

Chappell worked for Si Siman, playing on country records produced by Siman and Wayne Carson. NRA’s repertoire includes Sibley originals like “Albino Farm” (a true story about the 1930s albino Sheedy family that farmed at night outside of Springfield), the lite-country anthem “Life in the 417″ (Springfield’s area code)  and the irresistible 2017 pop anthem “Bang-Bang Summer.”

Waterworth explained, “There’s something about these older songs that people made for the sake of making art. That’s what folk tradition is. People making this for the pleasure of sharing, That’s one reason I’m drawn to it. It wasn’t set up for commercialism. I had the pleasure of playing ‘Blue Kentucky Girl’ for Johnny Mullins’ wife and she was so happy that somebody was still interested in it.”

Waterworth works part time in Archives and Special Collections at Missouri State. She transfers old recordings into videos for the Gordon McCann Ozarks Music Collection.

McCann audio and video taped more than 3,000 hours of regional fiddle  music, house parties and compiled 200 notebooks filled with lyrics and transcriptions of conversations. McCann, 86, is a Springfield native who spent his youth floating on johnboats on rivers in the Ozarks. “We’re putting his videos on YouTube so they’re accessible,” Waterworth said. “It’s Smithsonian level stuff.”

And of her essential “Rose Bridge” recording Waterworth explained, “I wanted to show people all of the beauty that comes from this area that we don’t think about. And maybe get people to discover more. You don’t have to go to St. Louis or a bigger city to hear good music. This area has made a lot of music. Whenever you play a good song and people realize it was written here, they’re surprised.

“They don’t think that kind of greatness  can happen in their hometown.”

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Abbey Waterworth is from Clever, Mo, in Christian County about 20 miles south of Springfield. The clever small town name reminded me my interview with the then-unknown Faith Hill, who was from Star, Miss.

“Not much goes on in Clever,” Waterworth said. “There’s a Murfin’s Market, the local grocery store and two gas stations. It was a farming community for a long time and now people are drawn to the school systems there.”

Waterworth attended Clever RV, a consolidation of five one-room school houses. “Yes, it sounds like something from a camping trip,” she said. “It adds to the ‘hillbilly value’ a little bit.”

Her mother Connie has been a successful stay at home mom. “My Dad (Bryan) has driven a truck as long as I can remember,” Waterworth said. “He hauled diesel fuel for Burlingt0n-Northern Santa Fe. Railroads were a big part of Springfield’s economy at one time.”

Her great grandparents were from St. Louis and moved to Competition, about two hours north of Springfield. Her great-grandmother played guitar until she had a family. Waterworth’s grandfather was a barber who bought a 1937 Gibson and learned how to play it for rural Friday night house parties.  “They would go house to house every Friday night and play music,” she recalled. “Mostly bluegrass, but they’d play Ernest Tubb and old folk songs. He loved Jimmie Rodgers. I heard all that. My Dad learned guitar from listening to the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. Dad would get on his bicycle and ride down to the Nixa Trout Farm (in Nixa, Mo., outside of Springfield) where the Daredevils practiced. He would listen to their practices. My oldest brother learned how to play and then my second brother learned how to play. I was the last. So there really wasn’t an option.

“It was something I felt I had to do to be part of the family.”

Music filled the halls of the house in Clever and plenty of CDs were packed for family road trips. “I grew up on bluegrass but I love the Beach Boys and Rolling Stones,” she said. “I started singing when I was seven and started guitar when I was nine. Then I picked up banjo.”

Waterworth has been singing as long as she can remember. “My family needed a singer.” she said. “We had a guitar player, a bass player and a mandolin player. My brother told me I was singing melodies before I could talk. When I was growing up the Dillards were a influence. Some of them lived around here. As I got older, I got into John Hartford, who was from St. Louis and who played with the Dillards and then Gillian Welch–she was a huge influence. But there was a point where all I did was listen to music that I hadn’t heard before.”

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Nick Sibley and friend.

Nick Sibley’s sense of a musical pop hook is in the rarefied air of Nick Lowe or Marshall Crenshaw. His playful approach to songs about cornbread and buried cats reminds me of Chicago’s Chris Ligon. Sibley’s hilarious true story about a Missouri undertaker, “Don’t Be Drinkin’ No Beer While Your’e Working on my Mama” has been recorded by Ray Stevens but has yet to be released.

“You write a song, open it up and then the song appears,” Sibley explained. “I come up with the germ of an idea and let it unfold. Look for rhymes. I feel I find a song more than I write.”

Sibley inherited an eye for detail from his mother Peggy Thatch Sibley while growing up in El Dorado Springs, an hour south of Springfield. His father was a grocer, his mother is a piano player and painter.

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Mrs. Sibley’s art.

“She paints pictures of bridges and flowers and all kinds of stuff,” Sibley said. “You see her prints at Wal-Mart. I’ll go into a hotel room and find my Mom’s painting on the wall. Let’s say bird houses are big this year. She will do a series of bird houses. She paints photographs of those styles but she aspires to loosen up and be more expressive.

“I find myself writing the same way she paints. In order to fight that I’ll throw some more paint on the canvas. It’s contrived random. Do I rhyme where it should be or don’t do a rhyme? People who do it for real, that’s genius stuff. Me? I pretend to be a genius. I write jingles. That’s what I do.”

“About every three weeks, TV stations coast to coast, north to south fly me in. California to New Jersey. They bring their clients in   every hour and a half. They tell me about their business for 30  minutes or so and I find some germ where I can write about something.  They leave the room for 20 minutes and I write their jingle. A jingle is 30 seconds  long. And you want to say something good about the client. They come in and I play it for them. If they like it, I come back here and produce it with real singers and stuff. Then the TV sends me a contract.

“ I’ve written thousands and thousands of jingles. The client takes it home. He says, ‘I know you’re an expert, but my daughter thinks it should sound more like this.’ You’re always pleasing the lowest common denominator, just like in popular music. That’s what you’re going for.”

Sibley’s approach is not unlike what hot pop (Taylor Swift, Lorde) songwriter Jack Antonoff told the New York Times earlier this week: “The heart and soul of pop is newness, excitement, innovation. The music business is built on chasing that ambulance–‘someone did it, let’s go that way.’ I don’t want to be a part of that. I want to be away from it.”

Antonoff should move to Springfield.

Sibley came to Springfield in 1971 to study marketing at Missouri State. “But Springfield bands would come to El Dorado Springs every Friday and Saturday night,” he said. “They were big stars to us. They knew all the right chords to the songs and I would be the guy standing by the PA watching them play That’s how I met Lloyd (Hicks, all-world drummer. He was the drummer for Lord Mack and the Checkmates. Supe (Michael Granda of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils) came to my town.

The late Wayne Carson

The late Wayne Carson

“The first studio in Springfield was started by Si Siman in 1968. It was called Top Talent. That’s where Wayne Carson (The Box Tops, Gary Stewart, etc.) did his demos and it became kind of a party place. Then Si said, ‘I’m outta here.’ He told me when I was going to build this place, ‘You’re going to regret it.’ Because I’d be using musicians (laughs). About 1972 Si sold his studio to a group of investors whose core group was local preachers. They made a gospel studio out of it. They’d do an album a day on Saturdays and  Sundays. I knew everybody who played in every band in town.

“For me, Springfield music was like collecting baseball cards.”

 

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“I want to pick up where Theodore Ohman left off,” Foss declared during a mid-May conversation at his cafe in Mount Morris. “HIs goal was to put these in every school across America. And that’s what we’re doing. I just had a couple come in and buy a Constitution to donate to the Oregon School District. Our country needs this. New plates have been made and we want to offer these to the American public. Our constitution is important.  I’d like to see these go to the schools, attorney’s offices.

I’d like to see these go to the current occupant of the White House.

Foss sells 26” by 40” reproduction prints on parchment for $99 each at Wethepeopleprints.com. Shipping is free.

“We started doing research,” Foss said. “I started calling a lot of places to authenticate. I had never seen anything like (black ink) on glass.” Wisconsin appraiser Mark Moran worked with the Antiques Roadshow series. Foss paid for the appraisal and Moran estimated the Declaration lithographs created from Ohman’s plates at $650 each. For his Declaration lithograph, Ohman used an engraving plate from 1823 and the last negative of the original Declaration before it was permanently sealed in the National Archives in the early 1900s.

No one knows how Ohman made copies of the Constitution, but Foss  discovered more than 10,000 Constitution copies in the crates. Those were done in 1953. “We believe he got sick and passed on and was never able to distribute the Constitution,” Foss said. “Theodore Ohman had two kids who are deceased. He started his printing business in Memphis, Tennessee and move to Fort Lauderdale, Florida where he passed away. His printing plates, negatives, positives and maps went up for auction in Fort Lauderdale. A gentleman in De Kalb (Ill.) purchased all of it. And it was brought to his printing business here. He passed away, that estate sold and  this stuff got moved from one warehouse to another warehouse.

“And it got forgotten.”

HERE is a nice trailer from videographer Melissa Tassone:

Foss, 57, is owner of McKendrie Street Cafe, a sandwich and coffee shop, ironically on 500 Evergreen Dr. in Mount Morris (pop. 3,100). He also owns the Below Zero ice cream and smoothie shop in downtown Mount Morris. Below Zero is across the street from the community band shell that features Wednesday and Friday night summer concerts.

Mount Morris is a cozy borough about 35 miles southwest of Rockford and 100 miles west of Chicago straight out on Route 64 (North Avenue.) A Mount Morris welcome sign on Route 64 says, “Let Freedom Ring!” Mount Morris is the home of the Illinois Freedom Bell, located in the town square. I have spent some time in Oregon, a small town about five miles east of Mount Morris, but I had never been to Mount Morris. If you want to pull the strings of a Mount Morris resident, just call their town a suburb of Oregon.

Jerry Stauffer (L) and Ken Foss (D. Hoekstra photo)

Jerry Stauffer (L) and Ken Foss (D. Hoekstra photo)

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PEORIA, Ill .–The earth moves but it doesn’t shift quite as fast in Peoria, Ill.

As you roll into Peoria on I-74 across the Illinois River, you are met by a humble skyline that consists of the 50-year old Mark Twain Hotel, AFL-CIO headquarters and Caterpillar headquarters. Nestled beneath all that faded promise, like nuggets of gold in a stream, is Jim’s Steakhouse–or Jim’s as locals call it.

 Jim’s has been around since 1960. The late Peoria Chiefs owner Pete  Vonachen, his baseball bud Harry Caray and Peoria native Jack Brickhouse were Jim’s regulars. I’ve been going to watch Midwest League baseball in Peoria since 1985 when future Cubs Hall of Famer Greg Maddux played for the Chiefs. How could I miss Jim’s?

Jim’s is at 110 S.W. Jefferson, in the lower level of the six story  Janssen Building. Diners walk off a gold elevators and enter a hallway filled with hundreds of autographed celebrity photographs. It is the Peoria Pump Room. There’s photos of late Peoria native, singer-songwriter Dan Fogelberg, Warren Zevon and Elton John. There’s Larry King and Fabio (I presume they weren’t dining together). The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders.

IMG_6380But most of all, there’s lots of pictures of baseball players: Peoria natives Joe Girardi and Jim Thome (a Jim who still comes to Jim’s regularly), Pete Rose, Bob Gibson and scores of others. If there is a metaphor for the song of Peoria, I’d say it is Jim’s.

Tim Comfort, 61,  is the owner of Jim’s. His father Jim started the famous restaurant. Jim Comfort owned the not so famous saloons Comfort Lounge and Circa in the Peoria area before opening the steakhouse in 1960 in the Junction City Mall, north of Peoria. Jim’s moved to its present location in 1992, which is a ten minute walk to the beautiful Dozer Park, home of the Chiefs.

Jim and his brothers all worked in the restaurant growing up.

That’s how life is in Peoria. The earth moves slow, until something like the January, 2017 announcement that Caterpillar was moving its headquarters to Chicago. Caterpillar had talked about building new headquarters in Peoria in 2015. This news shook Peoria  and Jim’s right to the core of its 160-seat lover level steakhouse.

Caterpillar’s roots are near Stockton, Ca. but the company purchased a bankrupt East Peoria manufacturing company in 1909 and has since been part of the community fabric. The company headquarters is just two blocks away from Jim’s.

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“Since 1960 we have served every CEO Caterpillar ever had,” Comfort said. “Then they give control of the company to people out of state, and like most downstate, people are moving headquarters out of downstate to Chicago or other states. Nobody here likes their decision to move.”

And then in early March, IRS and federal agents raided Caterpillar offices in Peoria as part of an investigation into allegations that the farm equipment manufacturing company was shifting profits overseas to avoid taxation.

Comfort was born and raised in Peoria. “When we got of high school, we could work at any of Caterpillar’s factories and make good money,”  he said. “Most of my friends fathers supported families; four, six, eight kids, running a machine for Caterpillar. That has all changed.

“Those factories have been bulldozed in East Peoria. There’s very little manufacturing done around here.”

Caterpillar did step up to the plate in 2013 when the Chiefs had  financial problems. Caterpillar gave the Chiefs $2 million in funding  for stadium naming rights over 10 years matched by $2.7 million in new investment of cash and equity by the Chiefs’ ownership group of about 50.  In May, 2013, the former O’Brien Stadium was renamed Dozer Park, a reference to Caterpillar bulldozers.

The best of plans push forward. Today, Tim’s younger brother Greg runs Jim’s Steakhouse in Bloomington, Ill. Older brother Jim, Jr. operates Jim’s Bistro in Peoria Heights. “We each have our own Jim’s,” Comfort said. “My brothers and I started out as dishwashers, busboys. Then we went on to cleaning the restaurant. Our parents had us prep cook. We ran the salad department. From there we went into back up cooking and running the broiler. We knew how to do everything.”

The Janssen Building was erected in 1990 in the former site of the Niagara Hotel and the basement speakeasy known as The Combo Club.  The warm interior contains ample flourishes of cherry wood, brass and marble. When a guest walks into Jim’s it does feel like the 1960s all over again. “My father always told us to stay traditional and not go into anything that would go out of style,” Comfort said. “This restaurant hasn’t changed in 25 years.

Courtesy of Tim Comfort

Jim’s photo courtesy of Tim Comfort

“Downtown Peoria has changed considerably. Pete Vonachen (1925-2013) pushed for the ballpark downtown. It took him a long time. You can see (Peoria’s leading builder) Ray Becker’s buildings as you leave Jim’s. He built all these tall buildings downtown (in the early 1990s). Most of the growth now is going to the northwest part of town.”

Many of the celebrities stopped into Jim’s because they were  appearing at the nearby Peoria Civic Center or staying in a downtown hotel. Dan Fogelberg (1951-2007) signed a picture and it is encased with a signed guitar along a wall. “Dan and his wife ate here every time they were in town,” Comfort recalled in humble Peoria tones. “This was his restaurant. Sometimes they would come in and order appetizers, sit in the corner and you didn’t even know they were in the place. They were wonderful people and they are really missed.

“Warren Zevon was playing the Madison Theater. That was a to-go order and we ran it down there. He was nice enough to autograph a picture for us. Fabio? I don’t know what he was doing in Peoria. He had no reservation. He just walked in with a whole group of women behind him. He had (Alaskan King) crab legs. (Cubs Hall of Famer) Ryne Sandberg has been here a couple dozen times Remember he managed here for a while (2007.). Jim Thome signed a baseball bat for us. We probably have a half-dozen signed baseballs. We bother him every time he comes in. He has family in Peoria. He’s an avid outdoorsman.”

Jerry Daughters (L) and Tim Comfort

Jerry Daughters (L) and Tim Comfort

Retired Creve Coeur (Ill.) police chief Jerry Daughters is a fast friend of Jim’s. When Daughters was police chief from the mid-1970s to 1993 he would take more than 100 Peoria area kids to the old Busch Stadium in St. Louis for annual meets and greets with players, especially during Cubs-Cardinals games.

Daughters has dozens of black and white photographs of visits with Ron Santo, Ernie Banks and even Cubs manager Herman Franks, who never missed a meal.

Daughters wandered into Comfort’s office and asked, “Who was the horn player on ‘The Tonight Show? (Doc Severinsen.) He was staying at the Mark Twain and had a concert somewhere. I was shooting the stuff with him.

“Creve Coeur was a hot place back then. We had 12 taverns open until four a..m. and a band in all of them. He was wondering where to go after his show. Now Creve Coeur is dead.”

Actor-comedian Richard Pryor was from Peoria and in 2014 a Richard Pryor Avenue was renamed in his honor just a few blocks away from Jim’s. “Richard Pryor, Jr. has been here several times,” Comfort said. “I asked him, ‘Did your father ever come to Jim’s?’ He said he was sure he had come, maybe in the early 1960s. Sam Kinison (Peoria native) was in Jim’s at least 12 times. You always heard what a wild guy he was. All he ever requested was fresh brewed iced tea. His parents were (Pentecostal) preachers and I think he preached for a while himself.” In a 1989 conversation , Kinison indeed told me he used to preach at a church at 918 W. Belmont in Chicago.

One of the more unique aspects of Jim’s is the logo that features a piano and a piano player. Most urban steakhouses and supper clubs have trimmed the budget for live entertainment. But music will always play in Peoria.

Richard Pryor, native of Peoria, Ill., USA

Richard Pryor, native of Peoria, Ill., USA

Comfort looked at the week’s entertainment scrawled out on a sheet of yellow paper that hung on his office wall. He said, “Bonnie (Tuesday night) is a 19-year-old Bradley student. Ed and Judy are in their 70s, they’ve been playing for us for 30 years. Ben and Kate (Friday night piano and voice duo) are the younger version of Ed and Judy, they’re in their 30s. We have a harpist from 6 to 8 on Friday and Saturday nights.

“Entertainment is expensive. I keep telling our talent, ‘Don’t outprice yourself because it’s not a good time to be a musician. Then the music licensing companies want more money for live entertainment. We just paid ASCAP and BMI is due in May.” Jim’s intimate lounge-piano bar area sits about 35 people.

Of course as my late father (a Swift & Company purchasing agent in Chicago) would say, “The meat makes the meal.” Comfort explained, “We’re a traditional steakhouse just as you would find in Chicago. We have the dry-aged Porterhouses, rib-eyes. We take a lot of pride in our beef and that’s what has kept us rolling all these years.”

Jim’s menu menu highlights  include a chopped sirloin bacon wrapped with blue cheese and grilled onions ($16.95), pot roast ($21.95) and baby back ribs ($24.95). “We’re in the category of Gene and Georgetii’s, Harry Caray’s and Rosebud in Chicago,” Comfort said. “I’ve eaten at all of them. We hae people who come down from Chicago and they can’t believe how cheap we are. We cannot get Chicago prices downstate, but it is the same quality and same beef.” And there’s no beef about making Jim’s a must visit for the classic Peoria experience; the way things once were.

 

M. Ward.

M. Ward solo. I’m a fan.

 

Bobby Lloyd Hicks, 1947-2017

Bobby Lloyd Hicks, 1947-2017

“Bobby” Lloyd Hicks.

What a great name, what a great man.

Bobby Lloyd Hicks–it sounded like he came from somewhere big and dusty, like Texas, an old Kansas City steakhouse or a Gary Cooper western. But no siree Bob, the modest Mr. Hicks was born in 1947 in tiny Marshalltown, Iowa, where in 1852 future Baseball Hall of Famer Adrian “Cap” Anson became the first European born in the farming community.

And Mr. Hicks was an ace of hearts.

He was the drummer-vocalist for the Skeletons/Morells/NRBQ and about 63 other bands, including the Ozark Mountain Daredevils where revolving members are known as “Sparedevils.” Mr. Hicks died early Sunday in his adopted home town of Springfield, Mo. He had been fighting lung disease.

Springfield mayor Bob Stephens named Jan. 22, 2017 as Bobby Lloyd Hicks Day in Springfield and that night the local music community turned out in force for a benefit-tribute concert at the Fox Theater in Springfield to pay back for Mr. Hicks’ goodwill towards Springfield arts. In the more than quarter century that I’ve been documenting the far-reaching Springfield  music scene, Mr. Hicks was a reliable vessel for history, insight and networking, He always returned calls and e-mails, even last week. He always smiled.

In the 1980s and 90s the Skeletons and Morells gained attention in Rolling Stone magazine and other national media outlets because their engaging sound was a hybrid of the mystical flotsam and jetsam in Springfield, the birthplace of Route 66. Mr. Hicks was the loyal time keeper that revealed a spirit with no musical prejudice. How do you describe the music he played to someone who never heard it? Beach Boys/Ramones/Dictators/Waylon Jennings/The Box Tops/Swingin’ Medallions/Monkees/Sonny & Cher and that is only a beginning. The beat goes on and on.

The deep musical well was not lost on Grammy winning singer-songwriter Dave Alvin, who had kept in touch with Mr. Hicks over the last few months. In 1991 Alvin hired the Skeletons as the touring band behind his “Blue Boulevard” album. By 1993 Mr. Hicks was playing drums alongside iconic rhythm and blues saxophonist Lee Allen on Alvin’s “Museum of Heart” record. From 1993 through 2006 Mr. Hicks and Skeletons keyboardist Joe Terry were part of Alvin’s Guilty Men band.

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“ I can throw anything at them and they can play it,” Alvin once told me. “When we did that (1998 North American) Bob Dylan-Joni Mitchell-Dave Alvin) tour, Joni had Brian Blades playing drums, who was just amazing. His brother plays in Spyboy with Emmylou Harris. Those are the two best drummers I’ve seen in a long time and I’d put Bobby right with them.”

“A lot of drummers don’t understand harmony. Bobby understands music theory. I don’t. And (the late) Donald Lindley (Alvin, Lucinda Williams) and Bobby were two of the best guys ever for understanding what it takes to be a song—different from just coming up with a drum part–to actually listen to the song, listen to the lyrics.”

Over the years, under the considerable charms of late Skeletons and Morells bassist-producer Lou Whitney, Mr. Hicks, keyboardist Joe Terry, keyboardist Kelly Brown, guitarist D. Clinton Thompson, harmonica-vocalist Nick Sibley and others became Springfield’s own “Wrecking Crew,” playing behind the likes of Eric Ambel Scott Kempner, Andy Shernoff (The Del-Lords), Robbie Fulks, Jonathan Richman, Syd Straw, Boxcar Willie just to name a few.

Mr. Hicks moved to Springfield in 1965 to become a music teacher. His father William Herschel Hicks was raised in the Ozarks by Mr. Hicks’ grandfather, an itinerant preacher. During the summer the family would travel from Iowa to the Springfield area to see family and enjoy the pristine lakes.

William Herschel Hicks managed the Kresge department store in Marshalltown. When Mr. Hicks was two years old William Herschel and his wife Genevieve gave their son a children’s record player from the store.

The deal was done.

“The fascination of those spinning disc and the sound coming out of  the box,” Mr. Hicks told me several years ago. “My Mom said I was on my knees all day. Then I’d take my records to bed. It was those (children’s) Golden records but my parents had a lot of ’78s. Big Band stuff and the crooners. We had a lot of novelty records too, for some reason.”

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Bobby Lloyd Hicks, courtesy of NRBQ

This is probably why Mr. Hicks would sign holiday greetings, “Merry Christmas Cousin and a Happy Doodle-ee-dee!”

Mr. Hicks did not recall hearing African-American rhythm and blues and soul music in Marshalltown. “Black people all lived in one little neighborhood in Marshalltown,” he said. “When we got in hight school we discovered WLAC (AM, nighttime rhythm and blues out of Nashville, Tn.) Wolfman Jack and all of that.”

The family had a Grand piano in the living room. Genevieve was an accomplished pianist and Mr. Hicks’ two older sisters took piano lessons along with Mr. Hicks. “But the Beatles changed everybody on what was fun to play,” Mr. Hicks explained. “In fourth grade I went to play drums. We had a little band in high school called the Cooties. We played high school dances and stuff.”

Mr. Hicks always remembered the first two albums he bought: Sandy Nelson’s “Let There Be Drums” and the Jose Jimenez comedy LP “The Submarine Officer.” He laughed, “I don’t know which one had the biggest influence on me. But both of them did.”

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His parents were very religious. “They would rarely go to dances and movies,” Mr. Hicks said. “They would complain every time I bought a rock n’ roll ’45, ‘You’re throwing your money away!’ that kind of thing.”

Later, behind the parental scenes, Mr. Hicks idols became jazz drummers Joe Morello (Dave Brubeck) and Louie Bellson. “Gene Krupa of course,” he said. “I admired those guys but by fourth grade you’re thinking you need real big sticks and rubber pads. I never had jazz chops. Bossa nova came along in the early ’60s and that was fun and easy to play. But I’ve never had a good left hand. It was February, 1964 when the Beatles came out. Everything changed that night. In fact, in early 1964 we had a little folk group that won second place in competition at Grinnell (College in Grinnell, Iowa). The top three finishers got to do a spring concert with the Gateway Trio from San Francisco. In the meantime the Beatles had come on Ed Sullivan. So when we came back with our ‘folk group’ we had drums, Beatle jackets and we did ‘She Loves You.’ The judges were aghast.”

In a deep folkloric drawl, Mr. Hicks loved to tell stories of the late 1960s rock music scene in Springfield when anyone could be a star. Mr. Hicks’ measured manner and gentle country grin made him something of a Mark Twain character. He found that small town dreams were always approachable in Springfield.

“Oh yeah, to have a ‘45 here was a big deal,” he said. His best pal through the 1960s was local soul-saxophonist Mike Bunge. “He had a band with horns, steps and suits, kind of like Bob Kuban and the In-Men (the St. Louis outfit who had the national 1966 soul hit with “The Cheater),” Mr. Hicks recalled. “They were called Lewie and the Seven Days. And there was only six of them”

Mr. Hicks enrolled at Southwest Missouri State University to obtain a teaching degree, but music got in the way. “It was a vibrant music scene in the late 1960s,” he said. “A lot of bands.  No DJs. There was an atmosphere. In college it was mandatory to take two years of ROTC. So no guy in this town could grow hair over their ears. The first band I was in was Lord Mack and the Checkmates (band names were even awesome in the 1960s).  We made a contract where you can’t play with other bands,  you have to make practice several times a week. And we buried way down there, ‘Cannot cut hair for the contract year.’ I took this to the ROTC commander and he signed a little paper that said I didn’t have to cut my hair.. So there was only three of us on the entire campus of 3,000 that had long hair. I got stopped all the time by student officers. I’d have to get out my wallet, show them the paper and they’d get pissed.

“It was fun even though Viet Nam was looming overhead.”

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The Skeletons fax a record deal. From left, Bobby Lloyd Hicks, Joe Terry, Lou Whitney, D. Clinton Thompson, Kelly Brown.

Mr. Hicks played Animals, Beatles and Rolling Stones covers. “Then I saw Lewie and the Seven Days,” he said. “I thought, ‘Yeah, this is where it is at. Really tight.’ And they were managed by Si Siman and Si booked our band too.”

“Si” Siman was a conduit for the Springfield music scene. He started the “Ozark Jubilee” television show in 1955 on ABC-TV. The Ozark Jubilee was the first television show in America to feature country-western music. The show was broadcast live on Saturday nights from the  since-razed Jewell Theater in downtown Springfield. Patsy Cline,  Johnny Cash and Webb Pierce all appeared on the Jubilee. Rockabilly singer Carl Perkins made his television debut on the Jubilee.

“Mike and I would get out of theory class and go hang out at Si’s  office,” Mr. Hicks recalled.  “Every day. (Late Springfield songwriters) Ronnie Self and Wayne Carson would come in We’d read Billboard magazine. They had a mono recording studio upstairs. Ronnie and Wayne recorded a lot of demos there. The radio station (KTWO-AM), “Keep Watching The Ozarks” was there.” Siman was the station’s vice-president.

Carson and Self wrote for the Earl Barton Publishing Company, also co-founded by Siman. Self wrote the Brenda Lee hits “I’m Sorry” and “Sweet Nothin’s,” and his “Waitin’ For My Gin To Hit Me” became a Skeletons staple, while Carson was Barton’s biggest success penning the Box Top hits “The Letter” and “Soul Deep,” the late Gary Stewart country hits “Drinkin’ Thing” and “She’s Acting Single (I’m Drinking Double)” while co-writing the Elvis Presley smash “Always On My Mind,” also a hit for Willie Nelson.

Mr. Hicks was going to school.

Dave Alvin was sold on Mr. Hicks’ musicology while recording his acclaimed 1994 acoustic album “King of California.” “I didn’t have money in the budget to have Bobby on the whole sessions,” Alvin said. “We at least got him out for a couple days of vocal harmonies because he is such a great singer. We had gone through two or three great drummers, Donald Lindley being one, that could not come up with a drum part to ‘King of California” We cut that track live with the exception of the drums. Bobby walks in the studio, He’d never heard the song. He plays this drum part that is absoultely genius. And that was it. I feel this way about the Morells and Skeletons: if they weren’t living in Springfield, if they were living in Nashville or Los Angeles, they’d all have been session guys making major money.”

Between 2013 and 2015, Mr. Hicks was  drummer for the fine  pop-rock band NRBQ. When he was off the road with the Q, he gigged around Springfield. In the fall of 2014 I drove in from Chicago to see Mr. Hicks play 1950s-60s country music at  Luttrell’s Auction and Live Music Barn on the north side of Springfield, There was little money in this gig. Mr Hicks promised this would be a memorable experience and he delivered.

Auctions started in the small, rickety barn in 1955, making it the oldest auction house west of the Mississippi River. Leona Williams, former wife of Merle Haggard was an occasional guest vocalist.  If  you liked the joyful old RR Ranch in downtown Chicago, you would love Luttell’s Auction and Live Music Barn.

Bobby Lloyd Hicks and the auction house band, 2014 (photo by Rene' Greblo)

Bobby Lloyd Hicks and the auction barn band, 2014 (Photo by Rene’ Greblo)

During my visits, the auction barn band featured Ozark Jubilee steel player Roger Blevins and country jazz guitarist Jerry Menown, sort of an Ozarks version of Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant.. “I bring the rock,” Mr. Hicks told me after the show. He even sang a sterling version of the 1954 La Vern Baker hit “Tweedle Dee,”

Mr. Hicks smiled and said, “ We play from 7 until 9. They like to get home early so they can go to church the next day. When these guys take a lead you have to smile because they still got it. Fat chords. Swing stuff. It’s a joy to do it. My older brother lives in Detroit and came out for a show. He said, ‘Man, this is a time warp.’ People applaud anybody’s solo. It’s like a Porter Wagoner show from 1963.

“It’s still unfiltered here.”

One of Mr. Hicks’ many gifts was to hear such purity even through the static of contemporary culture. Commitment and honesty always helped Bobby Lloyd Hicks recognize the American beat. That is no small thing.

Visitation for Bobby Lloyd Hicks is 5-7 p.m. Feb. 27 at the Gorman-Scharpf Funeral Home, 1947 E. Seminole St. in Springfield. A celebration of life begins at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 28 at the funeral home.

 

Me and Ernie at Billy Williams Hall of Fame Induction, 1987. No dress code.

Me and Ernie at Billy Williams Hall of Fame Induction, 1987. No dress code.

With apologies to The Band…….

I pulled into Wrigleyville, I was feelin’ about half past dead

I just need some place where I can lay my head

“Hey, Mister Rahm, can you tell me where a man might find a bed?”

He just grinned and shook my hand and, “No”, was all he said

Take a load off Ernie

Take a load for free

Take a load off Ernie

And you put the load right on me

(You put the load right on me)

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The Band

I picked up my bat and I went lookin’ for a place to hit

When I saw a goat and a cat walkin’ side by side

And I said, “Hey, goat come on, would you like to go downtown?”

And Billy said, “Well, I gotta go butt my friend can stick around”

And take a load off Ernie 

Take a load for free

Take a load off Ernie

And you put the load right on me

(You put the load right on me)

Go down, Pat Hughes, there ain’t nothin’ that you can say

‘Cause just ol’ Lester and Lester’s  waitin’ on Opening Day

“Well, now Lester my friend, what about young Javy Spree?”

He said, “Do me a favor, son, won’t you stay an’ keep Javy Spree company?”

Take a load off Ernie

Take a load for free

Take a load off Ernie

And you put the load right on me

(You put the load right on me)

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Crazy Maddon followed me and he caught me in the Wrigley fog

He said, “I will fix your club, if you’ll take Cousin Eddie, my RV”

I said, “Wait a minute, Maddon, you know I’m a peaceful man”

He said, “That’s okay, Theo won’t you drive him when you can?”

Take a load off Ernie

Take a load for free

Take a load off Ernie

And you put the load right on me

(You put the load right on me)

Catch an El Train, now, to take me down the line

My, my bat is sinkin’ low and I do believe it’s time

To get back to Mr. Harry Caray , you know he’s the only one

Who sent me here with drinks for everyone

Take a load off Ernie

Take a load for free

Take a load off Ernie

And you put the load right on me

(You put the load right on me)

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CLEVELAND, OH.–It is 347 miles from Chicago to Cleveland, Ohio

And 71 years.

Slow down and enjoy the ride. Don’t let third base coaches Wendell Kim or Tony Muser wave you home.

Are we there yet? Are we there yet?

That’s the call of the Cubs fan.

The autumn drive from Chicago to Cleveland is as humble as Kyle Hendricks. You cross the Calumet River, dart through the green, gold and yellow trees near Michigan City and see where homes are for sale at $499 a month at Arrowhead Lake near Toledo.

The red barns of western Ohio look like tomatoes on plates of wheat bread. Duck Tape World Headquarters are on I-90 outside of Cleveland, sealing the deal that this is no fancy trip. You can see for miles.

Open roads lead to open minds.

You play some good music, preferably Chicago singer-songwriters Steve Goodman, Mike Jordan and bassist-jazz violinist [and National Barn Dance musician] Johnny Frigo, who wrote the 1969 Cubs theme song “Hey, Hey, Holy Mackerel.”

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Me chillin’ in August, 1969 before the collapse.

Take time to look in the rear view mirror. And smile. This journey is an extension of the past.

If you’re like me you may see your parents, Fred and Stephanie bantering from the bleachers, Simon the Usher, Bob Beck, Carmella Hartigan and Mike Royko.

Our first year as Cubs season ticket holders was 1985 and we sat in the shadows of the grandstand near Royko and porn star Seka, a hot tomato who was dating Cubs pitching coach Billy Connors. It was cold down there. Mike Jordan called them good hangover seats. We moved to our current sun drenched seats in the southeast corner of the ballpark where we have a fine beer vendor named North.

Swerve around all the goats that have become road kill. It is 347 miles from Chicago to Cleveland, Ohio (I’ve also driven to Cleveland, Mississippi.)

There have been three dramatic passages in my life: Marriage in 1986, my parents deaths in 2016 and rebirth found in the 2016 World Series. Time moves fast. Remember that Opening Day 2013 lineup card at Wrigley with Cubs David DeJesus in left field, Nate Schierholtz in right and Brent Lillibridge at second base. Edwin Jackson started that home opener and lost 7-4 to the Braves. Thank Edwin Jackson, whose consistently lousy pitched allowed the Cubs to appear in this World Series.

My brother Doug and I grew up at Wrigley and we’ll always remember attending the Cubs Rick and Paul Reuschel game in August, 1975–the only time in Major League history brothers have combined for a shutout. The last time I had a bed sheet banner confiscated from Wrigley was in 1979 when my dear friend Steve Lord and I rolled out a “Fire Franks” message during the reign of Cubs manager/Mike Vail hater Herman Franks. I dated in the right field bleachers during the summer of 1984 and again in Section 242. Like the Cubs, some day I will get it right.

My brother Doug (left) and I, August, 2016

My brother Doug (left) and I, September, 2016.

These memories are what slows us down in the moment. Devotion is the compass on the 347 miles from Chicago to Cleveland.

In recent years Doug and my friend and old season ticket partner Angelo gave me copies of “Baseball as a Road to God” [Gotham Books] by John Sexton, president of New York University. Sexton has a PhD in History of American Religion from Fordham Univesity and teaches about the spiritual life of baseball in NYU courses.

When you fall down over and over you get up over and over. And then you search for what it all means. One of Sexton’s starting points is the word ineffable (popularized by late Eastern philosopher Alan Watts), the things we know through experience rather than study. Sexton writes, “The word signifies the truths known in the soul.”

The Cubs have shaped the soul more than any team in professional baseball. The drive to Cleveland is fueled by compassion, forgiveness, loyalty and hope. 347 miles and 71 years of hope.  Angelo and I were in the bleachers and I were in the bleachers on Aug. 29, 1989 when the Cubs came back from a 9-0 deficit to beat the Houston Astros 10-9 on a Dwight Smith 10th inning pinch hit. Dave Smith was the losing pitcher and of course he went on to become a Cub. Dwight Smith was also a fine singer and he knows soul is a feeling.

Our parents in Sec. 242, Wrigley FIeld

Our parents in Sec. 242, Wrigley Field

Soul is love. Soul is purpose. And soul is curated over time. The length of the baseball season lends itself to a community that is filling in some missing parts. Cubs fans are not alone in their quest for the end of the road. Cleveland hasn’t won a World Series since 1948 when Bill Veeck owned the team.

Our collective memories and thoughts create a joyful kaleidoscope. This World Series is a chippy unifier for two maligned Rust Belt cities.

I got to Saturday’s game early to take in the joy of a beautiful autumn afternoon. I was alone, but only in a physical sense.

I brought along “The Way of Baseball (Finding Stillness at 95 MPH)” by former Dodgers-Blue Jays outfielder Shawn Green. In his chapter “Gratitude” he writes. “When you peel away the layers of the ego and subdue your expectations regarding how the world should be, what’s left?

“Only life itself.”

That’s how it is now for me. I’m on the road to Cleveland and I can see a little clearer. I saved my hand crafted Dominican Republic cigar from the Cooperstown Cigar Company for Saturday’s post game events. I have one more cigar for this trip. On the way home I may roll down the window and smoke it. For no reason. For now life is a celebration and that’s how the Chicago Cubs play America’s game.

Our Naperville house, April, 2016

Our Naperville house, April, 2016

Rarely do I tear up at the theater.

Frankly, rarely do I even go to the theater.

But “Naperville,” which opened Sept. 6 at Theater Wit, and runs through Oct. 16 at 1229 W. Belmont in Chicago, hit home. And home is the centerpiece of the splendid work from Naperville born playwright Mat Smart. 

“Naperville” is framed by nuance and empathy, characteristics that are key to getting by in urban and suburban living. 

“Naperville” premiered off-Broadway in  2o14 at New York’s Slant Theatre Project and New York Theater Review called “Naperville” a “valentine to the heart and soul of the American suburbs.”

I grew up in Naperville.

Smart’s play is set in a Naperville I never knew, a since-closed Caribou Coffee shop on 95th Street on the far, far south side of town. Naperville’s population was about 25,000 when we moved there in 1967.Today, Naperville is home to more than 140,000 people.

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Naperville playwright Mat Smart

“Naperville” tells the story of Howard, a young man who is conflicted about relocating from Seattle to his home town to take care of his mother, who was blinded in a home accident.

While planning a new future under cloudy skies the mother and son cross paths with Anne, Howard’s former classmate at Waubonsie Valley High School (where Smart is a ’97 grad) who is working on a podcast about city founder Capt. Joe Naper.

The script’s connector is Roy, a highly caffeinated spiritual soul who sees people without prejudice and asks, “What is the opposite of faith?”

“Naperville” is merely the setting for universal, provocative questions from Smart, but seeing this work at this time in my life was very personal. Smart even references the same church where we had our parents funerals in the spring of 2015. And yes, my parents still get mail from that church asking for financial donations.

We sold my parents Naperville ranch house last week. Closing is set for the end of September. Last Friday night I spent my final night in the house.  The empty rooms were full of thoughts. Echoes were everywhere. Like a series of magic carpets, my deepest dreams floated out of long shadows.

One small bed remains in my brother’s old bedroom. The brown bedroom door was half way open and from the bed I could see swirls of people coming and going: My brother, my nephew, ex-wives, Mom smiling and walking to her piano, neighbors with apple pies, Mom and Dad in their wheelchairs, girl friends, hospice nurses, my dear Naperville friend Steve Lord bringing flowers to my Mom, Dad fetching home movies, Ibach disposing of beer from the Thanksgiving ’75 party and gentle people like Roy. Rings of distant circles.

When I was young I was in a hurry to leave all of this and Naperville.

And now I didn’t want to go.

The world changed around that small mid-century house on Page Court. 

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In the Chicago area it has become  popular to take cultural shots at Naperville, often from people who haven’t spent much time in Naperville. It is a well-to-do suburb, not unlike Barrington or Northbrook or dozens of others, but maybe Naperville is a better target because it has a funny sounding name. Like Smallville. Or Raunerville. But for better and worse, it has been my Naperville and I have my own set of stories. “Naperville” helped me reconnect with those memories.

I know sincere Naperville doctors, teachers and neighbors and in recent years the ER staff at Edward Hospital. I was stopped by the cops in high school for being a long haired pedestrian and a few years later, lectured by Mayor Chester Rybicki for civil disobedience in having a group of teenagers paint a hippie mural on an old Naperville house to accent the youth center we started. My parents liked to point out that these days there are murals all over downtown Naperville.

Coffee shop scene from "Naperville" (L to R) Candice (Laura T. FIsher), Roy (Charlie Strater), Howard (Mike Tepeli) and Anne (Abby Pierce). Photo by Charles Osgood

Benovelent coffee shop scene from “Naperville” (L to R) Mother Candice (Laura T. Fisher), Roy (Charlie Strater), Howard (Mike Tepeli) and Anne (Abby Pierce). Photo by Charles Osgood

Naperville’s transient population of professionals and tech workers that frequent places like Caribou Coffee also make it unique. I used to get a kick out of  “Officer Friendly” George Pradel getting elected as Naperville mayor for 20 years. Although Naperville is run on City Manager government, it was the old timers who always put the since-retired Pradel in office because the transient population rarely voted. The beloved folksy figurehead did an excellent job of deflecting the problems of any American city of 140,000 people.

In late July the Tribune (a popular Naperville newspaper name dropped in Smart’s script) ran several stories about the viral Facebook post from Brian Crooks, who grew up as one of the minority African Americans in Naperville. His feelings of isolation and injustice are sincere. Yet, none of the stories, including his post, balanced to mention the groundbreaking accomplishments of African American Olympian Candace Parker, a WNBA all-star who graduated from my alma mater, Naperville Central High School. I’m proud to say she’s from Naperville.

My friend David Holt's portrait of Candace Parker, Class of 2004 Naperville Central (From the author's collection)

My friend David Holt’s portrait of Candace Parker, Class of 2004 Naperville Central High School.

This is where Smart’s “Naperville” excels.

Forward motion must be nurtured. Negativity can become a brush fire.

In “Naperville,” Anne’s marriage has broken up because her Detroit-bred husband scoffs at all things Naperville. He diminishes her hometown dreams and her passion for volunteering at Naper Settlement  (where I got married and a couple blocks away from where my parents are buried.)

Anne’s (Abby Pierce) meltdown in the coffee shop bathroom is sterling: anyone can tear down, but what is it like to build something?

That’s what my parents did. Like Napervillians of all colors and religions, they attempted to create a better life for their families. I’ve lost track of the times I’ve heard people tell me “I hate Naperville.” You know what you should hate? Violence. Sexism. Racism. Traffic on the Eisenhower Expressway.

As I prepare to leave behind a carousel of memories in our modest cul-de-sac home, Mat Smart’s  “Naperville” helped me recognize the kindness and individuality that is forgotten when you look at suburbia through a narrow lens.

Look for a discussion with Mat Smart on an upcoming edition of my Nocturnal Journal on WGN AM-720 in Chicago.

Tracy the Mermaid (Dave Hoekstra photo and tip)

Tracy the Mermaid (Dave Hoekstra photo and tip.)

GREAT FALLS, MT.–The wide open spaces of Montana can spawn the tallest of tales.

Located in sleepy downtown Great Falls, the mid-century O’Haire Motor Inn is anchored by the Sip n’ Dip Lounge. Guests walk up a short flight of stairs past traditional western lithographs into the lounge.

The dimly lit bar has a tiki motif replete with a 1960s bamboo ceiling. On Wednesday through Friday nights “Piano Pat”  Sponheim is playing lounge music with a subtle polka beat. She has been the Sip n’ Dip headliner for more than 50 years.

Piano Pat faces the bar and a large window that is adjacent to the motel swimming pool.

This is not some cowboy cantina.

On a steamy June evening she is playing a polka version of the boogie George Thorogood version of Hank Williams “Move it On Over.” A silver disco hangs above Pat. A major league baseball game is playing on a television set directly behind her. Pat is in her own world.

I order a cold bottle of beer, the kind with threads of perspiration rolling down the side like creeks down a mountain.

Two beautiful mermaids with eight feet long tails are swimming inside the pool. One mermaid waves at me. This is not a wet dream.

“The most surprising thing is that we have mermaids in the middle of landlocked Montana,” says Sandra Thares, General Manager of the motor inn and lodge in an interview the day after my visit. “Our mermaids are in there six to seven days a week.” The mermaids start swimming at 6 p.m until their shift ends around 10 or 11 p.m.

Piano Pat singing “Margaritaville” while all this is going on is pretty overwhelming. Pat plays piano with one hand and organ with the other hand. About ten people can sit around her piano, not unlike the late great Lou Snider holding court at the late great Nye’s Polonaise Room in Minneapolis. “Pat is the heart of the Sip and Dip,” Thares says. “She’s been playing at the piano every single week except for vacation for more than 50 years.”

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Piano Pat (Courtesy of the Sip n’ Dip Lounge)

Locals also talk about the lounge’s “Fish Bowl,” an anti-freeze blue concoction of 10 to 12 shots of rum and fruit juice served in a  64-ounce fish bowl. “If you’re coming to drink one of those, you probably should get a room,” Thares says. “But they are meant to be shared with friends. And every tropical drink you can think of you can get here.”

The O’Haire Motor Inn opened in the fall of 1962 at the corner of 7th Street and 1st Avenue South back when downtown Great Falls had great dreams. The motor inn had the only public parking garage in town. Thares’ stepfather bought the complex in 1968.

“Pat can’t quite remember the year she started,” says Thares, 46. “Its 1963 or ’64. We’ve been trying to get her in the Guinness Book of World Records but we can’t find any paperwork. She would be under ‘Longest House Gig of a Bar’. The keyboards have always been her domain. She politely declines any assistance from guests, but there’s been a few guests over the years. (Country singer-songwriter) Phil Vassar was one.” And so was Julliard professor and composer Phil Lasser. I’d love it if Lasser and Vassar bumped into each other one night at the Sip n’ Dip.

The motel was built by brothers Bill and Edgar O’Haire. Edgar was a Montana contractor before opening the motel. “They traveled the U.S. for an entire year finding everything they liked wherever they stayed,” Thares says. “They bought it back here and put it into this motel.” My room had a ceiling-sized mirror above my bed.

But there were no mermaids in my room.

“The idea for the mermaid windows actually came from the Playboy Club in Chicago where they had a set up similar to this,” Thares says. She is referring to Hugh Hefner’s original Playboy Mansion at 1340 N. State Parkway in Chicago. Hef held court in this 72-room space between 1959 and 1974 before moving to Los Angeles. The downstairs classical French style indoor pool featured swimming Playboy bunnies. The bar could be reached by shimmying down a fireman’s pole.

This gives a different meaning to ‘Great Falls.’

The entire motor inn  is made of concrete which translates into quiet rooms. The O’Haire brothers even built a helipad above the pool.

The early days of the O'Haire Motor Inn

The early days of the O’Haire Motor Inn

“That was back when oil barons would fly in and out on helicopters,” Thares says. “They were building the ICBM (Intercontinental Ballisitic Missile)  silos n the area in the late ’60s. We had the contract to house the government crews. They would come in on helicopters every night. The port has been disassembled. It was shaking the building a little too much.” The motor inn still has 64 rooms. Each room has a souvenir yellow rubber ducky in the bath tub.

“We did not start the mermaids until 1996,” Thares says. “But before that many a guest was swimming in the pool and putting on a show (for the bar). Keep in mind it was during the time of the three martini lunches. And we had a beauty shop down the hall. Women would get their hair done and men would come to the bar and have a cocktail or two while waiting for their wives. You never quite knew who was going to walk in the pool.”

The Sip n’ Dip soon became known for its Skin n’ Dippers.

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The pool is eight feet deep at its deepest end. The pool is now locked and closed to the public when the mermaids perform. But the occasional guest gets in on the action.

Texas comedian Ron White jumped in with the mermaids while he was fully clothed. Actress Daryl Hannah put on a mermaid costume when she was in town filming the acclaimed 2003 film “Northfork” with Nick Notle and James Woods. Hannah co-starred with Tom Hanks in the 1984 mermaid flick “Splash.”

“It was in the middle of the week and quiet in the lounge,” Thares recalls. “Maybe four people. Daryl Hannah told the bartender, ‘I want to be the mermaid.’ We went and got her tails. She swam for about 15  minutes, got out, autographed the window and away she went. Unfortunately about six months after she autographed the window, the window cracked and it had to be replaced.”

Thares even designs and makes the vinyl, velvet, beads and sequin mermaid tails.

“If I had known how much work it would be I probably would not have started it,” she says. “I spend about eight hours a week working on the mermaid tails. Each of the mermaids picks what they want it too look like.”

Mermaids Tracy (L) and Alex (Dave Hoekstra portrait)

Montana Mermaids Tracy (L) and Alex (Dave Hoekstra portrait)

It is hard work being a mermaid.

Each tail weighs between 10 and 15 pounds. Thares explains,  “They’re dragging that extra weight around off their waist. They’re not allowed to use their feet because they’re in a tail. They’re mermaids. They don’t have feet.

“Most of them swim in four to five  hour shifts two to three days a week. We get criticism from people who say, ‘Mermaids don’t wear goggles!’ The reason our mermaids wear goggles is so they can see everyone in the lounge and have that crowd interaction.

A large fish-bowl tip jar stands behind the bar for customers who want their picture taken with the mermaid–and with this being all P.C. 2016–mermen.

Mermen appear on Tuesday nights. “We put mermen in the pool a few years ago and it was an epic failure,” Thares says. “Last year we started getting the request again. They started the first of March and it has been a huge success.”

And in recent months the Sip n’ Dip even added a Sunday “Mermaid Brunch” for families. An all you can eat brunch is offered on the first and third Sunday of every month, featuring blue Mermosas. Of course.

Everyone cannot become a Sip n’ Dip mermaid or merman.

First off, applicants need to know how to swim.

“My ‘merpeople,’ Thares says with a light tone of sarcasm, “Because we can’t be gender specific, the merpeople have to complete an application at the front desk. Then they go through a half hour interview process about their swimming background. The first checkmark is if they have to hold their nose under water. If they have to hold their nose under water they are ineligible to be a merperson. Why do they want to be a mermaid or merman?

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Tracy (left) and Alex wear wigs to keep their hair in shape (D. Hoekstra photo)

“From there they go into a 10 minute swim tryout, based on swimming ability and audience appeal. Can they smile under water? Can they blow bubbles? If they survive that 10 minutes, then we put them in a tail for the next 10 minutes and hope they don’t drown. At that point we’re really looking for swimming ability.

“We don’t care what they look like. They can be heavy, thin, it doesn’t matter. We can do anything with the tails. It’s really about if they’re going to have fun when they’re in there swimming.”

On the night of my visit Tracy Nesbo is training rookie mermaid Alex Strom. During the day Tracy is a nurse’s aid assistant in Great Falls. She has been a Montana Mermaid since Oct. 28, 2012. This will be Alex’s first night. She is also a server at a Great Falls Applebee’s and is studying to become a midwife.

Tracy explains,”I will show her how to put on our tails, jump in the pool and start acting like we’re mermaids. You get into your zone. You go to the bottom of the pool and give the customers the ‘fishy face.’ You act like you’re going to fish for them and reel them in. It’s very therapeutic. It’s a great workout.”

“You have to keep your legs together (in the tail) so its mostly your upper arm strength, The hardest part of being a mermaid is sinking because you want to float to the surface. You learn how to stay down in the water. That’s the hardest part. I think I can now hold my breath for a minute.”

The Sip n’ Dip is clearly the most breathtaking place in Great Falls.

The motor inn and lounge has an engaging, organic feel of authenticity. The Sip n’ Dip did not just tumble out of the Big Sky like a hipster Chicago tiki bar with a wait line. 

It is a real place.

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One of the most remarkable bars in America (Courtesy of the Sip n’ Dip Lounge)

Thares nods her head and explains, “I always tell my staff, ‘Don’t promise more than what we are.’ We are face value. People go, ‘You don’t have authentic tiki totem poles.’ Well, I’m sorry about that, but you know what, I’m not changing that.

“Or, ‘You should put the mermaids in a big rubber suit with a tail so they look more like a mermaid.’ First of all, I hate to break it to everybody but mermaids really aren’t real. We get asked that question 50 times a night.

“So maybe it doesn’t look a lot like a mermaid—but it looks like our mermaid.”

Thares was born in Great Falls and moved to Billings, Mt.. Her stepfather bought the motor hotel and lounge in 1968. “I became  part of his family in 1974,” she says. “In 1976 he and my mom were in a very bad accident. We had to move in with my grandmother in Spokane. A cousin took over the business and he ran it until 1994. We were living in Billings Dad said, ‘Do you want to  move to Great Falls and run the family business?’ I said, ‘Hell no,’ but yeah, here I am 24 years later.

“Downtown Great Falls was thriving when this opened. We had J.C. Penney’s downtown. Woolworth’s, Bon Marche’, which was a big department store. As with any other downtown in any other small town, it hit on hard times, But it’s coming back. A microbrewery came in downtown. There’s some new development. Its fun for us because we’ve always been the cornerstone of downtown Great Falls. And we’ve weathered the storm. We never meant for this to become a tourist attraction. And it has become that and we’re trying to wrap our head around that.”

And don’t keep your head above the water.

Oceanic Arts co-founders LeRoy Schmaltz (far left) and Bob Van Oosting (far right) with author and his friend.

Oceanic Arts co-founders LeRoy Schmaltz (far left) and Bob Van Oosting (far right) with author and his friend, April 2016.

WHITTIER, Ca.–Every day is a getaway day at Oceanic Arts.

The holy grail of American tiki culture is tucked back in an industrial park in Whittier, Calif., the early home of President Richard Nixon.

Oceanic Arts is to the free blue seas what the Watergate complex was to fishy burglars.

Oceanic Arts is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.

Founders LeRoy Schmaltz and Bob Van Oosting are still hanging ten. 

Master carver Schmaltz turns 81 years old on May 14. His large hands are battered and knotty, the passionate notches within a mountain of a man.

Schmaltz’s father Earl was a 17-year-old  choir director on the north side of Chicago, became an insurance salesman and later counted votes for Al Capone. His grandson Darby Goodwin was on the Chicago Tribune’s 2012 All-State Football team as a defensive lineman for Loyola Academy.

The family left Chicago for the west coast and Schmaltz was born in Los Angeles.  Van Oosting, 80,  is a former carver and the Los Angeles native now runs the business end of Oceanic Arts.

Oceanic Arts delivered the South Seas decor to Trader Vic’s, Don the Beachcomber, Disneyland, the Polynesian Hotel at Disney World, the Bali Hai in San Diego and even the set of the “Gilligan’s Island” television show. Oceanic Arts sends supplies to Chicago’s Three Dots and a Dash tiki bar on a monthly basis.

The 10,000 square feet Oceanic Arts is open to the public and features carvings, tiki heads, totems, shields, masks, thatching, fake tropical birds, seashell light shades, magazines, tiki CDs and books such as Douglas A. Nason’s “Night of The Tiki (The Art of Shag, Schmaltz and Selected Primitive Ocean Carvings)” [Last Gasp, $49.95]

Oceanic Arts showroom

Oceanic Arts showroom, April 2016

Visitors are greeted by a female mannequin in a grass skirt and a small waterfall as they enter the mall of eternal high tides. Oceanic Arts has two other warehouses in Whittier. It is not known if President Nixon shopped at Oceanic Arts, but Johnny Depp is a regular customer.

The Rolling Stones once rented from Oceanic Arts for a party. “We lost some things,” Schmaltz said during an early April conversation at Oceanic Arts. “We don’t know where the party was but some of our skulls ended up at other people’s houses.

We didn’t do a lot for ‘Gilligan’s Island’ originally. There was another firm that was closer to Hollywood. We got involved in later years with bamboo and thatching for their sets.

Oceanic Arts workshop (D. Hoekstra photo)

Oceanic Arts workshop (D. Hoekstra photo)

Most of “Gilligan’s Island” was shot at Radford Studios in Studio City, Ca. Earlier segments were shot on the beach in Malibu and the pilot was made on the island of Kauai.

Van Oosting said, “Early on when we were broke we were in a barn that was used for horses for a while. To save some money we decided to use some boards on the floor and carve them. They ended up in a restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. These boards had been urinated on for years by horses. We wire brushed the boards, hosed them down every day, but we started hearing about this ‘strange aroma’ in this restaurant.”

In his book, Nason wrote of Schmaltz, “Through his work as co-founder and an artist at the Oceanic Arts gallery and shop, he has probably had a larger influence on where tikis appeared and how they were perceived in America than any other individual.”

Van Oosting has been attributed to have said, “As long as the world is in turmoil, people always turn to peaceful, pleasurable worlds–and this is one of them.”

The good Dutchman laughed and said, “That must have been somebody else who said that. It is a fun place to be. We get set designers who meet here for some odd reason and they say to each other, ‘I haven’t seen you in 22 years.’  We get Wayne Johnson, ‘The Rock,’ Bridget Fonda. You supply a tropical movie, then they want to do their house that way.”

Schmaltz said, “In the earlier days we had a lot of people from Disney, architectural firms and interior decorators who made a beeline every Friday to our shop. We were more loose then. We had drinks and barbecues going.”

Oceanic Arts emporium, April 2016

Oceanic Arts emporium.

Schmaltz and Van Oosting met as students at Mt. San Jacinto College, about 25 miles from the current Oceanic Arts location.

Schmaltz was studying architecture and carving Palm Frond Masks (the thickest part of a palm tree leaf)  as a side project. Schmaltz and Van Oosting partnered up and sold thousands of Palm Frond Masks (500 per order) to the Builder’s Emporium home improvement chain. Their wives stained and painted the masks.

“We got a little place in Bob’s garage,” Schmaltz said. “In the late 1940s Bob Carter was importing tikis and tapa cloth from the South Pacific (to sell to “Trader” Vic Bergeron and Donn Beach of Don the Beachcomber’s). He saw us and invited us to start working. We didn’t know much about tikis.” One of their earliest popular items was the Tahitian Support Posts for Trader Vic’s.

Oceanic Arts---what a place.

Oceanic Arts—what a place.

Van Oosting added, “We grew into a packing shed in Whittier, overlooking Los Angeles, We started doing carvings for Bob. We did some sales work for him. He was also involved with the Kahiki (in Columbus, Ohio) and we supplied them.” But both men kept their day jobs–Van Oosting worked in a pots and pans factory and the Hickory Hop drive-in restaurant in Pico Rivera, Ca. “Just a hippity hop to the Hickory Hop,” he cracked. Schmaltz was a designer and salesman in mid-century modern furniture at Crossroads Furniture in Whittier.

Initially, their work did not whet any appetite for tropical escapism.

Schmaltz said, “I went to look at mountains near here. So did Bob. That was paradise to us, you got the pine trees. Then the desert areas are kind of neat. We have the ocean here.”

Van Oosting added, “Once we got in the business, paradise was out there.  So we went out there for three and a half months and 37,000 miles.

The carvers are modest about that 1960 journey they call “The Big Trip.”

Schmaltz and Van Oosting traveled from Hawaii through Tahiti, Fiji, New Caledonia, New Guinea, the Australian outback and then New Zealand. “Hawaii was no different than being in Southern California with the same stores and businesses,” Van Oosting said. “Once we got on the airplane and landed in Tahiti we were in paradise. In those Tahiti and Bora Bora didn’t have any hotels. We stayed in grass shacks. Bob Carter helped plant a dream into us. He had a slide show he showed us of his trips.”

“We hired a Chinese Tahitian fellow with a speedboat and went all around the islands. He wanted us to see the schools and figured the kids would get a kick out of it (the visitors in a speedboat). We have color slides of those kids and they looked at us and started crying.” The kids had never seen white people.

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Bob (left) and LeRoy (right) in Chimbu Village near Papua, New Guinea–1960. (Courtesy of Oceanic Arts)

The journey instilled a world of confidence in the young carvers.

“We were supposedly just young punk kids who didn’t know anything,”  Schmaltz said. “We kind of made ourselves an authority. We knew what we had seen. They were filming Marlon Brando’s ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ when we were in Tahiti. So we looked at all the structures and buildings. We never saw Marlon Brando but we heard about him. He wanted a carved head but we didn’t let him have it.”

Van Oosting elaborated, “We learned a lot about design. We saw a book from 1868 in Fiji. We picked up good ideas in Dutch New Guinea. We have their masks and shields we replicated in hardwood. Somehow through gin and tonics and stuff we landed home in Los Angeles with $1.50 in our pockets.”

LeRoy Schmaltz, still carving at 81 (D. Hoekstra photo)

LeRoy Schmaltz, still carving at 81. (D. Hoekstra photo)

The carvers later worked for Pan American World Airways in Samoa and Tahiti. The largest tiki in Tahiti is 30 feet tall–it was carved out of Southern California pine by Schmaltz.

Van Oosting said,  “We never got a ‘big break.’ We were broke all the time. We had enough to buy a good bottle of rum and that was about it. We did a lot of work for Disney World too.

“LeRoy carved a 35-foot totem pole for them, We did Trader Sam’s (the bar at Disneyland in Anaheim,) At one time LeRoy designed restaurants. We worked on restaurants in Tarrytown, N.Y., one near Kalamazoo, Michigan (the since-razed Tur Mai Kai), another in Denver.”

One of their prize commissions is an 18-feet tall and 16’ wide carved redwood tympanium for Marriott’s Kona Kai at their world headquarters in Bethesda, Md.

Schmaltz has done thousands of carvings in his lifetime.

He prefers redwood, sugar pine and mahagony, wood that is easy purveyed from Southern California lumber mills. Schmaltz deploys chisels, routers, sanders, grinders and chainsaws. “The more things I can get rid of to work faster, I prefer,” he said. “If I could use blasting powder, I would use that too.”

During my visit he was working on light fixtures for LuLu’s in Waikiki.

LeRoy Schmaltz--hand of a carver.

LeRoy Schmaltz–hand of a carver.

What does the master carver think about as he works?

“When I was carving with other people I would go into fantasy land and pretend I was one of the characters I was carving,” he answered. “I’m a New Guinea guy. Or a pirate–arrrrrgh. I try to think how they would be thinking.”

He sells his work to collectors for anywhere from $300 to $2,000. I picked up a hand carved table size Hawaiiian Bloxam Idol warrior for my home tiki bar for $300. The detail, especially in the face, is exquisite. It is made with care and dignity.

Schmaltz still works in his shop on a daily basis.

“I still do carvings,” he said in reflective shades. “Fine art. I keep pretty busy, but I don’t do as many big tikis as I used to. I have to bend down and lift them.” That’s okay.

LeRoy and Bob have uplifted the spirits of people all over the world.