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Two Chicago traditions came together to make history. The Organic Theater Company, a seminal group in the development of small resident theatres on the homegrown drama scene, created a play called Bleacher Bums. Based on an idea from Joe Mantegna, a Cubs fanatic and at that time an Organic Theater actor and ensemble member, Bleacher Bums centers on a group of Chicago Cubs fans whose enthusiasm for their heroes is rarely daunted by the fact that the team almost never wins. Set in the bleachers at Wrigley Field, the play unfolds during a single game. The woe of the characters is immediately recognizable, and remains so today: The Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908; the team hasn’t even played in a World Series since 1945.
At its premiere, Bleacher Bums scored a home run with the audience and became a long-running hit both in Chicago and in other cities. The play has been made into two movies, including one with the original cast, and has had countless updated revivals, among them a 25th-anniversary production with a script revised by the original cast. The play is famous for launching the careers of the actors Joe Mantegna and Dennis Franz; it also springboarded the writer Dennis Paoli and the director Stuart Gordon into movies. The actor Roberta Custer went on to appear in films and has been the personal assistant of the CSI: Crime Scene Investigation star William Petersen on and off for the past 20 years.
”Bleacher Bums is a masterpiece,” writes Richard Christiansen, a former critic for The Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Tribune, in his book A Theater of Our Own: A History and a Memoir of 1001 Nights in Chicago (Northwestern University Press, 2004).
On the 100th anniversary of the Cubs’ World Series win, and with the team off to a good start, we decided to look back at the creation of this timeless play about Cubs fans.
Several of the players in the original production agreed to talk about Bleacher Bums: how it was created and what it meant to them.
Photograph: Stuart Gordon/Chicago Tribune