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updated: 7/20/2014 1:35 PM

Staffers remember Poplar Creek Music Theatre summers 20 years after closure

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  • The staff poses on the lawn at the old Poplar Creek Music Theatre in Hoffman Estates.

      The staff poses on the lawn at the old Poplar Creek Music Theatre in Hoffman Estates.
    courtesy of Debi Gordon

  • A ticket stub from the old Poplar Creek Music Theatre in Hoffman Estates.

      A ticket stub from the old Poplar Creek Music Theatre in Hoffman Estates.
    courtesy of Poplar Creek Music Theatre's Facebook page

  • In this undated photo, a bulldozer tears down Poplar Creek Music Theatre in Hoffman Estates. The venue housed some of music and comedy's biggest acts between 1980 and 1994, when it closed.

      In this undated photo, a bulldozer tears down Poplar Creek Music Theatre in Hoffman Estates. The venue housed some of music and comedy's biggest acts between 1980 and 1994, when it closed.
    courtesy of Poplar Creek Music Theatre's Facebook page

  • A sign, and notice of the $3 parking fee, welcomes people to the old Poplar Creek Music Theatre in Hoffman Estates.

      A sign, and notice of the $3 parking fee, welcomes people to the old Poplar Creek Music Theatre in Hoffman Estates.
    courtesy of Poplar Creek Music Theatre Facebook page

  • Lynn Murrin Cannon and Michael Lemke work in the group sales office at the former Poplar Creek Music Theatre in Hoffman Estates.

      Lynn Murrin Cannon and Michael Lemke work in the group sales office at the former Poplar Creek Music Theatre in Hoffman Estates.
    courtesy of Lynn Cannon

  • The stage crew prepares to put up some speakers at the old Poplar Creek Music Theatre in Hoffman Estates.

      The stage crew prepares to put up some speakers at the old Poplar Creek Music Theatre in Hoffman Estates.
    courtesy of Debi Gordon

  • Stage hand Irv "Mugsy" Schapiro sits in the prop room at the Poplar Creek Music Theatre in Hoffman Estates.

      Stage hand Irv "Mugsy" Schapiro sits in the prop room at the Poplar Creek Music Theatre in Hoffman Estates.
    courtesy of Debi Gordon

  • Derek Rauchenberger works in the box office at the Poplar Creek Music Theatre in Hoffman Estates.

      Derek Rauchenberger works in the box office at the Poplar Creek Music Theatre in Hoffman Estates.
    courtesy of Lynn Cannon

  • DAILY HERALD FILE PHOTOThe Poplar Creek Music Theatre in Hoffman Estates offered shows from 1980 until 1994. This Sept. 13, 1990, image shows the complex.

      DAILY HERALD FILE PHOTOThe Poplar Creek Music Theatre in Hoffman Estates offered shows from 1980 until 1994. This Sept. 13, 1990, image shows the complex.

  • Video: Poplar Creek slideshow tribute

  • Video: Stevie Nicks, Poplar Creek '94

  • Video: Grateful Dead, 1983 audio

 
 

Frank Sinatra's orchestra accidentally left its sheet music in the hotel.

So when Ol' Blue Eyes took the stage in 1990 at the Poplar Creek Music Theatre in Hoffman Estates, the music was arriving page by page, via fax, in the theater office. As each song arrived, a staff member ran the papers to the stage and the show continued smoothly.

Another night, before a show, musician Dave Mason got mad that he couldn't practice during the union-mandated dinner break and threw water at theater manager Debi Gordon. The staff retaliated by making sure his tour bus got stuck in post-show traffic.

Other stars who played Poplar Creek, including Neil Diamond and Phil Collins, used to join the theater staff in their 16-inch softball games in Busse Woods.

"Neil Diamond is actually a good softball player," said former Poplar Creek employee Lynn Cannon, 50, of Palatine. "I think (the musicians) thought it was cool because it was uniquely Chicago."

Memories of working at the suburbs' beloved but long-closed outdoor venue -- where music's and comedy's biggest acts performed between 1980 and 1994 -- will be shared during the first Poplar Creek Music Theatre employee reunion next weekend.

The "20 Years A.D." staff picnic is planned from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday, July 26, at the Carl Hansen Forest Preserve at Route 59 and Golf Road in Hoffman Estates. All former employees are invited.

Thousands of young people from the suburbs worked at the concert venue, many in part-time jobs during high school and college. They formed a special bond while spending summer nights picking up garbage on the lawn, directing cars into the parking lot, tearing tickets or ushering people to the 7,000 pavilion seats.

"It was like summer camp. It was a really good time. You were in your early 20s, you were learning a lot and making lots of mistakes," said Sue Syslo-Baran of Streamwood, who worked for five years as a parking lot attendant and usher squad leader.

As they worked, the employees saw (or, at least, heard) performances by everyone from Liza Minnelli to Metallica.

"There was just something special about the place. It touched a lot of people's lives," said Syslo-Baran, who laughed remembering how she used to hand-count tickets and once got a severe sunburn from working in the parking lot all day (they weren't allowed to wear hats).

Many employees romanticize the experience of seeing a show at Poplar Creek, which they say is different from what music fans experience today at outdoor venues like Ravinia or the upcoming Lollapalooza.

Besides the pavilion, Poplar Creek had 18,000 lawn seats with views of the stage. For about $10, you could sit on a blanket and see the biggest acts in the business perform -- A-listers like Genesis, Jimmy Buffett, Janet Jackson, Tina Turner or Bob Dylan. A year-by-year listing shows acts running the gamut from The Moody Blues and Donna Summer in the early years to Spyro Gyra on Sept. 2, 1994.

The lawn scene was casual -- and, at times, muddy -- with the smell of marijuana often in the air.

"It wasn't just the (cheap) ticket price. ... The atmosphere at the theater was relaxed and laid back. It was about being outdoors and the fun of it all," Cannon said. "It was a great place to work."

Irv "Mugsy" Schapiro, a stage hand and prop master who worked at Poplar Creek for its entire existence, looks back on those years as some of the best times of his life.

"It was just a blessing for me," said Schapiro, 70, a former Carpentersville resident who now lives in Wisconsin. "I loved the work, I loved the music. It was close to home, and the people were nice. They were just good people. What more could you ask for?"

While loading and unloading four or five semitrailer trucks' worth of equipment for each show -- sometimes for as many as 20 shows a month -- Schapiro remembers once having to make a third leg for Joe Cocker's piano. The leg had been left behind by Cocker's road crew at his last tour site. So Schapiro improvised, using wood from his backyard deck project.

"You couldn't even tell it was homemade," he said, laughing.

For many employees, the yearly Jimmy Buffett shows bring back a lot of memories. Bad ones.

Former staff members said it inevitably rained before the Buffett shows, turning the lawn into a mud pit. Plus, the crowd arrived heavily intoxicated, having tailgated in the parking lot for hours before the show.

"Jimmy Buffett concerts were always the worst," Cannon said. "I'm sure there were thousands and thousands of people, who, that's their favorite concert experience. It was my worst."

Many staffers also dreaded the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia Band shows, because fans would camp in the parking lot the night before and then wash themselves and their clothes in the bathrooms, making a huge mess.

The era came to an end in 1994. Poplar Creek's parent company, Nederlander Organization, sold the property to Sears Roebuck and Co. and the theater was bulldozed in 1995. A Marriott hotel now sits on the old site and the Sears Centre was built down the road in 2006.

Much of Poplar Creek's equipment, including the old pavilion seating, was put in storage near Alpine Valley, Wisconsin, said former manager Gordon, of Highland Park. But she was unsure of the items' fate.

After Poplar Creek closed, there never was any type of goodbye party, but many of the former employees kept in touch. When the idea of a large-scale reunion was floated around, they decided to do it.

Gordon joked that hosting a few hundred people in a forest preserve will be nothing compared to managing a crowd of 25,000 like she used to do at Poplar Creek.

At the reunion, they'll be playing songs from bands that performed at Poplar Creek. Even though 20 years have passed since the employees worked together, many said they are excited to reconnect and reminisce.

"I miss everybody, and I think about them all the time. It'll be good to see them," Schapiro said. "There was just something about that place. It was a special time."

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