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The Audacity of Hope

In the 100 years since the Cubs won a World Series, the underachieving team has managed a single unmitigated triumph: inspiring the play Bleacher Bums. On this centennial, we look back at the creation of that memorable drama.

(page 3 of 5)


Actors Michael Saad, Roberta Custer, and Ketith Szarabajka

 


Carolyn Purdy-Gorden (as a closet fan), Joe Mantegna, and Dennis Franz in action.

JOE MANTEGNA: In the summer of 1977, we had run out of money. There was less than $500. Stuart sat us down together and said, “We don’t have any money left. But if anyone has any ideas for a play that would cost us almost nothing, we’re open to it.” So I raised my hand and told everyone about my observations of the fans in the bleachers and my concept of trying to tap into that same kind of audience.

STUART GORDON: Joe started describing these fans in great detail: the blind guy who wanted to be a play-by-play announcer; other guys who were betting furiously on anything that happened in the game; someone who was a complete slob, and they were always trying to throw him out; the geek; the bathing beauty; and the villain who always bet against the Cubs. It was this little community.

And eventually we were all laughing so hard, we thought Joe had to be making this up. And he said, “Come on—I’ll take you to Wrigley Field.” So we went and sat in the bleachers. And it was all true. This would be our next play.

We decided to start going to the games, and we even took little tape recorders with us. And we would sit behind the people in the bleachers. At first, because of all the betting they were doing, they were afraid we were the police. But after a while, they just accepted us. We never told them we were working on a play. We were in the right-field bleachers, but some of the characters—like the Cheerleader—were based on left-field bleacher bums. They were the ones who really did believe that you could affect the outcome of the plays by doing things like blowing whistles. After the game, we’d come back to the theatre and do improvisations based on what we had just seen.

JOE MANTEGNA: I had a basic idea of who the characters would be, based on these people. And I always knew in my heart that the Cubs would have to lose in the play. That was the whole point. If there could be only one sentence about what the play was going to be about, it should be: Why do you have this adoration and fandom even in the face of repeated failure?

DENNIS FRANZ: The guy I identified with was the most blustery and boisterous person in the bleachers. He was the grumpiest. Everything upset him, and he would totally overreact. He was constantly ready to implode. If we were to do that play today, I probably wouldn’t be as drawn to him as I was then.

STUART GORDON: We also worked out a scenario—what each character’s story was. The only character we invented was Zig’s wife, Rose. We never really saw anyone’s wife show up at the park, but we thought it would be funny if one did. And then we broke it down into innings. One of our first ideas was to have the play cover a whole season. Start in April and it would be cold and people would be bundled up to watch the games, and then during the season, it would get hotter and hotter so people would be wearing less. But then we finally settled on the idea that it should be just one game, and that we’d do it in nine innings. I remember we graphed it, with charts. Then based on these charts, we’d do improvisations.

ROBERTA CUSTER: My character, Melody, was a sunbather. I had no interest in baseball, and I didn’t want to learn anything about baseball. That was the boys’ thing. They were so enthusiastic and young back then—Dennis [Franz] even had hair.

Photography: Stuart Gordon/Harold Washington Library Center

 

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