I pushed past the milling lobby crowd on Tuesday, past the early onslaught of Christmassy decorations in prep for the theater’s upcoming Nutcracker deconstruction, looking for the stocky man in jeans and a black shirt.
I caught up with him by the bar. I smiled nervously and introduced myself, extending my hand for him to shake.
What do you say to a stranger who changed your life?
In 2002, there was a woman I had been following around like a sad puppy since high school. My visits home from college had included lunches or coffees or just hellos with her, her, her whenever I could arrange it.
I had recently graduated and was hanging out in my hometown, sending résumés into the void. She asked if I wanted to visit her in Chicago and see a play. Yes, sure, of course, plays are great (a night with her, her, her).
The play was “1001 Afternoons in Chicago” by the man who would be shaking my hand in a Nutcracker-swathed lobby 13 years later, Paul Peditto. His play had been my first introduction to the newspaper column that would inspire this project.
I didn’t get the girl. I got Ben Hecht instead.
And, in the lobby of West Town’s Chopin Theatre on Tuesday night, I met the man who made that possible.
We had just finished a viewing of a film by another group of people whose lives have been altered by Hecht.
Moving briefly from vignette to review, “1001 Afternoons in Chicago – The Film” is a beautiful, surreal take on the Daily News column, bringing Hecht’s stories to life with a combination of original music, live action, radio play, historical photos, modern scenery and animation.
It’s a wonderful project I’ve been lucky enough to document since its 2013 incarnation as a radio play. The Chicago Tribune’s Rick Kogan called the film “a spectacular and original work” (in the same article where he referred to this blog as “delightful and artful” — Thanks, Mr. Kogan!)
You don’t have to take my or Kogan’s words for it, though. You can watch it yourself tomorrow night on WTTW.
Peditto, who was part of a panel discussion on Hecht that preceded Tuesday’s showing, was pleasant and kind. He brought a friend of his in for our deep-dive nerd session on Hecht. I felt too tired and embarrassed to make an impression, so opted for nodding and occasional ohs yeah rather than risk sounding either stupid or pompous.
It was a nice interaction considering all I wanted to do was thank him to the point of discomfort for roundabout sending me on the path that hit #557 with these lines today.
I guess you can’t know who will change everything, how a life’s path can be nudged as much by a random playwright, a long-dead newsman or a girl you had a thing for in ninth grade.
A theater full of people had the same newsman nudge their lives’ paths on Tuesday. Tomorrow, thousands of PBS viewers will feel the same nudge as they watch the movie.
For most, I’m sure it’ll be remembered as a fun night out or an enjoyable half-hour amid a channel surf.
But for just a few people out there, there’s an odd off-chance that Hecht’s 94-year-old words could changes their lives, just like they changed mine.
I’ve been following the project’s progress since 2013.
I also occasionally write about Hecht himself. Here’s a sampling.