Guru: My Days with Del Closeby Jeff Griggs
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A legend of improvisational theater, Del Close is best known for discovering and cultivating the talents of John Belushi, Chris Farley, Bill Murray, Mike Meyers, and countless other comedy giants. He was resident director of Chicago's famed Second City and "house metaphysician" for "Saturday Night Live," a talent in his own right, and one of the brightest and wackiest theater gurus ever. Jeff Griggs was a student of Close's at the ImprovOlympic in Chicago when he was asked to help the aging mentor (often in ill health) by driving him around the city on his weekly errands. The two developed a volatile friendship that shocked, angered, and amused both of themand produced this hilarious and ultimately endearing chronicle of Close's last years. With all the elements of a picaresque novel, Guru captures Close at his zaniest but also shows him in theatrical situations that confirm his genius in conceptualizing and directing improvisational theater. Between comic episodes, Jeff Griggs gives the reader the essentials of Close's biography: his childhood in Kansas, early years as an actor, countercultural exploits in the 1960s (he toured with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and designed light shows for the Grateful Dead), years with the Compass Players and then with Second City, and continuing experimentation with every drug imaginable, which pretty much cost him his health and ultimately his life. He was comedian, director, teacher, writer, actor, poet, fire-eater, junkie, and philosopher. "Being a really good actor does not necessarily guarantee that you will be a very good improviser," Close liked to say. "Being an actual, complete, hopeless, wretched geek in real life doesn't disqualify you from being a solid improviser, either." He approached improv the same way he conducted his lifein bizarre, dark, and dangerous fashion. Guru captures it.
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GURUMy Days with Del Close
By JEFF GRIGGS
Ivan R. DeeCopyright © 2005 Jeff Griggs
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE APARTMENT
The first day I was supposed to meet with Del, I picked him up in my roommate's Chevy Cavalier. He lived at the corner of Belmont and Racine in Chicago. I rang his buzzer, and he buzzed me up to his apartment.
The stairwell up to the second floor had a stale smell to it, so I took the steps two at a time. In my head I pictured what his apartment looked like as I climbed higher. I'd heard that he had tons of books, so I imagined there were bookcases with leather-bound volumes stacked everywhere. I fantasized there would be a rolltop desk with mounds of papers with handwritten notes carefully organized. The whole place would be ornately decorated with posters of all the productions Del had performed in and directed.
His door opened as he hollered, "C'mon up and let's see if I can remember what you look like."
I stepped up to the landing and he peered down at me. His hair was sticking up in all directions, his beard was long and tangled. "Oh yes," he grunted, "the Firecracker. I remember you."
I shook my head. "Did you just call me a Firecracker?"
He ignored me. "I made some tea. Come in and talk and we'll see if I'm actually going to go through with this."
I walked up the rest of the stairs and followed him into his apartment.
The smell was the first thing that assaulted me. The stench of cat feces and rotting food permeated the air. Soon the odor of garbage that had been piling up in and around the trash receptacle became the dominating fragrance in the room. There was a strong stench, but I couldn't put my finger on what it was. It instantly took me back to my grade-school days when another student had puked in the seat next to me and the janitor had scattered a pink and blue sandlike substance over the vomit.
I made a conscious effort to keep my mouth closed and breathe through my nose.
The kitchen was the first room I entered. Del poured some hot water into a couple of coffee mugs at the kitchen table. "Those tea bags are still good. I used them earlier today."
I sat in a chair and tried to find a clean place to rest my elbow. There was half-eaten food and crumpled newspapers all over the table. Del put the tea in front of me, where it remained untouched during my entire visit.
"I was telling Charna that I've structured my will so that she gets everything after I die. She said she would rather have me alive and be poor than have me dead and be rich. So she's bitching at me to change my lifestyle a little bit. She wants me to go with you once a week to the bank and the grocery store and maybe we'll grab something to eat while we're out. Do you think you can manage that?"
Charna Halpern was Del's partner at the ImprovOlympic in Chicago. He was the brilliant, precarious, and mystical prophet of improvisational acting, and she was a talented businesswoman and producer. With Del's genius and Charna's business savvy, the two of them had constructed a wildly successful theater and training center.
I scanned the apartment as Del talked. The room to the south was filled with books, but there were no shelves to be found. Two chairs sat in the middle of the room. In the alcove between the kitchen and the living room was Del's brand new thirty-two-inch TV. It was on a cart so that he could turn it around and watch TV in his kitchen or his living room.
"She's hired someone to come in here and clean the place up every once in a while, but they haven't come yet. Or maybe she was planning on you doing that too. Did she mention that she wanted you to do that?"
My heart skipped a beat as I continued to look around. East of the kitchen was the bedroom. There was an uncovered mattress on the dusty hardwood floor, and a single rumpled top sheet lay next to it. A dingy, bare pillow lay on the floor nearby.
I shook my head. "We're just supposed to run errands together. Somebody else is doing the cleaning." I really had no confirmation of this. All I knew was that there was no way in hell I was cleaning up that mess.
In exchange for getting my classes free at the ImprovOlympic Training Center, Charna had drafted me to take Del on his weekly errands. He was in poor health, which made it too difficult for him to carry things. He even had problems making it up stairs. Earlier Charna had helped him with all these things, but as the theater became more successful, she had less time to assist Del with some of his everyday obstacles.
I was chosen to help Del because Charna thought I wouldn't be scared of him. I could be a bit mouthy, and she figured it would be less difficult for him to intimidate me. Not impossible, just less difficult. Del Close scared everyone. He was an intimidating, frightening man.
All of a sudden a breeze blew through the apartment and the mystery smell returned. Del seemed unfazed by it all. Surely it must drive him insane to have all these odors wafting around him like this, I thought. I realized my mouth was open. I closed my mouth quickly, but it was too late. Something rank had snuck in. I held back a gag.
I felt something in my hair and jumped. I turned around and met Scruthers, Del's new cat. I'm not particularly fond of cats, but I'd never been so happy to see one. I was sure that whatever had touched my hair was a rodent.
Del rattled on about how he had come to acquire the cat. In mid-story he stood up and walked behind me into the bathroom. Without skipping a beat in his story, he unzipped his pants and relieved himself without shutting the door. Finishing his business, he zipped up his pants and walked directly to the front door, ready to leave.
It just occurred to me what the mystery odor had been. Unflushed urine.
He opened the door. I stood up and motioned toward the bathroom. "You forgot to flush."
He gave me a stern look. "You in charge of my personal hygiene as well?"
I shook my head. "If I am. I'm leaving. That's too much work for one man. You need a whole team of people to take on that task."
He tried to look angry, but he chuckled as he walked to the bathroom and flushed the toilet. "So I guess you're expecting me to shower before our weekly visits."
"I don't know that it's me so much as it is society in general that would like you to shower before our weekly visits." We headed down the stairs.
Del adjusted his black beret as we walked outside toward my roommate's car. I heard him mumble something that sounded like "fucking smart-ass," but he wouldn't repeat it when I asked him to.
We drove to Treasure Island on Broadway, near Halsted, where Del marveled at the food selection. He had mentioned in the car that he wanted to go somewhere where he could get some specialty foods. I made a stab that Treasure Island would be the best place.
We stood in the bread section as Del looked for pumpernickel. Not just any pumpernickel. He wanted it dense, hard even. There were so many different kinds of pumpernickel. He finally found a small loaf that looked like textured cardboard. Del would make a certain noise when he was extremely happy, and every time he made it I knew I had steered him in the right direction. The noise was a cross between an owl and a monkey.
"Hooo hoo hoo hoo. This is it. This is fucking it," he chortled. "Let's test it," he announced. He held the loaf high over his head and fired it toward the ground at maximum speed. The sudden launching of the bread startled a small blonde woman and her child, and they ducked behind the stacks of pineapples.
I picked up the pumpernickel to see if he'd made a dent in the floor. This was a hard loaf of bread.
"When I was in Paris, there was this cafe I went to. I'd sit and order a whole loaf of bread and tea, and I'd sit there and smear caviar all over the bread and eat it while I watched the people pass by. Do you think they have caviar here?" he asked me.
I started to lead Del toward the middle of the store, but he grabbed my arm. His face contorted and turned red as his eyes bulged. He lurched forward, and I could see the muscles in his neck straining to push out a cough. His emphysema was so bad that he couldn't walk twenty steps without having an attack. He just couldn't breathe and couldn't catch his breath. I stood there as he squeezed my arm, trying to regain control.
I locked my knees so I could catch him if he fell. I could manage to keep him from falling too hard, but I wouldn't be able to hold him up for long. He was a big man with extra weight packed on. He had the build of a wide-shouldered man with a trim figure, but age had added some serious pounds to his body. At the age of sixty-two he weighed a solid two hundred thirty.
"Do you want me to call an ambulance?" I asked.
"No," he choked, "I just need a few minutes."
After what felt like an hour, but was actually more like three minutes, he began breathing normally. He set the bread down on the nearest shelf he could reach and grabbed a stray cart sitting nearby. He leaned on it, using it like a walker to move down the aisle. "Let's go home," he said.
"Don't you want to get your bread?"
"I just want to go home," he answered.
We drove the Cavalier back toward his apartment. Just before we got there he turned to me, cocked his eyebrow, and spoke in his deep bass voice, "You would have been in some deep shit if I had died on your first day of taking me out to run errands!"
I laughed. "I know. I was going to blame it on one of the teachers at ImprovOlympic."
He grabbed my arm and squeezed it again. "Charna cannot know about this. Do not tell her anything. We will have our secrets in this little arrangement we have together."
He insisted that I drop him off and let him walk to his apartment himself. As he headed back in, I wondered if I'd ever see him alive again.
I drove back to Treasure Island and found the pumpernickel bread on the shelf where Del had left it. I searched the store and found the caviar section. I didn't know what kind he wanted, so I bought two. I went back to his apartment building and found the front gate open. Someone walked out of the building and held the door open for me. I left the bag of bread and caviar sitting outside his apartment door and walked back down the stairs.
Back in my own apartment, I stared at the phone. After debating for a while, I called Charna. "I'm not going to tell you why, but you need to call Del," I told her after I finally got up the courage.
Thirty minutes later she called back. "He's mad at you," she said when I answered the phone.
"Because I told you that he had an attack?"
"No," she answered. "He's mad at you because you paid fifty bucks for caviar. He said he would have been happy if you'd gotten him the cheap shit."
I asked if he was feeling okay, and she said he was. She added, "He said he liked you and could tell you weren't scared of him because you made smart-ass comments at him all day. He promised he would shower and clean up a little bit before next week."
Week one was finished.
Excerpted from GURU by JEFF GRIGGS Copyright © 2005 by Jeff Griggs.
Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Jeff Griggs was born in Quincy, Illinois, and attended Illinois colleges before becoming a radio host and weekend TV weather forecaster. He quit the media to study improvisational theater at ImprovOlympic. He is now an actor, director, and improviser in Chicago.
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