After Aurora, can firearms be funny?
At one Chicago theater, guns are part of the show.
“Uh, are we really still gonna do this?” Norm Boucher remembers wondering nervously as showtime approached on the evening that followed the Aurora, Colorado, movie-theater massacre. As he has for nearly 20 years, Boucher slipped into a suit and a fedora to play a gun-toting Roaring Twenties gangster in the dinner-theater revue Tommy Gun’s Garage, which puts on five shows a week in the South Loop during the summer.
Boucher had reason to be anxious about his involvement in that night’s entertainment: The tourist-baiting Prohibition-era mobster musical comedy hasn’t changed its tune a single note since the carnage in Aurora. The night I attended, six days after James Holmes allegedly opened fire during the July 20 midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, few people in the audience seemed unnerved by all the show’s gunplay, however cartoonish. In fact, it may have been why they paid $60 per person to come.
As wiseguy doorman Gloves, Boucher asked audience members for “da secret passwoid” while clutching a replica Thompson submachine gun. During dinner, actors costumed as mobsters or flappers strutted around the “speakeasy,” serving up prime rib and “hooch.” The guys wove between the tables, twirling shiny revolvers on their fingers. In the middle of the meal, Boucher grabbed a mic to invite the crowd to pose for a souvenir photo with the cast and its guns. “Okay, who wants to see me shoot somebody?” he announced. “I’ll shoot you…with my camera for $8.” The line elicited chuckles.
Boucher rattled off the theater’s rules: no pictures (“You shoot us, we’ll shoot you”), no cell phones (“If I hear anything beep, buzz or ring, I’m gonna shoot it out of your hand”) and no smoking (“You light one up, I’ll fire one off”). More laughter.
When the lights went down, Boucher fired blanks from his Tommy gun into the darkness. Only then did some in the audience appear spooked. Later, a character named Officer Murphy fired shots into the air to announce his raid on the illegal club.
“People expect a certain amount of menace. At the same time, the show is geared to be funny and family-friendly. We’re not shooting people in the audience,” Boucher says. “We did have a group the other day—when the gun went off, they screamed much more than I’ve heard lately. I don’t know if that’s a direct effect of what happened in Aurora or if that was a particularly jumpy group.”
Carolyn Kent, who has played a flapper in the show for several years, says what struck her after Aurora was that initially few audience members in the theater considered the masked shooter a threat. “It made me think that if someone walked in [during the show] with a real gun and started firing that it would take people a while to figure out it wasn’t part of the shtick.”
But there wasn’t so much as a discussion about removing gun humor or gunfire from the show, says Chris Adams, the theater’s group-sales manager. “When something like Aurora hits the news, it doesn’t really affect us. It’s never been an issue. The guns go off, people jump, they laugh a little bit, then it’s over.” The only alteration made to the show due to current events was after 9/11; a line referring to Officer Murphy as a “drunk soldier” was deemed disrespectful to the troops and taken out.
“The only time the violence gets heightened is during Valentine’s Day weekend,” Boucher says. After the regular show, there’s a bloody reenactment of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, the 1929 Lincoln Park murder of seven associates of mobster George “Bugs” Moran. “People take photos: Look, here’s a picture of me with a dead body!” Boucher says. “I’ve always been a little leery of that.”
Adams falls back on the old theater cliché: The show must go on. “We’ve been doing this for 25 years. Prohibition only lasted 13,” she says. “We must be doing something right.”