Sunday, May 20, 2018

What Ben Hollis Loves Doing

Ben Hollis is Chicago TV royalty, as WGN's Justin Kaufmann would put it. If you lived in Chicago in the early 1990s, you may remember "Wild Chicago," the TV show he hosted on WTTW, that took viewers on a safari to funky, sometimes hidden places in the city. These day, in Ben's world, WILD means What I Love Doing.

Ben and I cross paths every so often, recently long enough to catch up.

K: Almost two and a half year’s ago you had “elective brain surgery” for something called AVM. Last year you talked to Justin Kaufmann on The Download about it. You talked about “wild peace”. Tell me more about that.

Ben: I believe I may have been the happiest brain surgery patient of all time. I even brought my pith helmet from Wlld Chicago days and wore it as they rolled me into the OR. I was shooting a selfie video, saying this was the wildest adventure I’ve ever been on, and if I didn’t make it through, well, this video would be the last thing I ever I did on camera and essential for the filmmaker who was sure to make a documentary about my life.

Why so “happy”? I just had complete faith that all was in Divine Order. I’m a spiritually connected person and I knew this was the best thing to do, to have this surgery. The doc said a “bleed” or leak or rupture of blood vessels in my head was imminent. He said because I didn’t have any terrible symptoms and wasn’t in any discomfort that it wasn’t imperative I get the surgery done immediately (December 2015), so he said, go ahead, enjoy the holidays and then let’s book something in January 2016. So I had time to just be with this, to let people know, to pray, to meditate and get peaceful. I had no desire to run away or fight or even wish things were different.

Truth be told, I also saw the surgery as an adventure, as something amazing that would give me important stories when it was over, that may even help someone else in the future, insofar as this being an opportunity to demonstrate a way of going through something potentially very scary without totally freaking out, to go through something challenging like this, with Grace. And that’s how it unfolded.

K: On May 26 you’re set to perform “Ben’s WILD Story”, which could also be called, or subtitled, “How The Beatles Nearly Ruined My Life and David Bowie Saved It” at the Skokie Theater.  What’s on your mind as the time to perform this piece comes near?

Ben: The usual fear around hoping it’s “good enough,” that I can do a good job, remember the lines, sing well, connect with the audience. 

But that’s only part of it. I’m also excited to be doing it again in this beautiful venue. And because I keep tweaking it, improving it – I hope! – I have a chance to do it better than ever. 

God gave me certain gifts and my “office” is on stage or on camera, or behind a camera or editing a video on my desktop. 

My life is not structured in such a way that has me going to a place every day for 8 hours to my job. My opportunity to excel, to show my stuff, is on that stage for 90 minutes each time I do it. So these opportunities don’t come around as often as they would were I going to the office every day. Of course I have many tasks related to the show that I do in my home office, marketing, writing, rewriting, rehearsing, and more. But what’s on my mind is having a beautiful new audience there on show night, and that I give them a wonderful, uplifting and fun experience. It’s a chance to bring the gifts I’ve been given into play.

K: This piece comes after 64 years of you experiencing your life. How long did it then take for you to get it down on paper…or, shall we say, extract it from your mind?

Ben: I’ve been aware of wanting to do a solo show since 1980. I’d moved out to LA that year, and I moved back to Chicago 4 and a half months later. What happened in those months I knew would make for some excellent stories. More than that, I just wanted to TELL someone about it. It seems all young performers from Chicago, and elsewhere, want to move to LA at one time or another. I wanted to report back, and a significant chunk of “Ben’s WILD Story” is about this time in my life.

K: Was the process of creating this piece different than other pieces you’ve created? If so, how so.

Ben: The process of doing this show was hugely different for me. For one, I’d never undertaken writing a full-length piece like this, with the intent to produce and perform it. I’d written plays before, but they never were produced and didn’t necessarily have me in them. I’d written songs before and performed them. I’d written comedy sketches and performed them, but they were short form.
This was different. 

I let myself be led. I’d gone to the “David Bowie Is” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in November 2015. I had a deeply emotional response to the show and came away from it with a certainty that I needed to give my musical talents a chance to express. I felt I heard David Bowie saying, “Don’t be afraid. Just be who you are and do it.” I’d never, up until then, realized how important Bowie’s very presence was in his early days in England, demonstrating to closeted people of all kinds that it was okay to be “weird”, okay to be yourself. Bowie dared do this in a culture where gays were maligned and beaten. Well, I was moved because I knew he was speaking to me too. Today, at age 61 (at that time), a straight man, but a man afraid to step into my own story, my own music, and dare to show it to the world.

On top of all that, I knew and remembered how much I was scared of Bowie when I was 15 or 16 or 17 and even later. He creeped me out. I was afraid of his gender bender stuff. So I just dismissed him. I couldn’t hear his message when I was a kid – even though it was exactly what might have helped me. But it finally reached me here.

So I took this experience to Jamie O’Reilly, a singer and music coach and manager, and I booked an hour with her to tell her about where I was and to see if she had any suggestions for how to proceed. I did not have an agenda other than to begin a process to allow my music to come forth.  She gave me some very cool assignments designed to unearth stories and attach deeper meaning to the songs I’d already written. Suddenly I saw there was a narrative emerging. Eureka! This could be a solo show of songs and stories! And away I went.
And the writing was slow and steady. I had a few more sessions with Jamie, and then elected to take the outline she’d help me build back to my place for fleshing out. Then the surgery!

I couldn’t do much of anything in rehab. Couldn’t concentrate. Was tired. Needed rest. But I wasn’t alarmed. I made videos of my progress and mused on how things were going. I got strength from sharing my story (my contemporary story of the surgery) and lots of loving feedback from my online community, and this enabled me to finish the script, around May or June of 2016, six months after the surgery, and then set up workshop readings of in, in my basement with tiny audiences present to give feedback. 

So it was all very “weighed and measured”. Slow and steady. It took discipline and faith. I was given both.

K: Someone else might have just written their memoir and published is via the press and left it at that, but not you. You’re publishing via the stage. Why perform it?

Ben: I’m a performer. I love being in front of people. And I’m good at it. I feel most alive when I’m singing and telling stories in front of living, breathing people. It’s direct. TV is great. And TV has a lot of hardware and stuff between the “performer” and the viewer. I really want to connect with people. And I want to be present to what’s going on in that moment. (As opposed to watching my TV work from the comfort of my own home weeks or months after the actual recording and editing of the work.)

K: This piece is autobiographical. It’s very humorous, but it also gets deep. How hard has it been for you to “go there”?

Ben: I’ve always liked “going deep”. And what I’m finding is that it’s not easy to go into these stories and actually feel them and express them in a way that is as honest as I’d like. In other words, because these stories are so familiar to me, they get easy to tell. Easy to tell does not yield the dramatic juice necessary to touch an audience. I aim to be as real, as genuine as I can. It’s funny that the last story of the show is the most recent: the story of meeting my wife Julia and becoming a family with her and her two girls. I wrote that story just for this show. And I wrote two new songs. The last one, “The Story,” was consistently bringing me to tears every time I did it in rehearsal and in workshopping. I’ve needed to learn to stay in the truth of the emotion without breaking down and crying. It’s a bit of a tight rope. People report to me it’s their favorite part of the show.

K: Your piece and performance is meant to entertain. What else do you hope we get out of it? Based on your conversation with Justin Kaufmann, scaring your audience is not a goal.

Ben: Oh no, I don’t want to scare anyone. Just as I discussed a minute ago, if I cry during the show, that’s not good. The audience starts to worry about me. They are no longer following the story. They want to be sure that as a performer I am “safe” and somehow “in control.” I used to love improv and my understanding of improv was that it gave me license to lose control, to go nuts on stage. I have come to realize that’s not really the best way for me to go.

What I want audiences to take from this is to reflect on their own lives. What is it in your life that you’ve been neglecting? Can you make a little room to give it some air, let it come out and play a bit? And if you’re edging into the final chapters of your earthbound story, can you dare to believe just a tiny bit that you CAN do things still that you’ve always wanted to do?

Claim the goodness in your life, in you. Be appreciative. I find it’s always there if I take the time to look. Even in brain surgery. 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

POTTY-MOUTHED: The Performance February 22

Radio veterans
Author Anne Johnsos
and Charlie Meyerson

Once upon a time, in the land of Chicago there lived a mom and dad and their two girlies. Their perspective of the world was like no other. This amused their parents, and their parents’ friends, so much so that the girlie’s mom published a book about the girlie's innocent ass-hattery: POTTY-MOUTHED: Big Thoughts from Small Brains.

Also in the land of Chicago, before the girlies were even born, lived another mom and dad with their three boychiks. They too saw the world like no other. This amused their parents so much so that journals were kept to contain their most humorous and profound utterances.

With permission from their kids, the girlies' mom, Anne Johnsos, and the boychiks' dad, Charlie Meyerson, will perform a reading of the often hysterical, sometimes sweet moments delivered by their kids recently and years ago.

You’re invited to the party.

POTTY-MOUTHED: The Performance

Thursday, February 22
6:30 p.m. cocktails and book buying
M Lounge
1520 S. Wabash

You might learn what "milkers" and "noo-noos" are and maybe how to say "hello" in German according to a 6-year-old.

“Free” event. Cash bar.
Consider eating before you come, because no food is sold at M Lounge.

POTTY-MOUTHED, the book, will be on sale for $20.

Hope to see you there. Cyberspace is only fun for so long.

Anne recently spoke to WGN's Rick Kogan about her family and the book. Hear it here.

She and I had some back and forth too. Read it here.

For more information, contact me, the evening's impresario at

Monday, October 2, 2017

Thursday: FREE Dental Care for Veterans at Skokie Public Library

This just in...

Aspen Dental’s MouthMobile, a 42-foot-long dental office on wheels, will stop in Skokie on Thursday, October 5 to provide free care to local veterans as part of its 30-stop cross-country tour.

Dentists and their teams from area Aspen Dental practices are volunteering their services at the event. Aspen Dental is working with Got Your 6 nationally to identify interested veterans and schedule their appointments.

The MouthMobile is part of Aspen Dental’s Healthy Mouth Movement. Through the program, dentists and their teams from Aspen Dental practices have provided free care to 17,000+ veterans over the past four years.

WHAT: Free dental care to dozens of local vets
Details: Vets must schedule appointment in advanceContact Stefani Alexander at 202-263-2588.

WHEN: 9 am -3 pm Thursday, October 5

Where: Skokie Public Library
5215 Oakton Street, Skokie, IL 60077

WHY: Nearly 150 million Americans - just over half the adult population in the U.S. - didn’t go to the dentist last year, and millions more live in communities where there is little or no access to care. This is an especially challenging issue for many veterans who do not receive dental benefits through the Veterans Administration unless they are 100 percent disabled, have a service-related mouth injury or were a prisoner of war.