#135: Hunting Ben Hecht, Part 1

March 8th, 2013

A middle-aged man in the waiting room leafed through sheet music, reading it like a book.

Along the far wall, a mother diddled with her iPhone waiting for her son’s piano lessons to finish.

A song describable as only “da da da da da dum dum” repeated interminably overhead as an unseen instructor in another room bade his pupil practice and practice.

And a grand piano by the storefront window was topped with stacks of fliers and posters for upcoming shows, books of sheet music, a clock and a bottle of Purell, the last of which I availed myself of when I was sure no one was looking.

Here’s where Ben Hecht’s legacy lives.

I’ll tell you a secret about 1920s Chicago Daily News reporter Ben Hecht, the creator of 1001 Afternoons in Chicago and the basis of this blog: I’m not the only one looking for him.

Online, there’s not just me re-creating his project with words, but a very nice woman named Tricia Bobeda, recreating it with photos and fiction and real stories at a Tumblr I’ll link to below.

And I guess there’s Bill Savage, Tricia’s ex-teacher, who wrote the intro to the recent University of Chicago reprint of “1001 Afternoons in Chicago.” There’s Paul Peditto, of course. He wrote a play version of 1001 Afternoons back in the 1990s which was how I first heard of Ben Hecht in the first place. D.C.-based Hecht historian Florice Whyte Kovan runs an entire publishing company that does no more than reprint the man’s various books and screenplays.

And then there’s composer Seth Boustead, who is in the process of writing a musical radio play of Ben Hecht stories that will debut live in May. He’s who I was at the Ravenswood HQ of Access Contemporary Music to see.

“I really want to promote Ben Hecht and really that golden era of Chicago,” Boustead would tell me over quesadillas and beer at the Irish pub across the street from ACM.

Boustead is an energetic, excited 40-year-old musician who uses words like “inculcate” in casual conversation and trades stories about shooting pool. I liked him right away.

He and fellow composer Amos Gillespie were introduced to Ben Hecht in 2007 or so, when an excited member of a dance troupe asked them to score versions of Hecht’s 1001 Afternoons stories to be danced to. Once Boustead found a used copy online, he was taken by Ben’s work, style and era.

“I have a fascination with Ring Lardner — that hard-drinking, hard-smoking, womanizing reporter. There’s something romantic about that,” Boustead said. “But he’s also very smart and hits his deadlines and can turn a phrase like no one.”

Boustead and Gillespie scored several of Hecht’s works: a tale of a holed-up gangster waiting for the cops to spring, a meditation on men killing lunch breaks in Grant Park and so on. They and the dance troupe opened it in Chicago and later played in Evanston, reaching out to the elderly Jewish community there who remembered Hecht and, if not 1001, his later screenplays and his work fighting for European Jews fleeing what we would come to know as the Holocaust.

Boustead found the writing experience… OK.

“We didn’t reach enough Ben Hecht people and we didn’t do enough to change people’s minds who hadn’t heard about him,” Boustead said of the composition and dance pairing. “How could we? We didn’t read one word he wrote out loud.”

“So when it was over, it was over,” he said. “We just moved on to new projects.”

That was years ago. Months ago, at the gym of all places, Boustead decided to revive the idea, not with dance but with a radio play dramatizing Ben’s vignettes. No more dance. The play’s the thing.

On the advice of a playwright friend, Boustead contacted the Strawdog Theatre Company to write and act in the radio play portion of the show. The trifecta of Hecht, music and radio fit for Boustead, also a host at local classical station WFMT. Strawdog seemed to fit the bill as well.

“I sent them a Facebook message,” Boustead said, laughing.

That’s all it took. They were in.

And that led to this moment, of me and Boustead eating quesadillas and talking Hecht and pool over beer. The debut is May 21 at Architectural Artifacts on Ravenswood. Boustead and Gillespie haven’t seen the plays yet. They’ll write the music around what Strawdog gives them, working with them to “map it out,” he said.

I’ll write about the show over the weeks, promote it as best I can for reasons that are mine and no one else’s. I’ll talk to the Strawdog people once the proper e-mails are exchanged. I’ve already gotten in touch with one of the Hecht fans mentioned above to see if I can get a group to go.

Seth Boustead and I talked about beer and pool, Ring Lardner and the Roaring ’20s. We talked about Florice Whyte Kovan and Rick Kogan and jazz at the Aragon and the meaning of the word “palomar” and modern classical music and bad waitresses we’ve had and lord did we talk about Ben Hecht. We shook hands outside the pub and promised to keep each other apprised of our respective Hecht hunts’ next steps.

There are greater connections in the world than a tribe dedicated to one forgotten American writer.

But, you know, there are also worse.

Comment on this story

Find out more about the ACM/Strawdog production of 1001 Afternoons in Chicago

Read Tricia Bobeda’s 1001-based Tumblr

Buy the book with Bill Savage’s take

See a review of Paul Peditto’s play

Hell, even give Dailing’s take a look

Meet the doyen of all things Hecht, Florice Whyte Kovan

Last, learn what Ben Hecht did in the Holocaust

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