Perhaps no show before or since captured the oddball characters and places of Chicago more than Wild Chicago, which ran on WTTW from 1989 to 2003. The show, much like many of the people and places it profiled, is long gone, but audiences can learn about it and its co-creator and producer Ben Hollis in his one-man show “Sex, Booze and Candy Bars: A Wild Man’s Musical Memoir,” currently running on Sundays at the Annoyance Theater.
Bob Chiarito of the Chicago Ambassador spoke with Hollis, who now lives in Evanston with his wife, about his show, his career and whether or not Wild Chicago would work if made in the present day, which seems to be dominated by corporate coffee shops and chain stores.
CA) Your show ran at the Skokie Theater in the summer, right?
HOLLIS) Yes, I’ve run it a few times at the Skokie Theater. It had a different title. I made it more edgy for the crowd at the Annoyance.
CA) Is it the same show?
HOLLIS) Well, we’re always tweaking it to make it better. I’d say the guts of the show are largely the same but it’s tighter and some things have been cut. Theater can be such a different experience one night to the next and also at a different venue. The main stage at The Annoyance is very intimate, people are really right on top of you and it’s very fun.
CA) What prompted you to create a show?
HOLLIS) I was grandiose enough to be thinking of this when I was 26-years-old. That was 1980. I had the experience of moving to L.A. and what happened in the 4 1/2 months seemed really seminal or formative. I took notes and ran across the file not too long ago. So many of the stories that I pulled together for this show were the same ones that I wanted to talk about way back then. So, it’s been on my radar for a long time.
CA) So you did move to L.A. for a brief time?
HOLLIS) Just for 4 1/2 months.
CA) What made you come back?
HOLLIS) All sorts of things. I got sick and tired of the loneliness, it seemed like nothing was happening. This is part of the show so I have to give a spoiler alert. I was working with a friend of a friend who was a professional sitcom writer to get my scripts in shape well enough so that I could get a job. It might have happened but an actors strike happened. I actually was happy about that because I was like, ‘Ok, now I can get the hell out of here.’
CA) It’s interesting to me that you had this idea for a one-man show years before Wild Chicago even began. I know the show is more than just Wild Chicago, but that’s fascinating. You have an improv background, correct?
HOLLIS) That’s right. At the time, a couple years after college, I believe there was only one improv school to go to and that was Players Workshop of Second City. That’s where I went for a year. I played in their children’s show every week and auditioned for their traveling show, but didn’t make that. Then I decided to do my own thing with a couple other improvisers and it started a career-long thing of striking out on my own, doing my own stuff. I was fortunate to cross paths with John Davies at Channel 11 and be able to do Wild Chicago.
CA) And you talk about that a lot in the show, so I don’t want to give any spoilers. You hosted the show for the first three years, right?
HOLLIS) Yeah. And I produced it. I co-produced it the first year and then took it over for the rest of season one, then season two and four. Season three was a best-of where we pulled from the first two seasons.
CA) You guys always had a never-ended supply of stories, and some really good correspondents like Will Clinger and Joe Cummings, the news legend, late in his career. Do you think that show would be hard to make today with so many chain restaurants and stores or do you think there are enough characters still around in Chicago to be able to do it again?
HOLLIS) I’m fully convinced that I could do that show again today and not run out of anything. It’s just that the borders of Wild Chicago may have shrunk a bit.
CA) What do you mean?
HOLLIS) The big box stores and gentrification of the city has pushed into areas that were not at all hospitable, so to speak, back in my day. But there are still people within seemingly tame places like Lincoln Park doing some oddball stuff. But I’ve always been more attracted to getting out into what I refer to as the ‘natural habitat.’ It’s tricky because everyone is so savvy to media now, it might be hard to get people who are innocent in that regard. It was easy to find people who loved shooting from the hip. They didn’t have any agenda, they didn’t want to be famous. They were so refreshingly real. But, I’m sure there are people out there who are too busy making a living to be worried about being a YouTube star.
CA) Have you ever considered doing a book or documentary about Wild Chicago?
HOLLIS) I’ve definitely had a book on my radar. I’ve thought it would be a great topic for a documentary, but I haven’t mustered the energy or wanted to be the guy to put that together. I guess I could, but it would be great if someone would come along and say they wanted to do it. The more time that passes, the more that stuff develops historical value. I look at those segments today and not only are they fun and entertaining, they paint a picture of a different place in many ways.
CA) Yes, a lot of that is gone. I remember your segment on the punk rock kids who hung out at the Clark and Belmont Dunkin’ Donuts.
HOLLIS) Exactly. Which is about 30 yards from the Annoyance Theater. I think it’s a Target now. They took over that whole strip and the alley where The Alley store was. That was a great segment, we called it Punkin’ Donuts, it was so fun. I also do a talk with clips called ‘When Chicago was Wild’ and that’s a chance for me to look at some old clips.
There was a democratization going on with that show. I wanted to include as many people as possible when I went out on a shoot. I’d often ask a lot of people the same question and would get lots of different, fun answers. We really wanted to reach all kinds of ethnic groups and others from all over. I remember a segment on a gay square dancing group that was so fun. I remember talking to the square dance caller, who was a guy from Central or Southern Illinois with a twang in his voice. He said something like, ‘They are as good as any dancers that I’ve ever seen. I’ve got no problem.’ It was a beautiful moment and that type of content I think can contribute to a more civil environment and open some people’s eyes. I love to treat everybody how I’d like to be treated and I have a curiosity and affection really for everybody. It opened my eyes, I got to neighborhoods that I had never seen before.
CA) In addition to the Wild Chicago stuff, what else can people expect to see at your show?
HOLLIS) There’s a lot about my growing up and how that influenced me. Music plays a huge role in the show as well. There’s songs that I’ve written and lots of music intertwined in the show, with John Siegle playing guitar. I always wanted to be in showbiz and be famous, but I always wanted to be a rock star too. I think the show demonstrates that it’s possible to reinvent yourself and it’s possible to pay attention to old dreams and go after them. I think it will inspire people to not throw in the towel, that there is more to our stories than we think.