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Stuart Gordon dies; director of exuberant, innovative movies and plays was inspired by his upbringing in Albany Park

The co-founder of the Organic Theater Company directed its world premiere of David Mamet’s “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” as well as “Warp,” “E/R” and “Bleacher Bums.”  

31st Deauville Film Festival - Photocall for “Edmond”
Stuart Gordon
Photo by Francois Durand/Getty Images

Stuart Gordon, who co-founded Chicago’s influential Organic Theater Company and later directed zestfully ghoulish movies that re-animated the horror genre, was influenced and inspired by his upbringing in Albany Park.

Mr. Gordon’s death, at 72, was reported Tuesday by Variety.

Before he became an acclaimed Hollywood writer, director and producer working on cult films like “Re-Animator” and family movies like “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,’’ before he was in the vanguard of Chicago’s dynamic theater scene, working on “Bleacher Bums” and “Warp,” he was part of an energetic youth group at Temple Beth Israel, then in Albany Park, along with a good friend, folk singer Steve Goodman.

31st Deauville Film Festival - Photocall for “Edmond”
Stuart Gordon at the Deuaville Festival of American Film in 2005.
Photo by Francois Durand/Getty Images

“It was a totally golden group, a wonderful, creative set of people,” said business consultant Neesa Sweet, who in the mid-1960s was also in the group at the large reform temple, which drew kids from Von Steuben, Mather and young Stuart’s alma mater, Lane Tech High School.

He lived on Keystone Avenue within blocks of Temple Beth Israel, where he created many plays, parodies and songs. At 14 or 15, “he made a complete sort of burlesque of ‘Oedipus Rex,’ ” said Gary Mechanic, a friend since childhood.

After college at the University of Wisconsin, he returned to Chicago and generated feverishly inventive shows at the Organic Theater Company — co-founded with his wife Carolyn Purdy-Gordon — where he was a director and creative director.

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Actor Joe Mantegna
Photo by Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images for Media Access Awards

Actor and friend Joe Mantegna said Mr. Gordon had a profound influence on his life and career. “The reason I made the ‘major leagues’ is because I played on a great farm team, the Organic,” Mantegna said Wednesday.

“I always felt like he was our Steven Spielberg, in a way. He was the guy with imagination. [I mean], when I think of ‘Warp,’ ” Mantegna said, referring to a sonically swashbuckling 1971 Organic play co-written and directed by Gordon. It was billed as the “world’s first science-fiction epic-adventure play in serial form.” Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert said it “anticipated ‘Star Wars.’ ”

In a rave review of “Warp,’’ Sun-Times critic Glenna Syse wrote “if you have ever fantasized about tilting the Earth a bit off its axis, if you ever read Marvel Comics, if you have ever daydreamed about being a superhero, I suspect you will join the cheering section.”

Before Lane, Stuart attended Volta grade school with Goodman and Mechanic, who said they were among “the weirdos in our grammar school.”

William Norris (left) and Tom Towles in “Warp.” | Sun-Times files
William Norris (left) and Tom Towles in “Warp.”
Sun-Times files

With another friend or two, they built rockets and filmed home movies inspired by the slapstick of Buster Keaton. They also made prank phone calls in which they pretended to be quiz show hosts.

At Lane, young Stuart and Mechanic collaborated with another friend who would become a longtime writing partner, Dennis Paoli. They formed a satirical comedy group, “The Human Race,” Mechanic said, playing discotheques and coffeehouses. They auditioned for the Playboy Club, but were told “we were a great act, but we just weren’t blue enough.”

During his time at the University of Wisconsin, film classes were overbooked, so he started studying theater. In Madison he met actress Carolyn Purdy. She told the Chicago Daily News she was a “Susie Sorority” who became smitten when she first saw her future husband, who resembled a “Chicago hood.”

“He had on boots and a leather jacket and that’s all I needed,” she recalled.

In Madison he started the Screw theater, which created an uproar in 1968 with its production of “Peter Pan.” In it, “Peter became the leader of hippies, Captain Hook became Mayor Daley, and the pirates became the Chicago police, all going on an acid trip in a Neverland populated by naked females,” according to the book “Blood on the Stage, 1975-2000: Milestone Plays of Crime, Mystery and Detection.” He also established another theater troupe in Madison: Broom Street, now one of the oldest in the Midwest.

Meshach Taylor (from left) Joseph Martinez, Joe Mantegna and Dennis Franz starred in a 1976 Organic Theater Company production of Ray Bradbury’s “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” at Victory Gardens Theater.
Daniel Rest

Next, Mr. Gordon and his wife founded the Organic Theater Company, which posted on its website that “his imagination, audacity and insight will be sorely missed.”

He directed its world premiere of David Mamet’s “Sexual Perversity in Chicago,” which became the movie “About Last Night.” He also mounted Ray Bradbury’s “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” (and later directed a film version), “E/R” (inspiration for a short-lived CBS series starring Elliott Gould) and a play Mr. Gordon said was about a “new organized religion”: baseball. It was called “Bleacher Bums.”

Mantegna recalled how “Bleacher Bums” came about. “Stuart asked if anybody had ideas,” he said. “I raised my hand and said, ‘I sit in this section of the [Wrigley Field] bleachers. I think there’s a play there.’ ’’ It became a local hit and touring favorite and was filmed for broadcast on PBS.

Mr. Gordon’s movie “Re-Animator” was a hot ticket at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival. Ebert, who called it “this year’s best gory sleazefest,” said it had audiences “screaming, stomping their feet and making taxi-whistles of enthusiasm.”

To keep the budget low, Mr. Gordon once told pastemagazine.com, he kept filming without cleaning up the fake blood. “The main thing I remember about shooting ‘Re-Animator’ is that my shoes stuck to the floor the whole time,” he said.

A Time Out synopsis of his 1996 film “Space Truckers” gives a whiff of his sex-and-blood-soaked oevre: “Stuck in a dead-end job trucking square pigs across the galaxy for Interpork, John Canyon (Dennis Hopper) is happy enough to agree to ferry a one-off cargo of ‘sex dolls’ to Earth. … But Canyon doesn’t realise that he’ll actually be ferrying a cargo of new-fangled killer Bio-Mechanical Warriors to kick-start corporate head EJ Saggs’ plans for universal conquest.”

Mantegna recalled a special evening with Mr. Gordon, when he arranged for him to see one of his favorite bands — originally known as the Mothers of Invention — at the Auditorium Theatre in the early 1970s. Mantegna was appearing at the Studebaker Theater in “Godspell” and the two venues shared an alley and friendly stagehands.

“I’ll never forget taking him backstage and introducing him to the stagehands,” he said. “He saw the whole show from the wings. Frank Zappa walked by and nodded. He always talked about that. I’m pretty sure Frank Zappa gave him a guitar pick.”

Mechanic recalled another golden evening in Chicago when Mr. Gordon and Ray Bradbury were at the Fine Arts movie theater taking questions at a screening of his 1998 movie “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit.”

In addition to his wife, Mantegna said Mr. Gordon is survived by his daughters Jillian, Margaret and Suzanna; brother David, and four grandchildren.

Even while immersed in the influences of Poe and Lovecraft, Mr. Gordon kept his trademark sense of humor. He used to laugh when he recounted shooting “Dolls” in Italy. A carpenter’s hammering was disturbing the set, he told EW.com. “I said, ‘Please stop that.’ And he said, ‘Senor Fellini always lets me work when they’re shooting.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m not Fellini.’ And he said, ‘That’s for sure!’ ”