FOLLOW THE FEAR
SECOND CITY LEGEND DEL CLOSE (A.K.A. AZRAD THE INCOMBUSTIBLE, THE OPTICAL PERCUSSIONIST, THE HOUSE METAPHYSICIAN) TRANSFORMED IMPROV COMEDY—AND HIS OWN LIFE—INTO AN ART FORM BASED ON TRUTHFUL LIES.
“Fiction is a bridge to the truth that journalism can’t reach.”
—Hunter S. Thompson
I met Second City comedy legend Del Close only once before he died. Close, with his white wizard’s beard and menacing baritone growl, held court at his usual table near the back of Chicago’s Old Towne Ale House. As he was famous for doing, Close entertained the grizzled regulars and his own tagalong admirers with outrageous stories from his past. Tonight he was “reminiscing” about his experiences in a traveling midnight spook show called “Dr. Dracula’s Den of Living Nightmares,” which he joined during the early ’50s while still in high school. His duties, he said, involved running through the pitch-black theater and tossing handfuls of cooked spaghetti onto the unsuspecting audience while calling out, “A plague of worms shall descend upon you!” Several audience members fainted, and at least one, he told us with maniacal glee, “shat himself.”
Then he described the spook show’s brief stay in Wichita, Kansas. It was in Wichita, he said, that he visited the Dianetics Institute for a personal auditing session with founder L. Ron Hubbard, who at the time was still known primarily as a science-fiction author. Close was a fan of Hubbard’s novels, and the two men formed a fast friendship.
At some point during their meeting, Hubbard admitted to Close that he wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep his Dianetics operation afloat, as he was barely able to afford the property taxes.
“Well,” Close purportedly told him, “if you’re worried about taxes, you should just turn Scientology into a religion.”
The small crowd burst into laughter, though most of them had heard this particular anecdote dozens of times before. Later I grilled Close for more details. Surely his anecdote was an exaggeration at best, a tall tale at worst, but in either case not meant to be taken literally. He stroked his beard and smiled at me, amused by my interrogation.
“Just because it didn’t happen,” he finally said, casually lighting up yet another cigarette, “doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”
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