Remembering those we lost in 2022

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It has been the annual December tradition for Tribune critics and writers to mark the places and people and things that have departed over the previous year. It’s never easy and it would, of course, be possible to provide a very lengthy list of names. But I asked my colleagues to be selective in their choices. They came through with typical style and thoughtfulness and the following gathering should evoke some surprises and sorrows but also some smiles and even joy, as the names will no doubt also spark memories of good times, music, acting, eating and all the other elements of arts and entertainment that enrich our lives.

As I have written before, shed a tear if you like but also know that life goes on and this coming new year, like any new year, is filled with promise.

Angela Lansbury died in October, five days shy of her 97th birthday. And though her talents were varied — spanning multiple Tony-winning awards in such plays as “Sweeney Todd,” and appearing in films such as “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” — it was her 12-year run on the CBS series “Murder, She Wrote” that bumped her celebrity up a level. She was nearly 60 when she took on the role of Jessica Fletcher, the mystery writer and amateur sleuth from Cabot Cove, Maine, and it was a late-in-life infusion of stardom for her. Even now, long after the show’s original run from 1984-1996, in a world that feels increasingly chaotic, you can cue up an episode of “Murder, She Wrote” and there she is, smartly dressed and ready to make sense of it all.

Ray Liotta at the Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago in 2002.

Nobody wore a pinky ring better than this quartet of tough guys — Ray Liotta, Paul Sorvino, Tony Sirico and James Caan: How were we so unlucky to lose them all in the span of a single year? Liotta, who died in May at age 67, made his mark in “Goodfellas” with a soulful touch and those piercing blue eyes; Sorvino (July, age 83) starred alongside him in that 1990 Martin Scorsese classic as well. Sirico (July, age 79) will forever be known as his alter ego on “The Sopranos”: Paulie Walnuts, with his dark hair greased back and two whitewalls on the side, playing a man easily angered but also so, so funny. And Caan’s (July, age 82) stardom predates them all with “The Godfather” (Parts I and II, RIP Sonny Corleone) but also many more memorable roles in everything from “Brian’s Song” to “The Gambler” to “Rollerball” to “Misery.” A toast to some of Hollywood’s best to play brawny types with vulnerability and nuance.

Few could toss off a one-liner as memorably as Leslie Jordan, who died in October at age 67. Throughout the early days of the pandemic, his wondrously silly videos posted to social media were a balm — a brief if much-need laugh — but I will always remember him for his guest appearances on “Will & Grace” as a salty nemesis to the perpetually blitzed out socialite Karen Walker with the delivery of this greeting: “I thought I smelled gin and regret.”

An actor’s actor, and many Chicago actors’ most important teacher, Mary Ann Thebus was a classic of old-school, off-Loop theater: relentless, uncompromising, serious, occasionally caustic, deeply vulnerable on stage and, above all, demonstrably reluctant ever to say no to any interesting theatrical project that might contain some wisdom about life. She died in February at 89. She was, of course, all about the work; she did not give a darn for money or fame. What mattered was telling the truth. And that was still true and she was well into her 80s, a decade of life within which she poured herself into role after role. Her career on Chicago stages was so long, she ended up playing Eugene O’Neill’s most titanic role, Mary Tyrone, several times, each time knowing more than the last.

For decades, people said Hollis Resnik was the leading light of the musical theater in Chicago. After she died in April at the age of 66, the most discerning observers realized that, in many ways, she was Chicago musical theater. For decades. A Windy City diva, if ever there was one, drinking dry martinis on the shores of Lake Michigan, Resnik was an extraordinary singer whose vocal prowess allowed her to play Fantine in “Les Miserables” for many months at the Auditorium Theatre during the golden age of the American mega-musical. To people who created Chicago musicals of all stripes, Resnik was just Hollis. To her legions of fans in the audience, she was an imprimatur of both quality and personal revelation. And she was, at every moment, far more fun, and far more humble, than most people ever knew.

Myrna Salazar, the co-founder and executive director of the Chicago Latino Theater Alliance, on the stage at the National Museum of Mexican Art in the Pilsen neighborhood on Sept. 25, 2017.

Myrna Salazar could often be seen in some crowded room or another, smiling and waving with one goal on her mind: finding resources and attention for Latino theater in Chicago. A glamorous impresario of many talents, Salazar ran the Chicago Latino Theater Alliance, and, in that role, she also understood the importance of bringing global work to Chicago, of exposing the young Latino audience in particular to the best performing arts to be found on the planet. Salazar, who died in August at 75, could never be accused of being myopic or lacking in ambition. Her career had been more extensive than many people knew: she was appointed to the Chicago Board of Education by then-Mayor Jane Byrne and served for five years. And her Salazar & Navas Talent Agency brought work to hundreds of local talents, turning them into spokespeople, busy models and familiar actors. Upbeat, inclusive in all ways and a true connector of talented people, the hole Salazar left has been impossible to fill.

Dennis Watkins with the cast of "Death and Harry Houdini" by House Theatre of Chicago in 2012. The play told the story of the famous magician and escapologist and incorporated some of his magic.

Back in 2001, a lifetime ago in Chicago theater, a group of ebullient young graduates from Southern Methodist University blew into Chicago’s Wicker Park with so much talent, verve and creative energy that the theater scene was rocked back on its heels. Most Chicago theaters were serious operations, cool and taciturn in public and more likely to be hidden away preparing for their roles than welcoming a young audience often unfamiliar with going to the theater. House Theatre of Chicago and especially its founder, Nathan Allen, were different. With self-penned hits like “The Terrible Tragedy of Peter Pan,” “The Sparrow” and “Rose and the Rime,” they focused on emotional stories that touched the Gen X heart. During the holidays, House’s “The Nutcracker” restored the family, while the magician Dennis Watkins cheated mortality in “Death and Harry Houdini.” House closed its doors in 2022, a victim of many factors but perhaps nothing so much as time. But no one who went to their shows during their prime will forget the joy, the belief, the love.

The fact Cynthia Albritton, who died in April at 74, doesn’t appear on a plaque in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame speaks to the dubiousness of that institution. She was more rock ‘n’ roll than most rock ‘n’ roll.

Cynthia Plaster Caster attends the Guggenheim Art Awards at the Guggenheim Museum in 2009, in New York City.

Albritton, better known as “Cynthia Plaster Caster,” became a work of cultural lore herself. A shy graduate of South Shore High School, she found her calling after an art teacher at the University of Illinois Chicago assigned her to make a plaster mold of something that retained its shape. That’s how she found her way into a hotel room in 1968, creating a mold of Jimi Hendrix’s private parts after his show at the Civic Opera House. A career was launched.

Though Frank Zappa declined to have a mold done, he did become her mentor and promoter, hailing her as a conceptual genius. Kiss wrote a song (“Plaster Caster”) about her. Albritton — who refused for years to give her full name in interviews, for fear that her mother would discover her claim to fame — became one of a handful of rock groupies to get almost famous. For decades she created her genital sculptures, using members of MC5, The Lovin’ Spoonful, the Buzzcocks, The Animals and many others. Later she branched into actors (Anthony Newley) and even the breasts of female musicians, such as Sally Timms of The Mekons and Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

Albritton, who spent her last years in Lincoln Park, showed her work in galleries and lectured at the Art Institute. In 2008, she made a winky run for mayor. Or course, the campaign pins read: “Erect Cynthia Plaster Caster.”

Restaurants open, restaurants close. Five years in business is a feat. Even for the classy joints: Elizabeth, GT Fish & Oyster, Tavern on Rush — all called it a day this year. It’s a kind of miracle when food meshes so intimately into a community that a restaurant becomes wallpaper, taken for granted, yet expected. How else to describe Mustard’s Last Stand in Evanston and Nancy’s Pizzeria, which started in Harwood Heights and now stretches across Illinois, North Carolina and Georgia? Neither closed this year, but their founders and spiritual stewards died.

Nancy Palese, who died in January at 87, was the eponymous namesake of Nancy’s, though her real name was Annunziata. (“It was more easy to say ‘Nancy,’” she told the Tribune in 2016.) She grew up in the town of Brindisi di Montagna, in Italy’s mountainous southern region of Basilicata. She met Rocco Palese and married at 14. They moved to Chicago in 1969. Unhappy with the pizza he made at Guy’s in Hermosa, he tinkered with his mother’s recipe for scarciedda, an Easter dish full of ricotta and egg (better known by Italian Americans as pizza rustica). He gave it a bottom crust and a top crust, but adjusting for Chicago, stuffed in a geological layer of cheese. The first Nancy’s opened in 1974. Soon they franchised, becoming known in the mid-’70s as the best pizza in Chicago. Nancy held fast to Rocco’s recipe, often making the dough herself; Rocco died in 1994. She claimed they invented stuffed pizza, and since the founders of Giordano’s (their main competition in stuffed pizza) started alongside Rocco, it was tough to argue. Not that Nancy’s success was always peaceful: In the early ‘80s, a disgruntled franchisee was sentenced to prison for bombing a few of the Palese’s restaurants. They had trouble buying insurance after that. But Nancy rarely quit pizza. According to her obituary, just one day after she left Nancy’s finally in 2019, she was admitted to a nursing home for dementia care.

Mustard's Last Stand on Aug. 17, 2022 outside Ryan Field in Evanston.

Jerry Starkman died in Park Ridge in August after a prolonged illness. He lived for years in Skokie. But his legacy rests inside a red and yellow shack on Central Street in Evanston, about one Hail Mary pass away from Ryan Field, home of Northwestern University Wildcats football. It’s a tight, narrow hallway of a place, lined with fading photos of generations of Northwestern and Evanston Township High School students. It opened in 1969, inside an old house that once served as a nurses’ barracks during World War II. On game days, it’s more crowded than a nightclub; on any given Sunday, it’s sleepy and warm. Starkman, known to his customers as “Colonel Mustard,” preferred it this way, nostalgic and consistent. Mustard’s was created because he had expected to move his pizza place, The Inferno, down the street, into the space; instead, it was the hot dogs that caught on. The clever name came from a contest; the winner received $100. Starkman, a Humboldt Park native, was inducted eventually into Vienna Beef’s Hot Dog Hall of Fame. He was also a sometime ticket broker, and in 1996, Starkman was sentenced to two months of home confinement after pleading guilty to giving the Cook County sheriff’s office tickets to Bulls games, concerts and plays; in exchange he received a sheriff’s badge, authority to carry a gun and, for nearly two years, a pretty nice full-time job as a sheriff’s aide that amounted to less than an hour of work each week and a salary of $53,634 (with benefits). Albeit in Evanston, it’s a classic Chicago story, built to last. As Seth Meyers, a Northwestern alum, noted in his 2016 commencement speech at the school: “I’m so looking forward to 2036, when I will finally start my dream job at Mustard’s Last Stand.”

Sam Lay delighted with his drumming and singing, with his buoyant personality and flamboyant dress, often decked out in matching suits, shoes, hats, capes and canes. One of the most influential and esteemed drummers in the history of popular music, Lay was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, Jazz Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He died here in January at age 86 and the next day his friend and collaborator, the great Corky Siegel said, “Sam does not just play the drums. He sings the drums … If you wanted to know the history of the blues, talk to Sam Lay. He knows it because he was there.”

Sam Lay and his blues band perform at Buddy Guy's Legends in 2002.

Born in Alabama, Lay was in Chicago by the early 1950s and played drums and sang with every giant of the blues: Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Hound Dog Taylor, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, James Cotton. His most famous gig was playing drums for Bob Dylan when he famously “went electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. “Man, all hell broke loose,” Lay would recall. He made dozens of records, performed thousands of times. He lived in the Austin neighborhood and was funny and wise, and undeniably cool. When awarded a Legends and Heroes Award by the Recording Academy in 2002, he received a telegram from Dylan that said, in part: “Congratulations. … It’s good to be recognized. … It’s so well-deserved. … you are second to none — your flawless musicianship and unsurpassed timing, maestro with the sticks and brushes.”

If you ever asked Ken Price, “What is history?” he would answer “What happens if you remove the ‘h’ and the ‘i’ from history, what do you have? … You have ‘story’!” For nearly four decades he was director of public relations at the Palmer House Hilton. This exemplary, energetic and professional man died in March at 82. Born and raised in Chicago, he started at the Palmer House in 1983. He was tireless and cut a stylish figure in finely tailored clothes on his well-groomed 6′2″ frame and distinctive glasses. He would formally add to his duties the role of official hotel historian and in 2008 took over a small room off the lobby’s balcony and began filling it with the past. It eventually contained hundreds of items, some Price rescued from dusty storage areas around the hotel, others provided by former guests. Though he often gave tours to visiting corporate folks and big shots, the public could easily partake of it through the “History is Hott” program, a delightful Price creation. He was awarded a lifetime achievement award in 2018 from the Historic Hotels of America, which called him an “integral voice in ensuring the hotel’s rich history and story … lives on for generations.”

Not everyone liked the things that artist Claes Oldenburg made, which were gigantic sculptures of such commonplace items as a hamburger, lipstick case, clothespin, ice cream cone, pretzel, ironing board, teddy bear, aspirin and a very, very big bat in Chicago. When he died at 93 in July in the Manhattan home/studio where he had long resided, part of his New York Times obituary noted that he “took humble objects to new heights.” One of those has been here since 1977, the 101-foot-tall “Batcolumn” at 600 W. Madison St. He called it a monument “both to baseball and to the construction industry … a celebration of steel construction as well as to the ambition and vigor Chicago likes to see in itself.” Oldenburg was not much of a baseball fan — “I like the game,” he told a reporter in 1977, “though I haven’t been to a game since I was 11 — but he was a Chicagoan.

Born in 1929 in Sweden, he came here in 1936 when his diplomat father, Gösta, was appointed the Swedish consul general in Chicago. He grew up first on sedate Crilly Court in Old Town and then an apartment on Walton Street. After college at Yale University, he came back here to work at the City News Bureau. Then art took over and he had a studio on North Avenue and made his first sale, five little paintings at the 57th Street Art Fair for a total of $25.

Folk singer Jim Post performs "Galena Rose: How Whiskey Won the West" in 1988.

Jim Post was a folk singer and one of the greatest. He died in September at 82 years old. Born in Houston, he arrived here in the early 1960s and quickly became one of the seminal stars of the booming folk music scene. Its epicenter was the Earl of Old Town, which was, from the early 1960s into the 1980s, arguably the most famous folk music club in the world. There Post shared the stage with such great if bygone talents as Steve Goodman, John Prine and Fred Holstein, and such very much alive performers as Bonnie Koloc and Corky Siegel. He would score his biggest hit with “Reach Out of the Darkness” and find his own piece of paradise in the 1980s in Galena, the picturesque river town in the state’s surprisingly hilly northwest corner. The town inspired him, giving birth to his one-man show, “Galena Rose: How Whiskey Won the West.” It was a show that beguiled Luciano Pavarotti who, after one performance, told Post, “You have the voice of an angel. You should have been an opera singer.” But he continued to perform his own way and created such other shows as “Mark Twain and the Laughing River,” a captivating show that he performed all over the country. He was happy in Galena, and ever open to its charms and wonders. “Just a couple of days ago I was looking out my first-floor window at a bunch of trees in the distance,” he told me a few years ago. “And all of a sudden this bear walked up and stared in the window at me and I stared back, wondering to myself, ‘What is this bear thinking?’”

André Leon Talley (who died in January, age 73): Editor-at-large of Vogue magazine, fashion’s godfather, “the very essence of culture,” as Kimora Lee Simmons told Ebony this year.

Howard Hesseman (who died in January, age 81): Don’t know who was cooler, his “WKRP in Cincinnati” persona Johnny Fever or Charlie Moore, the savvy teacher of academically gifted students in “Head of the Class.”

Ronnie Spector (who died in January, age 78) of The Ronettes, because duh. Same goes for Irene Cara (November, age 63) because she was the voice of the ‘80s for me. She may have given feelings and told people to remember her name, but Fame’s “Out Here On My Own” is still my favorite of hers.

Director Ivan Reitman (who died in February, age 75) because “Ghostbusters” was such a seminal film in my four younger brothers’ upbringing, it’s ridiculous. I frankly don’t know who they would be if that film franchise, cartoon and merchandising didn’t exist. (I can still recite both films verbatim.)

Emilio Ernest Delgado (who died in March, age 81) aka Luis on “Sesame Street”: For kids across the country who may not have known many Mexican Americans in their early lives, Luis was an ambassador, teacher and friend we got to see daily.

Australian pop-singer Olivia Newton-John in Los Angeles in 1982.

Olivia Newton-John (who died in August, age 73): Two reasons: “Grease” and “Xanadu.” Roller skating muses in a film with Gene Kelly. For a kid who loved roller skating and musicals as much as breathing, these films were everything.

Fred Ward (who died in May, age 79) who first came into my purview as the lead of the 1985 film “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins.” The premise: A tough guy recruited to be an assassin, trained by a funny martial arts master who teaches such skills as dodging bullets and running on water and wet cement. What’s not to like, right? Well, maybe the assassin is a bit far-fetched. But c’mon running on water, what kid wouldn’t want to learn superhero-esque powers that didn’t involve a freak accident in a lab? But I digress. Ward became truly notable in the cable mainstay franchise, “Tremors” and “Tremors 2: Aftershocks,” where carnivorous sandworms were both funny and horrific.

Roger E. Mosley (who died in August, age 83) of “Magnum, P.I.” fame (Tom Selleck’s friend, helicopter pilot Theodore “T.C.” Calvin) was everything a kid in the ‘80s needed to see — a Black entrepreneur living in paradise with the most loyal friends. Yes, he played notable roles in Black films like Gordon Parks’ “Leadbelly,” “Roots: The Next Generations” and Blaxploitation films like “The Mack,” but he will always be T.C. to me.

Nichelle Nichols portrays Lt. Nyota Uhura in the "Star Trek" TV show in 1967. She broke barriers for Black women in Hollywood and died at the age of 89.

Nichelle Nichols (who died in July, age 89). Fan of science fiction or not, this Robbins, Illinois native, was an icon that made history for the Black community as Nyota Uhura on “Star Trek.” One of the first Black women featured in a major television series, she set a precedent on television and influenced generations of Black children and young women everywhere, including former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison and Whoopi Goldberg. And of course, little ol’ me.

Actor Sidney Poitier in Beverly Hills, California in 2008.

Hollywood finally made way for the movie star America needed, just in time to save face. The commercial film industry didn’t carve out space for a Black superstar for most of the 20th century. But by 1967, Sidney Poitier who died in January at 94, enjoyed three hits agreeable to mainstream white audiences, and they did the trick: “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “To Sir, With Love” and “In the Heat of the Night.” That last one — the one that lasts — featured the still-perfect scene in which Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs gets slapped by a Southern murder suspect. Before filming, Poitier argued for the character’s unscripted but wholly natural response. So his character slapped him back.

Sergio Mims (who died in October, age 67) was a Chicago film programmer, critic, educator and broadcaster, who discussed Poitier in-depth and to great acclaim in his final year of life, at the spring 2022 Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival in Hollywood. At the TCM festival, he shared the stage with his friend and champion, TCM host and Academy Museum president Jacqueline Stewart. In November, Stewart returned to Chicago for a celebration of Mims’ life, hosted by the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Sergio Mims at the Black Harvest Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago in 2021.

On the same day we lost Poitier, we lost longtime Tribune film critic Michael Wilmington (in January, age 75). From the sweaty 16-millimeter crucible of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s cinema clubs to the screening rooms of Chicago and film festivals around the world, Wilmington poured his words into the medium he loved as few others have loved it.

In September we lost filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard at age 91. One of his late works, “Goodbye to Language,” asserted a restless provocateur’s instinct for the long farewell and the big, wet kiss-off. Across nearly 60 years, Godard made movies about the impossibility and the necessity of making movies, the impossibility and necessity of love, of life. He did it with sound and image rhythms so arresting, they will never fail to disarm a new generation with nervous cuts, impish detours and a way of filming and thinking we’ll argue over until the last cinematheque is hung out to dry.

Richard Christiansen in 2002. His famed tenure at the Tribune lasted from 1978 to 2002.

If any journalist could be said to have lit the spark for an artistic movement, that scribe was Richard Christiansen, longtime chief critic at the Chicago Tribune and perhaps the single individual who did the most to put homegrown Chicago theater permanently on the global map. He died in January at the age of 90. Born in 1931, he grew up an only child in Oak Park. The first play he saw was a production of “Oklahoma.” “Before I was allowed to go, my mother had to make sure there were no dirty words in it,” he said. “I was still able to see it even though it had one ‘damn.’” He started his career in journalism with the City News Bureau, there forming a lifelong friendship with Mike Royko. He would later work for the Chicago Daily News, Sun-Times and for nearly a quarter century at the Tribune before he retired in 2002. He saw thousands of plays and was always gentle and respectful in rhetorical tone, epitomizing what is often described as “old-school reviewing.” “All my life I have been eager to go to the theater,” he wrote in his 2004 book “A Theater of Our Own: A History and a Memoir of 1,001 Nights in Chicago.” Not only was he a great and influential critic, he was also a remarkable reporter and had a tremendous grip on what theater meant to Chicago. And he was a remarkable mentor to the young generation of journalists, especially those working in the arts. Courtly, polite and well-dressed in person he was always frank and honest with his readers. Rarely did he reveal details of his own personal life in his professional work and in person he was ever warm, personable and generous.



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