The Windy City

by Lenny Hughes

Chicago and the Last Hurrah-May 11-16

We're rolling down I-90 toward Rockford, out of Chicago where Lew and John last night slew a crowd of more than 3,000 of the Faithful.

(Well, that was yesterday, May 11-I'm now on a plane out of Chicago following a glorious night in too-quiet Rockford, Illinois.)

The long weekend began in a rainy Minneapolis where we converged in the downtown Graves 601 Hotel. My room had a surreal view of Twins stadium, over the top of the Target Center, where the Big Shows perform. The Twins were in Cleveland Thursday night, or I would've had a good view of people getting soaked in the upper deck.

Minneapolis is a fine old town, and I found the best part the next day-a grand old bookstore (James & Mary Laurie Booksellers), where I got a nice Vonnegut and a vintage Faulkner, before striking out with Frank and Ben for the venerable State Theatre. Black Fans may remember the State was the site of Lew's TV special "In God We Rust," which featured a gi-normous set designed by Lew's dad Sam Black. The stage was a little plainer Friday night, but John and Lewis still rocked the place with "The Rant Is Due."

[Editor's note: It's now May 16, and Dr. Hughes is home, recovering from a major lawn-cutting and rain-gutter cleaning in advance of last night's monsoon, which followed him from the midwest. We resume our story below.]

That night we had dinner, hit the sack (all of us, except for Frank, I hope, who drives the Bus) and headed off for the overnight trip to Chicago, a city every one of us loves.

Michigan Avenue was jammed with shoppers and eaters Saturday, because the weather was perfect. John got out early and toured a museum at the Michigan Avenue Bridge, where he got a backstage seat for the opening of the structure to let boats into the lake. Lewis scoured the city for bags of socks and a new camera anticipating his upcoming Grand Tour of Europe.

I of course headed south to a unique old bookstore I found a couple years back. Selected Works: Used Books & Sheet Music is in a wonderful old arts building-on the second floor, which you can access only by the rumbly elevators, run by one of the last lift operators in the country. The store is hosted by Hodge, a beautiful gray cat, who helped me find a couple great books, including a first-printing "Mother Night," which has the creepiest cover ever.

The first floor houses a grand old cafe-diner straight out of the 1920s. I wondered if Eliot Ness ever ate there. So much of the town features the ornate architecture of a more-civilized time, sadly dwarfed by the mirror-clad modern montrosities, like the garish skyscraper Donald Trump plopped down in the middle of the city.

I trucked up to the Hard Rock Hotel, where Ben helped set up a casual interview session with Lewis for the promo-company Live Nation. For the cameras, Lew explained how he would've been a rock star, if his mother had let him get a guitar instead of insisting on piano lessons. "My piano teacher had arthritis...with hands like a parakeet's claws," he recounted, as we struggled to muffle our laughs from the microphones.

It was a good warm-up for the show that night at the enormous Chicago Theatre. The playhouse is a veritable palace. You may remember when Conan O'Brien broadcast his show from there many years ago. There's a drawing backstage, with signatures among the many autographs on the walls of stars and roadies who have come through that venerable place over the years. Letterman did his show there back in the '80s.

Judging from the laughs Saturday night, Lewis and John are funnier than all of them.

We had a fine dinner at a restaurant across town, and the next morning, we still had time for more shopping around before hitting the road for Rockford.

What a contrast from Chicago. We pulled into the Road Ranger truck stop (John said he thought the sign read "Road RAGER"), and Lewis got the new McDonald's burger for lunch (he said the Whopper is better).

A rainstorm preceded us to the little town on the Rock River. Rockford on a misty Sunday night is one of the most desolate places on earth. But when showtime approached, the place came alive. Well, at least anywhere in the vicinity of the Coronado Theatre. It is one of the most beautiful theaters I've seen, by the way...a grand old vaudeville house, completely restored, so you can imagine what it must have been like to see Bob Hope or the Marx Brothers on its stage before the days of TV.

The crowd was smaller than most, but no less enthusiastic.

It was a nice ending to the weekend. Frank dropped us off at the Hilton in the airport back in Chicago, and we said our good-byes. Sad, in a way, because I'm off for several months. Lewis is in Vegas this weekend, before spending much of the summer in Europe, then a stint in Canada, always two steps ahead of the law.

Meanwhile, I'll keep in touch, and let you know what's going on, at home or abroad.