Monday, January 26, 2015

No stars in Chicago, and a good thing too

Tatiana Serjan sings "Tosca" (above and atop blog, courtesy Todd Rosenberg)

     "Mirotic is here," my 17-year-old son said, as we settled into our seats at the Civic Opera House Saturday night before the debut of Lyric Opera's production of Puccini's "Tosca."
     I pulled out my iPhone. News!
     "Are you tweeting that?" he said, slightly aghast. "I mean, I think it was Mirotic. It looked like him."
     I adjusted my tweet accordingly—"Bulls power forward Mirotic spied at opening of 'Tosca.' Or tall guy who looked like him"—and showed the phone to my boy. He nodded. I hit "Tweet."
     Famous people are by definition interesting. If Bulls players are now hanging out at the Lyric—Pao Gasol took teammate Nazr Mohammed to "Anna Bolena" last month—I want everyone to know. Maybe my co-workers won't have that look of befuddled pity mixed with fear when the subject comes up.
     Of course fame is relative. Renee Fleming was also there Saturday. The star soprano's acclaim dwarfs Nikola Mirotic's, not only in the opera world but in the world in general. She did sing the National Anthem at last year's Super Bowl.
     She was also harder to spot in the sell-out crowd ("Tosca," by the way, is fantastic. Tatian Serjan. Vissi d'arte. Tears in my eyes—for a full review by the great Wynne Delacoma, a star in her own right, click here). I only heard that Fleming was there (From a very reliable source; otherwise I'd leave the door ajar that it might have just been some lucky woman who merely looks like Renee Fleming). At the first intermission I scanned the crowd, easily found the one guy 6'10 with a full beard. Yup, Mirotic.
     He stood a dozen feet away. "You want to meet him?" I asked my kid. I've used my good offices to introduce him to Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and the best player on the team, Jimmy Butler. You meet celebrities, a bit of their fame rubs off on you and you feel better about yourself.
     "He's with his wife," my boy observed. "We should leave him alone." I admired that. The greatest favor you can do celebrities is to not molest them in public. And as we gazed in his direction, the opera patrons indeed seemed to ignore the athlete, though given this crowd, they might have also ignored the full Bulls squad, in uniform, playing a scrimmage.
     Some of our restraint might reflect his position far down the greased pole of fame. Having met Nikola Mirotic will be of limited utility in the years to come, unlike my story about interviewing Michael Jordan in the Bulls locker room and having no idea who he was. I've been telling that over and over, often to the same person, for more than 25 years.
     I haven't yet had someone reply, "Michael who?" But that's coming. Fame is not only relative, it's fleeting. The biggest stars never quite devolve into nobodies, but the circus of public attention does pack up and move on. Madonna once transfixed the world; now glimpses of her flash here and there, though whether that is intentional, a Garbo-like seclusion, or she's got six publicists puffing madly on her flickering flame, well, I can't say I care much, and neither do you.
     My colleague over at the Tribune, Pulitzer-Prize winner Mary Schmich, wrote an interesting column last week pointing out "There are no celebrities in Chicago." Oprah? Gone. Jordan? Gone. "Hugh Hefner?" she writes. "Moved to LA. Barack Obama? Moved to D.C."
     She concludes her column with, I believe, a misstep, suggesting reluctantly that the city's one true celebrity is Rahm Emanuel. It might seem like that, and he does have solid connections in the stratosphere of money and power. But if celebrity means that regular folk care about you, that ain't Rahm. My agent just spent six months trying to sell a book about Rahm, and the publishing world's reaction fell into two camps: a) Nobody cares about Rahm Emanuel, and b) his brother's book sold just 4,000 copies for Random House.
     I'm not criticizing Mary. I just want to draw a different conclusion from her premise, maybe move the ball forward a few yards from where she left it. She is correct, Chicago does not have any real celebrities now. But, as she notes, we did: Oprah and Jordan and Al Capone and such. And will again, as Obama is a reminder. Maybe he'll move back here. If not, someone else will arrive, or arise. Chicago will never have the galaxy of stars found around Los Angeles, because they have the movies. Nor can we match New York's density. But we will have a few. Making us lucky, because seeing them come and go teaches us: fame fleets.
     It fleets for individuals. When I taught journalism at Loyola, I asked the 21 students in my class if the name "Mike Royko" meant anything to them. One hand went up.
     And it fleets for cities. Chicago won't be a lesser place if the Obamas settle in Hawaii. It'll be better. We'll all be spared the stress of bumping into the former president, of having him blow past us in line at Starbucks. The glitter that celebrities bring is more than offset by the hassle of having to put up with them. Lack of celebrities is just another reason Chicago excels as a place to live. Don't tell them.


  1. "Celebrity: a famous or well-known person." -- dictionary . com

    Doesn't seem to me that regular folks caring about them needs to enter into the equation. Rahm is certainly well-known. I don't know how many folks actually "care about" the Kardashians or Donald Trump, but, Lord help us, they're celebrities.

    The fact that only one out of 21 in a journalism class in Chicago were familiar with Royko, however, aptly demonstrates your point about fame being fleeting. And is about Exhibit 2,345 on the "I must be old" chart.

  2. At one time Billy Corgan would fit "celebrity" and still might, but the word after his comma would be "faded." Which reminds us that there are worse things than having no celebrities in town. Imagine if Chief Keef had made it big.

  3. When my daughter lived in New York, I used to walk through Soho past dozens of celebrities without recognizing a single one. Here, my only brush with fame was when David Orr held a door open for me in the County Building. Though I keep looking to spot you, Neil, near that sculpture you hate so much in front of the Thompson Center.


    1. My wife and I noticed Neil once in the wild, where he was strolling through the Book Fair with one of his sons. We went with "The greatest favor you can do celebrities is to not molest them in public." and just gawked at them from afar. Before stalking them for the next 3 hours. (Joking!) Of course, we've seen our esteemed blogmeister and redoubtable celebrity on several occasions in captivity, speaking at either bookstores or the, what's it called now? -- Lit Fest.

    2. That only holds for celebrities. For utterly obscure journalists, particularly accompanied by their sons, who view their father's career as a slough of failure punctuated by occasional disappointment, feel free to come up and say something like, "You know, your column saved my life..."

    3. Noted, in case I run into you in a concrete plant or at Tannhäuser. ; ) But I believe that you sell yourself short. You may be a smaller fish in the Great Lake than you'd prefer, but you're a Chicago treasure in what's long been considered a great newspaper town, with a not-insignificant chunk of discerning readers who consider you the best wordsmith currently plugging away in either of the local papers, notwithstanding some curious Pulitzer choices. Ahem. The fact that your sons, unsurprisingly, may take that for granted does nothing to diminish the accomplishment. : )

    4. Thanks. I've been saying that for years, but it sounds far better coming from someone else, ; )

  4. My friend and I nearly ran over "Frasier's" John Mahoney heading to the old Barbara's Bookstore on Lake St. here in Oak Park a few years ago, not sure if he's still around, and Vince Vaughn once bummed a ride on our co.'s river water taxi's, having earlier commandeered a Chicago Police Boat. But I whole-heartedly agree that we're better off as a city w/o the Big Shots. Celebrity columnists and TV news anchors seem to suffice.

  5. Sir, Since you can write what you wish on here, I'd love to read your thoughts on Boehner inviting the Israeli PM without consulting the White House. (By the way, I'm a Dem.)

    1. I was sort of ignoring that; off the cuff, it doesn't seem the treason people are claiming it to be. He invited Netanyahu to speak, they aren't forging a treaty. It's an insult, of course, but that's nothing new. I think we -- and the Israelis -- have bigger problems.

  6. Of course there are many levels of celebrity, the most annoying being local nitwits who think they are big wheels: one of my favorite things to do when tending bar is to toss people who refuse to be carded, ask "Don't you know who I am?" I don't know and I don't care, I reply. But I know what you aren't: you aren't going to be served here. Carded the Alderman once, he had the good graces to show his i.d.
    And think about Chicago's past celebrity culture: so much of it was movie stars getting off trains and heading to Booth 1 with Kup. Then getting the heck outta town first thing in the a.m.

  7. It can be tempting. Saturday my kid wanted to go to The Kitchen, so I called. No reservations left. I was tempted to say, "But I'm a media bigshot! I know Kimball Musk, the owner!" But that felt vile, so we just showed up, anonymously. The place was empty at 6 p.m. They ushered us immediately to a table. I find that humility also has its rewards.

  8. You write that Chicago is better without a galaxy of celebs and then write graf after graf about your own tribulations on approaching a professional athlete at the Opera...Me thinks u protest too much.

    Isn't there an accent in that opera star's name?

  9. Sic Transit Gloria. And Mike. And Michael. And eventually Neil. When I lived in London some years ago I saw many famous faces in supermarkets, Underground stations and theatre lobbies. But approaching them was "not the done thing."

    Glad you enjoyed Tosca. I did too, but, perhaps because I'm too familiar with the opera, found the ugly and anachronistic sets and costumes a distraction. I know most people don't know or care that the battle of Marengo was fought in 1800, but I thought nothing was gained from moving the action up a century. And the staging did a particular disservice to Scarpia I thought. One remembers Tito Gobbi in sleek black Napoleonic-era finery, the very image of aristocratic arrogance (he is after all a Baron, in addition to being a thug), advancing to the footlights to proclaim "Go Tosca. You make me forget God." But the opera was well cast and performed: The' "Te Deum might just turn you Catholic; the Tosca and Cavaradossi were a more plausible set of doomed young lovers than one is used to seeing on the operatic stage; and yes, the "Vissi d'Arte was very moving.

    Tom Evans

  10. I think I've told you this story before but:

    Scene: me driving a bunch of high school sophomores a few years ago

    Kid1: whose driving the Volleyball carpool tomorrow.

    Kid 2: Stella's dad

    Kid1: didn't her dad used to play for the Bulls or something.

    Kid2: Ya.

    Kid1: was he a good player?

    Kid2: Um I don't think so.

    I didn't pass that little story along to Mr Kukoc.


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