Peanut Butter on Wry 

Or, how snacks and Werner Klemperer fortified one man's comic timing.

Cleveland Second City's Michael Bloom, shown here in "The Womb," his natural habitat, with his son, William.
  • Cleveland Second City's Michael Bloom, shown here in "The Womb," his natural habitat, with his son, William.
Every great civilization has its Leonardos and its Lennys. The Leonardos chart the course of planets, and the Lennys know the words to the theme from Hogan's Heroes.

"We are heroes, mighty men of war," belts out Michael Bloom, piano madman and the new producer of Cleveland's Second City comedy theater. "Sons of all the heroes, from the war before."

"I have the album, Hogan's Heroes Sing the Best of WWII," he shares. "Totally in bad taste."

A Lenny to the core, Bloom was a shoo-in for the local Second City honcho-ship, someone who could switch effortlessly from bar mitzvah music to hoedown-on-steroids music (i.e., think fast) and knew a little bit about a lot of things.

"He had no prison record, and he showed up for the interview," recalls Kelly Leonard, the Chicago Second City producer who hired Bloom. "Plus, he paid me off."

Bloom has been putting his improv abilities to good use since acquiring his myriad Cleveland duties, from selecting a director to deciding whether to have Bud or Bud Light on tap at the bar. And if his peanut-butter-on-Wonder-bread oeuvre is any indication, the attitude of the Cleveland theater will be smart, irreverent, and distinctly Middle American.

Born in Montreal, the 38-year-old with the endearing habit of spewing five ideas at once spent his formative years in Beachwood, sitting way too close to the TV. In the early 1980s, after years of playing the piano but not taking lessons, he was able to tear himself away from watching Hogan's Heroes long enough to pound the keys for Cleveland's Giant Portions improv group and write a doctoral dissertation on striptease. A stint as musical director for Second City Northwest in suburban Chicago followed, but came to an abrupt end when the theater was converted to an employee cafeteria for the Motorola Corporation.

Not inclined to dish out frozen peas while wearing a paper hat, he taught at Second City's improvisational school for businesspeople in Chicago for a while, then moved to L.A. to write film scripts with a friend named Ali Farahnakin. They were working on a "sci-fi action comedy mixing Midnight Run with Rain Man" when Farahnakin moved to New York to write for Saturday Night Live.

But before Bloom could sweat off his body weight sitting in L.A. traffic, Leonard called and offered him the Cleveland job. Struggling to raise a family in a strange city, he jumped.

"In L.A., everybody is from somewhere else," he says. "There's a history here. I had to take my mother to the radiologist yesterday. And I hadn't lived here in years, but I knew people sitting there."

Likewise, Bloom wants the theater's humor to be regional, and the performers from Cleveland -- with references to the Dawg Pound and a plate-hurling George Forbes, rather than Toronto's waders and antlers, or Detroit's send-up of touchy-feely local traffic signs. (Cleveland is actually the fourth Second City city.) Two of his director candidates, both Second City veterans, are former Clevelanders.

"It's not about importing Chicago here," Bloom says. "It's about what it means to be in Cleveland. We'll be developing our own brand of Second City. What that's gonna look like, I can't predict. I don't want to call it industrial comedy -- although we'll be Cuyahoga Comedy, this unique brand."

Choosing a cast will be no mean task, although improv classes have been in session since last summer, with enrollment climbing to 150 this semester. At a recent Improv for Actors class in the theater's Prospect Avenue school, students toiled to keep the momentum going on a wordplay game that eventually had them playing an imaginary xylophone inside an invisible sand castle.

"Put some more urgency in these things," advised instructor Margaret Exner, a Second City Detroit veteran with carrot-red hair and a rambunctious side to match. "We've got to start answering the question, "What makes today different from any other day?' Like "My father used to beat me when I didn't make sand castles. If I don't finish these sand castles, he's gonna beat the shit outta me.'"

"We're not gonna create 40 years overnight here," Bloom says, referring to the age of the original Second City. "But we do have the wealth of 40 years worth of material, techniques, and expertise. We're unbelievably lucky. We're not starting from scratch."

Chicago Second City had its humble roots in a classical theater, where social worker Viola Spolin, the mother of one of the actors, would come in and teach theater games she had devised for children.

"They would then apply them to Chekhov, as a way of technique," says Bloom, who's also been pianist for Annoyance Theater and the Improv Olympics in Chicago. "Then, eventually, the games themselves developed into a performance form. They were finding the truth in the society around them, and the way of playing it in a funny, satirical way spread like wildfire."

A crucial factor in Bloom's funniness was eating peanut butter sandwiches in "The Womb" with best friend Scott Zeilinger. Then a Green Acres-lovin' third-grader, Zeilinger is now the vice president of the vast Goo Gone Spot and Stain Remover Empire (a.k.a. the Magic American Corporation, based in Cleveland).

"We had grilled cheese sometimes, too, and my mom would always serve it in wicker baskets that she'd put on a plate," says Bloom. "There were beanbag chairs on the floor, and basically for years upon years, Scott and I used to watch Nutty Professor and Hogan's Heroes on a Sunday."

"It was a typical paneled family room, and his mom would cater to our every need," adds Scott, whose father actually invented Goo Gone, though Scott wrote the Goo Gone jingle. "We'd milk it for all it was worth, and we'd get Kool-Aid and chips, too."

Except for the original beanbag chairs, whose Styrofoam beans went flat long ago, The Womb remains intact. Bloom now lives in the house with his wife, singer Peggy Sullivan, and son William, 2.

"Scott jokes that, once the house is demolished, we'll set it up in a warehouse," says Bloom, who did time on the Goo Gone blister pack line when he was in high school. "It's nice that somebody can say that they are still best friends with the guy they palled around with in third grade. And he and I are appreciative that our wives put up with our insanity. We try to get together at least once a week. Basically, it comes down to we think the Three Stooges is funny, and they don't."

Bloom says that all their childhood head-butting and nyuk-nyuking at the dinner table not only drove his parents crazy, but also gave the boys a solid foundation in free association.

"The thing with improvising is you have this group mind, so you know what this other person's gonna do. That's what Scott and I have been doing since the fourth grade. We were off in our own little world, improvising in our own way."

After he sent Scott off to college by running alongside the Zeilinger family van for a half-mile, Bloom blazed his own academic trail at CSU and then McGill University in Montreal, where he became a devoted scholar of the art of undressing. On a lark, he applied for a grant from the Canadian government for a study of "satellite business systems," because he thought the words sounded good together, then changed his topic to "The Bawdy Politic: Strips of Culture and the Culture of Strip" after he got the check.

Tracing the naked truth from the "tableaux vivants" of the 1840s (in which half-draped women posed as Greek sculptures) to the burlesque shows of the 1940s and the lap dances of today, Bloom argued that stripping empowers as well as exploits women. Such research meant interviews with hundreds of club owners, patrons, and performers, including one who would only chat under the auspices of a lap dance.

"I remember her literally bent over, grabbing her ankles, totally nude, looking at me and talking at me through her legs," he recalls, quick to add that he maintained his professional demeanor. "She's telling me she's going to college, that she could make $300 a night doing this as opposed to any other thing. At the same time, her hands are spreading her own cheeks."

With his doctorate in the bag, Bloom ultimately decided he "wanted to be a part of popular culture, not study it" and moved to Chicago with a month's rent and change.

Since he already had played piano for Giant Portions, he was a quick learner, understudying for Second City music director Ruby Streak on the 1994 show Piñata Full of Bees. He flubbed the first scene of his debut performance, forgetting to turn the volume on the synthesizer. But nobody said anything, and he lived to play another day, performing songs about dropping the soap in the shower for the musical Co-ed Prison Sluts and composing slaphappy, dada-meets-Sesame Street tunes during his tenure at Second City Etc.

Bloom won't be playing the piano for Cleveland's Second City, but he'll be choosing the new music director/pianist, who probably won't be the latest hopeful in the Van Cliburn competition. More like somebody who knows the Hogan's Heroes theme, as well as snippets of everything else. Someone carrying the torch of Planet of the Apes maestro Jerry Goldsmith, Bloom's personal Beethoven, who was a genius at making the music another actor in the scene without detracting from the story.

In a pinch, though, Bloom can rustle up some mean ballerina music for angry Dawg Pound fans beating on each other with Styrofoam bones.

More by Laura Putre


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