Roberta Custer, ‘Bleacher Bums’ actress-writer who helped put Chicago theater scene on the map, dead at 71

SHARE Roberta Custer, ‘Bleacher Bums’ actress-writer who helped put Chicago theater scene on the map, dead at 71

Roberta Custer, center, as Melody in the original stage production of “Bleacher Bums.” Custer,is seen here with Michael Saad, left, as Greg, and Keith Szarabajka as the Cheerleader.| Sun-Times file photo

Actress-writer Roberta Custer created the role of the buxom sun worshiper in the original production of “Bleacher Bums” and helped produce dynamic off-Loop theater that rocketed Chicago stages to national recognition.

Ms. Custer, 71, died Monday in California while house-sitting for William Petersen, a friend from her Chicago stage days, said her son, Christopher. She had segued from acting to become his 20-year personal assistant, handling everything from organizing schedules and reading scripts for Petersen, star of CBS-TV’s long-running “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”

“She was a great actress, a great mother, a great friend to all her theater community folks,” said Christopher Custer. “She raised me single-handedly.”

“She had a keen intellect and incomparable tastes,” said Dennis Zacek, artistic director emeritus of Victory Gardens Theater. “She helped me out on many occasions.”

A native Chicagoan, Ms. Custer helped craft the 1977 Organic Theater Co. play “Bleacher Bums,” about the loud, possibly benighted fans in the Wrigley Field bleachers. The original cast included Ms. Custer as the eye-catching Melody King, Joe Mantegna and Dennis Franz. The production moved to New York in 1978 and was made into a TV movie in 1979. Organic remounted it in 1989. Mantegna conceived the idea, and he, Ms. Custer and all the other actors are credited with writing the show.

“I’ll always remember her as the beautiful blonde sunning herself in the bleachers of Wrigley Field,” said Mantegna. “She represented all the girls who used to go to Wrigley Field on Ladies Day.”

At Organic, she also directed “Heat,” a 1985 drama set in a firehouse that starred Dennis Farina, then better known as a Chicago Police officer.

Ms. Custer started out acting in the heady first wave of the off-Loop theater scene.

“She was in the Godzilla Rainbow Troupe, a real ragtag company with a director that went by the name ‘11,’ ’’ said Jim Rinnert, a friend and writing partner.

She appeared in Godzilla Rainbow’s show “Turds in Hell,” mounted at the rustic Kingston Mines Theater, which she helped found, said Albert Williams, a theater instructor at Columbia College Chicago.

“You walked through the bar, then you walked past that and go out a back door, and you were in a big old [streetcar] barn,” Rinnert said.

“I think the first time I ever saw her was in a play, “Sexual Perversity in Chicago,’ the very first [important] play by David Mamet,” in 1974, said Williams. “It was done by the Organic Theater at the Uptown Hull House theater. Mamet had gotten his start at Hull House theater, like her.”

“Sexual Perversity in Chicago” became the basis for two movies, the 2014 and 1986 versions of “About Last Night.”

Though she never appeared onstage at the Remains Theatre, she nurtured the company, which included Petersen, Gary Cole, Amy Morton, Ted Levine, D.W. Moffett and other respected actors.

“She was helping them with play selection,” Rinnert said. “She was kind of a den mother.”

“She was part of this whole off-Loop movement that flourished in the late ’60s and early ’70s along Lincoln Avenue around Fullerton — the Body Politic Theater, Kingston Mines theater, the Organic Theater,” said Williams. “She was part of the group that made Chicago a theater town, that first group of people that didn’t want to have to go to L.A. or New York. They wanted to make theater on their own terms. . . . They created the Chicago theater movement — and I’m talking about the first six years, ’68 to ’74 — and then continued to be active as Chicago theater expanded through the ’80s and ’90s.”


Roberta Custer, on the ground, in an early Kingston Mines Theater production, “Gargoyle Cartoons.'”

By the early 1980s, Rinnert said, young thespians were already viewing her with something approaching awe. He recalled visiting the Gaslight Tavern with her when two actors entered.

“They were sitting in the booth behind ours, and one of the actors said, ‘See that woman over there? That’s Roberta Custer. She’s the grandmother of off-Loop theater.’ ”

At the time, she was in her late 30s.

Rinnert and Ms. Custer also found some success selling some screenplays, though they weren’t produced.

Her stage persona was comparable to Christine Baranski, Williams said — “edgy, sort of acerbic, very smart, but also with a deep human empathy beneath that.”


The ensemble for 1977’s Organic Theater Co. production of “Bleacher Bums” included (back row, from left) Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, Dennis Franz, Roberta Custer, Michael Saad, Joe Mantegna, (front row, from left) Ian Williams, Richard Fire and Keith Szarabjka. | Sun-Times file photo

She stood out for “just her bold personality,” said sound designer Larry Hart. “She just would put it out there.”

Ms. Custer enjoyed visiting Tuscany, Venice and Florence, and remained friends with Mantegna and the late Meshach Taylor of “Designing Women” fame, whom she’d known since her Organic Theater days.

Memorials are being planned at a later date in Chicago and Los Angeles, her son said.


Roberta Custer in 1972. | Sun-Times file photo

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