In my job you hear a lot of curtain speeches — turn off your cellphones, subscribe now, blah, blah, blah. But in that sea of rhetorical predictability, there is one speech I will never forget. It took place about five or six years ago at the Illinois Theatre Center in Park Forest. It was delivered by Etel Billig, who died last week.
It wasn't that Billig was saying anything especially unusual. It was just that there was a guy in a wheelchair, with an oxygen tank, in the front row of her theater. Somewhere in the middle of her welcome and her preview of upcoming attractions, it dawned on Billig that this gentleman, whose name she knew, for she knew almost all of her subscribers at the Illinois Theatre Center, didn't have a very good view of the stage. So she decided to move him — I think his name was Fred, but my memory fades — to a better spot. She left her perch at the front of the stage and headed for Fred, grasping the back of his chair, maneuvering around his oxygen tank, and shifting his spot to what the folks in New York like to call a premium ticket (and charge accordingly). Remarkably, she continued talking to the audience the entire time, even while she was taking care of Fred. Nobody other than me found this at all unusual. This was the way Billig did her theatrical business, one audience member at a time.
I distinctly remember thinking that if I ever have to write Billig's obituary, I must remember this. That moment arrived last week. Billig collapsed at her desk at the theater, even as a rehearsal was going on in a room down the hall.
It took a little while, her son Jonathan Billig told me, for the actors to realize that something was wrong. And when they arrived in her office, they found Billig slumped over, with a bewildered patron still on the other end of the telephone line, saying, "Hello, hello," and wondering what had happened to Etel. No death could ever really be described as apt or poetic, for the Chicago theater lost a great deal when it lost Etel, but plenty of actors say they'd like to die onstage in the middle of a performance. And when I heard that Billig had died with one of her beloved audience members left hanging on the line, I laughed to myself at how perfect that truly seemed to be.
Billig was a remarkable woman. When I first started reviewing shows at her theater, in the 1990s, Billig was ensconced in the basement of the Park Forest library. In 1996, she had the worst year of her life. Her husband and artistic partner, Steve Billig, was murdered in a local forest preserve. Steve Billig had lived something of a double life. His widow found TV news cameras — cameras that had never bothered to film the artistic work she cared so desperately about — gathered on her front doorstep, in love with the salacious story.
"It was a terrible time," she told me in 1997. "I used terrible language so they could not broadcast what I said."
But she rebounded with a 1997-98 season that was, she said, "about commitment and faith." She said it just happened that way without her thinking about it. By the end of that decade, she'd moved her theater, her proudly Equity-affiliated theater, into a former strip mall, mostly by sheer force of will.
"I didn't need $20 million like Shakespeare Rep, God bless them," Billig told me in 1999. "But we got a nice $175,000 grant from the state of Illinois, and we raised the rest of the $250,000 ourselves." No grant money ever was better spent.
Her audience, which was made up mostly of retired teachers, was delighted to be aboveground. These were her halcyon days. I saw some good shows at Illinois Theatre Center over the years — "Shadowlands" with David Perkovich, a fun revue called "Living the Dream: America in the 1950s," a memorable "All My Sons" in 2000, complete with Marilynn Bogetich, a "Bubbe Meises" production starring Billig herself.
For years, I saw every show at the Illinois Theater Center. Of late, I hadn't gone as much to Park Forest — too many theaters, too little time. And the struggles of keeping up a small theater in a suburban strip mall had begun to show, especially as the economy went south. If I'm being honest, I feared that I would drive out there, have to report honestly on the show and then end up hurting far more than helping. When I heard about Billig's death, I realized I hadn't been to her theater since 2008, which I know made Billig mad, not because she gave a damn about what I had to say but because she thought her actors wanted to be reviewed in the Tribune.
As I was talking to Jonathan Billig last week, I felt some strong pangs of guilt, even though I suspected that Etel Billig would have liked that. Partway through our conversation, I realized that Jonathan, who had just lost his mother, was actually apologizing to me for the likely slight delay in the opening night for "Showtune," a revue of the songs of Jerry Herman. He had, he said, a funeral to organize.
That production, part of Season 35 at the Illinois Theater Center, is still scheduled to go ahead in Park Forest, beginning next weekend. Especially if you live in that area, there would be no better way to honor one of the women who make our city's theater so remarkable than by buying a ticket. Jonathan Billig is clearly determined that the show will go on. I suspect that is part of how he is dealing with his loss. His mother would, most certainly, approve and understand.
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