Mary Schmich . . . Why does that name sound familiar?
If that’s what you’re wondering right now, I can offer two possible answers. First of all, in addition to her work as a Trib columnist, Mary has for many years been the author of the comic strip Brenda Starr. She didn’t originate the strip, but she inherited it from the strip’s creator. The other place where a wider audience might have seen her name has to do with a column she wrote back in the 90s. It was a fine, witty piece, and I happen to have read it the day it was first printed. It consisted of advice for the outgoing crop of college graduates as they embarked upon life in the working world. A year or two later, I was sent an email that contained the text of that column, except it was now being described as, “Commencement Speech Given to the Harvard Graduating Class by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.” Yep, as happens so frequently in the world of the internet, some loser decided to alter an offering by linking it to a more famous name in the hope of giving it greater cachet. When it came out in the major media that this bogus email was being circulated widely, Mary Schmich’s name suddenly appeared in newspapers and on web sites across the land as the true author of the piece. Vonnegut himself got into the act, publicly disclaiming authorship.
I’ve worked in the Loop for a long time . . . How come I’ve never come across the Harris Theater?
I mean, it’s a 1,400-seat theater, fer cryin’ out loud! Where do you hide something like that? Well, the answer is quite simple – you hide it underground. When we walked in the front door of the place, we were on the level of the upper balcony. We had to take the elevator down four floors to get to the Orchestra level, so it isn’t much to look at from street level. In addition, it’s on the edge of Millennium Park, which means it’s toward the lake from Michigan Avenue, so even though it’s a short walk from where I work, it isn’t an area that I ever have cause to walk through.
Now, to the concert itself – what a lot of fun! The program consisted of 26 songs, ranging from well known religious classics like Joy to the World and O Holy Night, to well known non-religious songs like Winter Wonderland and Silver Bells. In addition, we also heard Happy Joyous Hanukah, with lyrics by Woody Guthrie(!), Mele Kalikimaka (that’s Hawaiian, if you didn’t know), and a South American Christmas song titled Mi Burrito Sabanero. When the less familiar songs came up in the program, one of the singers on stage would helpfully instruct us in singing the refrain a few times before we launched into the full number.
Which brings me to the folks on stage leading us – a wonderful dozen or so folks from the Old Town School of Folk Music. Led by Chris Walz and including Mary Schmich on piano and Eric Zorn on banjo, the group was a delight to behold, both as players and as vocalists. Standouts included Barbara Silverman, who sang wonderfully and carried around a washboard that she strummed with great flair. Moreover, her washboard was festooned with a variety of horns, cowbells, and other percussion objects that made her seem at times to be a veritable one-woman band. Another performer I greatly enjoyed was Don Jacobs on the clarinet and saxophone. I had the good fortune to find myself next to Mr. Jacobs at one point and was proud to shake his hand and praise his virtuosity.
As you may know, I found out last week that I was not the winner of the “Gloria” contest, but as one of the seven finalists, I got to attend the concert. When we got there, Mary Schmich approached all of the finalists as we sat in the front row and told us that we should make our way backstage late in the program and join the group on stage for the singing of Silent Night. This was an unexpected bonus, and it was a bona fide treat to stand there with so many wonderful musicians and lend my voice to the chorus. That, by the way, was how I managed to be standing next to clarinetist Don Jacobs, as I mentioned earlier.
I have to say a few things about the Harris Theater as a performance/audience space. The thing I like the most about it is that the audience is on a fairly steep rake, so the sightlines are terrific throughout the house. Having been on stage (and backstage), I can attest that the stage is quite enormous (much of it was curtained off from the audience’s view last night), but the wing space is extremely limited. That last detail would eliminate the Harris from consideration as a venue for most touring theatrical productions, but for music or dance, you really couldn’t do much better if you needed a theater that large.
In summation, it was great to spend an evening singing my lungs out with a bunch of talented musicians and enthusiastic audience members, and I wouldn’t mind one bit if I had to pay my way in next year!