Jamie Swise looks like he’s made out of clay. A crown of silver hair wraps around his ruddy scalp. And as he enters an Old Town bar with his hog helmet in hand, shirt tucked into his jeans, he looks like your uncle who fixes things.
If you’re in the business of weatherizing houses, you might know him; by day Swise manages a business (when he became a father at 43, this folkie had to start making some real bread). Or if you’re a savant of board-game history, you know him for jump-starting the home murder-mystery party craze. If you were in the Old Town folk music scene in the 1970s, it’s entirely possible that you were drunk with him, John Prine and Shel Silverstein in the back of a bar called the Earl of Old Town.
But if you’re like us, he’s poured you more than a few pints from behind the bar at the I.O. Theater. No matter how long you’ve been a patron, Jamie has been there longer: When Del Close opened the venue on Clark in 1995, he brought his best friend Swise—18 years his junior—along with him.
“I was his teenage sidekick,” he says metaphorically. “He didn’t have any peers. All his peers were gone by then.”
Earlier this month, Swise, now 56, hung up his apron. He claims he’ll still fill in occasionally, but he sums up his departure with a brisk, don’t-ask finality: “It was time.” As a recent tribute to Swise’s unofficial status as gatekeeper, he was invited to sit in as the guest monologuist for June 4’s Armando. You want to be careful not to call him a legend; you sense that would piss him off. But you also don’t want to be disrespectful in his presence; even as leathery as he might appear, you can also tell he expects you to have some manners.
A native of Galesburg, Illinois, the guitar-slinging son of schoolteachers came to Chicago in 1974 to break off a piece of the folk music scene, which it turns out was on the verge of extinction. After knocking around Old Town for a year or so, it was inevitable that he would run into Close, the unkempt father of Chicago improv. What was less likely is that the two hit it off.
According to Jeff Griggs, Close’s de facto caretaker in his final days (and author of a book about the experience, Guru), their friendship was almost too discreet to be detected. “One night Del mentioned that he and Jamie had been friends for years, which was shocking to me because I never saw them talk,” Griggs recalls. “And Del said, ‘Yeah, I think we just ran out of things to say to each other.’”
If Close confided in Swise, it was probably because he saw in him an intellectual peer. The board game Swise created and self-distributed in 1982, Who Killed Roger Ellington, was named by Omni magazine as one of the most influential board games of the last two centuries. Legal complications allowed larger game manufacturers to screw him, but if you check the record books, it’s Swise who’s credited with the phenomenon.
When not inventing iconic parlor games, Swise was tracking the evolution of the city’s improv scene. He remembers, for example, working with Close in the ’70s, “when there weren’t any real improv teams. Just stand-ups.” He pauses. “And no matter what, we all got paid a little.” He cocks his eyebrow pointedly with this sentiment, implying a certain attitude about the current business model of charging improvisers money for classes before they ever get stage time. And as far as the improviser saturation that results from pay-to-play institutions, he only slyly comments: “If anyone can improvise, what’s the point?”
Yet his mouth remains mostly shut-—a habit from his early years. A childhood stutter stays with him to this day, but he credits it with his early-developed sense of humor. And in fact when we mention to him that we know some mutual friends at I.O., the impediment disappears entirely. “You mean you know those jackoffs?”
But these quips are affectionate—he still loves young improvisers and musicians—and even protective. Though you know he must have dirt on everybody, Swise seems to be the anti-starfucker. He’s quick to tell you, for example, what a great person Amy Poehler is, then mentions offhandedly that he’s never seen her show.
See, like any hard-working Chicago comic, Swise works Saturday nights.