The Secret Circus variety show was a marvel of styles, a vaudeville of comedy, music, magic, silent comedy sketches, and dreamland stories. From the zany exploits of Nutman! Insane Superhero to the impossible magic of Justin and Nickoff Thyme, the Secret Circus created an improbable and ridiculous world. Those that happened upon a Secret Circus show often exclaimed, “What Tha?” This website is dedicated to the history of the Secret Circus and its creators, Ken Raabe & John Szostek.
John Szostek and Ken Raabe met in 1967 at Valparaiso University in Indiana. Two years later, they were together on an overseas theatre program with twelve other students. Their first collaboration was a modern Commedia dell’ arte play, The Divine Fool, featuring the great English mime, Geoffrey Buckley.
The impulse for the kind of theatre the Secret Circus would become began during this program in Coventry, England. They frequented a Workingman’s Public House known as the Heath Hotel. Around the back was a more modern club, The Rainbow Lounge, replete with Day-Glo decorations, candlelight, and a small stage. The set’s backdrop was a Day-Glo rendering of the skyline of Chicago with the name Sid’s Place above it, also in Day-Glo. One night the proprietor announced that the stage would be open for anyone to get up and perform. He added that his license only allowed for two people to be on stage at one time. There was wing space on either side. To be concealed, one did have to press themselves into the wall, however. Well, our assembled crew of Bill Glanting, Roger Purdy, Karl Raack, Ken, and I quickly threw together some short sketches, including Karl’s Dying Mackerel routine. Afterward, the owner offered us regular employment for beer and ale, that is. This experience began a lifelong fascination with an old style of performance, the Concert Saloon.
Geoffrey Buckley had been a guest artist at Valparaiso U. the year before the Coventry program. He introduced the theatre department students to Commedia dell’Arte and the use of the mask in actor training. He had been one of the first students of Jacques LeCoq.
John’s attraction to Commedia dell’Arte increased when Geoff asked him to join Geoffrey Buckley’s Commedia dell’Arte Gelosi Troupe in Stratford-upon-Avon. John began to envision a theatre that embodied the vitality and spirit of the Commedia dell’Arte, a theatre of comic prototypes, masks, and physical comedy.
Later in 1970, back in Chicago, along with collaborator Ken Raabe, this vision manifested as The Solar Mime Company, the first theatre group to perform in music clubs like The Bulls, John Barleycorn, Kingston Mines, and Otto’s Beer House & Garden Club. Then under the direction of the English master of movement and mask theatre, Geoffrey Buckley, they formed Geoffrey Buckley’s Commedia dell’ Arte Mime Troupe, which performed for two summer seasons in Chicago. Twice, NBC featured complete scenarios for broadcast on Whys and Other Whys. The influential dancer and teacher, Anne Rudolph, saw one of the Gelosi live performances and encouraged a theatre devoted to a high level of physical expression. To that end, John founded the Looking Glass Theatre, not confused with the current Looking Glass Theatre in Chicago. The Green Buddha Theatre followed that.
While John developed mask and movement theatre, Ken became a master puppeteer and continued his interest in music. He founded a company called Puppet Town.
John co-founded with Jacob Mills, The Last Chance Theatre, which evolved into the award-winning, national touring company, the Secret Circuz. The Secret Circuz specialized in Commedia dell’ Arte, European Clown, and mask theatre. They invited Ken, along with other actors, to join the company. In time, lives changed, and the company disbanded.
Ken and John decided to go back to the cabaret-style performances under the name, The Lump Bros. They intended a clown show based on the clown pair, the knave, and the butt. The root of the word clown is a clod or an undifferentiated lump. Hence, The Lump Brothers, Deasil & Widdershins. The Lump Bros. performed their cabaret show at Zanies, The Gingerman, Who’s on First, and The Comedy Womb. They performed their full-length comedy, Asleep and Places Like It, at The Chicago Comedy Showcase for a three-month run. The great Chicago theatre critic Tony Adler said of the show, “Go…For the Marvels!” – The Reader.
The Lump Bros. entertained at Fairs and Festivals like LincolnFest and Custer’s Last Stand. They were honored to open for Ramsey Lewis, The Eddie Boy Band, Aaron Freeman (of Council Wars fame), and Bonnie Koloc. They quickly attracted the attention of a TV producer, Gordon Holme. This interaction led to the award-winning Cablevision series, The Secret Circus with The Lump Bros., which ran for two seasons. The show also ran on the “One Show” in New York City. Several episodes are available for viewing on this website.
Meanwhile, Ken and John were part of the Emmy Award-winning WBBM TV series Beyond the Magic Door. Ken was a puppeteer, and John played Detective Dan Farblonget. John took over the role from Dan Castellaneta, who became the voice of Homer Simpson. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Magic_Door.
In 1999 John founded the Piccolo Theatre in Evanston, Illinois. Ken soon joined the company. See the Piccolo Theatre section of this website for the whole story.