By Arthur Hinty, Special to   Published Apr 08, 2010 at 3:05 PM

First, I need to get you to understand this: I've always disliked Chicago. I was going to say "hated," but to earn my hatred you have to actively do something to harm me or mine.

Chicago never did that. Why would it? It had no need to recognize that I even existed, much less grew up, attended college, built a career a couple hours to the north. Up here in -- scoff -- Wisconsin. Ya-hey-der.

No, I couldn't hate Chicago. But I certainly could work up a strong case of dislike for an entity, just because of what it is. And like many of my fellow Wisconsinites, I disliked Chicago. The place is so big, so successful, so intimidating, so busy, so rich, so cool, so aloof. To the moneybags from Chicago, Wisconsin is nothing but a playground; a woodsy, quaint place the Land of Lincoln license plates roll over (far too fast, by the way) to spend money in our Wisconsin Dells and Door County tourist traps.

Chicago's sports teams were always a little better than Wisconsin's. Its radio stations -- at least the AM ones we could receive -- were light years ahead in quality. Their highways actually cost money to drive on and were often packed like parking lots and scary to negotiate. The talented people it sent to Hollywood and Washington were always prettier, sharper, funnier, far more abundant. Its middle-class people lived in homes my neighbors would call mansions.

God damn Chicago. Those Flatlanders. Those Fu*@#%& Illinois Bastards.

With few exceptions, that opinion served me well all the way through college. Why? Because Wisconsin had a drinking age of 18 back then -- Illinois' was 21 -- and UW-Whitewater sits only 60 miles from the seemingly never-ending northwest Chicago ‘burbs. As a result, thousands of F.I.B. punk kids -- suburban brats, mostly -- conned their parents into shelling out my school's expensive out-of-state tuition. The kids told Mom and Pop about the school's nationally renowned accounting, marketing and finance programs. But as soon as their parents dropped them off, those kids headed straight to the bar, pouring ass-hat juice past their upturned collars and down their throats. And that, folks, was why they wanted to come to my college.

Time mellows most opinions, though, and I eventually befriended some of those suburban Chicago kids. Then a few more, and more after that. My dislike for them softened considerably. I still dreaded visiting Chicago -- but, as I began to notice, so did my friends who lived in the different world that was the northwest suburbs. They never ventured into the city unless there was a ballgame or a concert, bitching about the $12 drinks and the (well, a few of them used the N-word) and the Polacks (of which I am one).

Many of my Chicago college friends moved away after graduating, and I didn't have to even think about visiting the place for the longest time. "I've avoided that bleeping tollway for five years," I thought to myself on that day in 2005 (I'm guessing) when my friend, the comedian Doug Stanhope, told me he was booked into a place called the Lakeshore Theater. It straddled the Boys Town/Lakeside neighborhoods, Belmont and Broadway, a wicked piss from Lake Michigan.

I went there and fell in love with the place instantly. Not necessarily the whole city -- that took longer -- but definitely the place.

They had just repurposed the place from music to comedy. Their advertising was edgy -- one slogan was "Dane Cook Sucks And You Know It" -- and they were booking people like Doug, Reggie Watts, Andy Andrist, Doug Benson, Maria Bamford... well before those people caught whatever fire they've since caught.

There has never been a place like this in the comedy-free zone called Milwaukee. The people here don't "get" good comedy, because it simply isn't offered to them. The four clubs in Milwaukee (when they're all operating) book whatever touring C-listers they can afford (unless, of course, King Kong Bundy or Rowdy Roddy Piper wants a booking) because their vision doesn't venture past their bottom line.

Around here, the last thing anyone wants to do is push an envelope; they have rules for what words you can say and what topics you can broach. That's not comedy, that's commerce. Of course, you can't really fault the local clubs; they're in business to make money, not history. But still... It's a wonder one of the places isn't named Chuckle E. Cheese.

Not at the Lakeshore. Art happened at the Lakeshore, and that was completely because of the guy who ran the place, a heart-on-his-sleeve, brilliant train wreck by the name of Chris Ritter. Chris and his lovely wife, Jessica, had operated other theater spaces in the city, and were brought on by Paul Provenza (editor of the movie "The Aristocrats" and star of the TV show "Northern Exposure") and his partners as a part owner/manager.

Ritter was hired because he valued quality above all else. And it had to be HIS definition of quality -- brutally honest, heartfelt, witty, sometimes spiteful but always hopeful. Never did he tell a comic what words to avoid or what topics to skip over. When it succeeded, it soared. When it failed, the crash was spectacular. Ritter's taste is rare. I know because it matches up almost perfectly with my own.

Like me, Stanhope is his all-time favorite. Like me, he believed artists such as Glenn Wool, Andy Andrist, Sean Rouse, Neil Hamburger, and there are many more, were geniuses no matter what crowds they drew. That was the public's fault, not the artists'. And some of the other talents he has brought to my attention -- Jamie Kilstein, Reggie Watts, Brendon Burns, Jim Jefferies, Rick Shapiro, Jerry Rocha -- have enriched my comedy life as well as my personal life.

He also had time for schlubs like myself. He booked a show with "The Unbookables" -- me working with Andrist, Matt Kirshen and Brett Erickson, with a guest set (wow!) by Reggie Watts. Another time, when Provenza was in town and a sparse crowd showed for a booking by someone or other, seven of us took the stage and played tag-team, telling stories until one bombed, at which point we relinquished the mic. Fun? None better.

Suddenly, this kid with the inferiority complex from Wisconsin had fallen completely in love with Chicago, Chicagoans, the whole package. They began to share some of the insiders' tricks. Instead of paying $40 for parking, I figured out how to park at a cheap or free meter and walk or cab my way around, like the locals. They told me to last-minute Priceline a downtown hotel on the weekend; that's how I wound up in the fancy Holiday Inn above the Sun-Times building for $35. I got to know and patronize most of the businesses up and down Broadway and up and down Belmont. And someone introduced me to a Wisconsin-themed bar called the Northwoods, which was packed to the gills and fully Green and Gold for a Packers-Bears game.

The Ritters took a liking to me and often threw me on stage when I visited. I got to walk in for free and then got stage time, to boot! They treated me like family, letting me visit backstage and meet people I never thought I'd get to know -- including the Aqua Teen Hunger Force guys, the guys from the Broken Lizard movies, Jerry Rocha, and all the others. Even bigger names came through at times I couldn't attend. Once, Robin Williams dropped in because he had heard so much about the place; he wound up doing 20 minutes just for fun.

Sometimes, the plane would crash. I remember one Stanhope/Andrist/Brendon Walsh show... They had just passed a no-smoking law in Chicago, but there was apparently a loophole that allowed smoking as part of theatrical performances. Unwilling to taunt his fans by lighting up legally as he ranted, Stanhope set up six chairs on the side of the stage and allowed smokers to rotate in and out of the spots when they wanted to light up. The fire marshal soon pulled that loophole shut.

That same night, we were all drunk for the late show, and Doug decided to make it a marathon. Ritter had set us up with a big bucket full of ice and beer backstage, and somehow an altered Andrist found an American flag, pushed the bucket onto the stage during Stanhope's set, tried to light the flag on fire and then dunked it into the ice water. Stanhope one-upped that stunt without missing a beat, turning to urinate on the flag in the bucket. Andrist then dropped trou and plopped down in the urine-soaked ice bucket... and for the final 30 minutes of the 2½-hour Stanhope set, I was on stage mopping up the slop so Jessica Ritter's head wouldn't explode.

A few months later, I spent a half-hour after Neil Hamburger's set sweeping up the dropped and broken vodka-tonic glasses and mopping up the spilled booze.

I walked along the Lake Michigan shoreline with Glenn Wool as he got his head straight and headed back for the first of what were four knockout shows recorded for a brand new and astonishing Stand-Up! Records CD, "Let Your Hands Go."

And once, when I opened for Neil Hamburger at Schuba's in August, 2009 -- my first time touring with a fairly big name -- I walked the 12 blocks between the venues to say hello, and Ritter allowed me to go up and plug the show.

But all of that was more normal than not. Through the early days of the Ritters' run at the Lakeshore, things often got out of hand, on stage and off, personally and professionally. Chris will tell you as much, unashamedly and unapologetically. He was having such a blast with these comedy greats that he never wanted the party to stop. And so it didn't, getting bumped along by various artificial means until the business side of things started to shift from "it'll take care of itself" to "uh-oh."

Ritter cleaned himself up, completely, about a year and a half ago. And the results showed - he was bright-eyed and attentive to business, he came up with fresh ideas, and he started to pack the place and build a clientele of fans. The place was getting a name.

But the acts he loved weren't the type to draw an audience of deep-pocketed patrons of the arts. And, apparently, even though the place made enough last year to meet its costs, the debt incurred from the initial renovations was not being sufficiently served.

So many people fell in love with the Lakeshore. When the place needed air-conditioning work last year, Patton Oswalt did shows for no pay raising thousands to cover the costs. The staff turned over frequently -- mainly because they were unpaid interns expected to produce like full-time veterans -- but those who stayed did so because they loved the Ritters and they loved the Lakeshore.

Stanhope played the place the first weekend of March, 2010, and sold out three of four shows. Everything seemed perfect; it was the happiest this jobless schlub (me) had been in months. Jessica Ritter told me of a health scare (which she, of course, defeated soundly).

And Stanhope came up to me at the end of the run and said "they love you so much here... they (the Ritters) tell me that every time you show up, the place just lights up and even the people who don't know you can tell." My heart was touched. My heart was theirs. Of course, it had been for a long time.

Then came the first sign of trouble: A Facebook posting by Ritter soliciting an investor to buy a 25 percent share of the place for $250,000. You could buy in at $10,000 increments. If I had been working, I would have bought at least one of those shares.

However, I was apparently in the minority. A week later, Ritter cryptically posted: "Who would want to step up and run the Lakeshore if I were to uh ... disappear?"

I asked around some back channels to see if anyone knew what was up, and I heard a couple more under-the-radar things that concerned me.

And then, late in the day on April Fool's, came the announcement:

Christopher Ritter is sad to announce that after eight wonderful years, the Lakeshore will be closing on April 10. The Jim Jefferies weekend will be a two-day going away party. Please buy a ticket so I can pay some bills ...

Holy balls! It was all over! I arrived home, half-buzzed from a decent 10-minute guest set in Lake Geneva to see the news, and, yes, I started crying uncontrollably. I called around and most had already received the news. Everyone was in shock. Dan Schlissel, who had recorded many CDs there for his Stand-Up! Records label, called because he wanted to talk. But we didn't talk; we just sat there and sighed.

It truly was as if a friend had died. Many people felt the same way. I lifted the following comments off Facebook postings:

Corrie Besse: So much blood, sweat and tears went into that space. I wish and hope that as these doors close that new exciting ones await in your future!

Robert Buscemi: Sorry, Ritter. Damn it. I loved that damn place. Thanks for everything and best in whatever's next.

Junior Stopka: This was really the best and my favorite place to perform in Chicago. There definitely won't be another like it. Made me a better comedian. Sadness shots all around. Peace

Stacy Bresnahan: I am sorry... It is a great loss to this city, and as many have said there won't be another like it... that place will forever hold many memories and many laughs for me.

Drew Michael: Ritter, don't regret a thing. You changed comedy in Chicago for the better and had a bleeping blast while doing it.

Jonny Watson: The Lakeshore Theater was always like the girl that I knew one day would leave me...

Adam Burke: Made us grimy little upstarts feel like world-class swells; loved every minute I had there offstage and on.

James Fritz: You, sir, were my Mitzi Shore, only more feminine. I told myself I'd never let a building make me cry again after 9/11, but this is an exception. Thank you and your staff for getting it. Thank you for giving me my dream gig on my dream stage.

Drew Freudenberger: I will follow these bleepers into hell.

Cody Shaffer: God, this hurts my soul.

Me: I know you both poured heart and soul into the place, and you really did make something magical there. Don't ever let anyone tell you different. It was like heaven to me, it really was, maybe a little because of the place but mostly because of the people.

More comments - positive and negative - came after a blog post on the Chicago Tribune's Web site.

I'll be down there Saturday night when Jim Jefferies closes the place with two last shows -- sure to be sold out. I'll buy a ticket, but nobody needs to know. I'll still walk in like I own the place, grab some guacamole and chips from the backstage "spread," and laugh and cry and cry and laugh and cry and cry.

I won't be alone. Dozens of my newly minted friends -- many of whom are on the rise locally, thanks in large part to the Lakeshore's support of local comedy -- will be there, to be sure. The Ritters will be there to collect all the love they have earned through their blood and sweat, their tears and laughter.

And then it'll be all gone.

This was literally my favorite place in the world -- a place that taught me to love a city -- and it's going away forever. Even if someone else steps in to re-open the joint, it will never be the same. I will never be the same. Comedy will never be the same.

God damn Chicago.