By Anne Valente
By Lindsay Toler
By Ray Downs
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By Danny Wicentowski
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By RFT Staff
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In 1959 the Compass Players folded and Close skedaddled to Chicago, where he became a member of the Second City. Considered by most to be the godfather of improv, Close went on to mentor legions of greats including Dan Aykroyd, the brothers Belushi, Chris Farley, Harold Ramis (a St. Louisan) and Stephen Colbert.
"The history of improv is rooted in St. Louis, and hardly anybody knows about it," Chott gripes. "There's never been an improv school here — which is why I ended up leaving, so I could be properly trained, and why I've come back, so other people who want to get into comedy don't have to leave."
Chott's path to improv dates back to high school (Ritenour '87), when he and his best friend Ray Brewer used to drive over to a hotel near the airport and concoct characters while consuming copious amounts of diner coffee. They'd dress the part and project extra-loud, hoping for gawkers while pretending to be a Rolling Stone writer and a grunge musician engaged in a serious interview, say, or a pair of lowlifes plotting a bank heist.
Then there was "Frederick," the mentally challenged man-boy. "He was our drive-around-town character," recalls Brewer, a local musician and actor. "We were fuckin' nerds, so a Friday night for us consisted of driving up the Rock Road with Bill doing Frederick. We'd pull into a drive-through, Bill'd go, 'I'd wike a cheeboogah, fwies and Coke.' The guy'd say, 'Pickles on that?' Bill would say, 'Are they fwee? Pickles are fwee! Skwatch that, skwatch that, I want a bag of pickles!'
"We'd get to the window, and we'd see the kids jammed up there looking to see who the hell ordered the bag of pickles. Bill's drooling as they give him a little fry bag full of pickles. Then we'd peel out of there," says Brewer, laughing, "pull right into the next drive-in on the Rock Road and start all over again."
Chott and his two siblings lived a somewhat peripatetic youth, swapping ZIP codes around the U.S. as their father switched careers in PR, corporate theater productions and the Greek Orthodox church. Though the family always landed back in St. Louis, entertaining was Chott's coping mechanism, says his sister, Mary Roth. While living in a northeastern Pennsylvania gated subdivision, for instance, Chott got his kicks by intercom-ing the security guards and pretending to be various residents.
Says Roth: "There were a lot of different ethnic groups moving into the suburbs, and Bill would call up from outside the back gate with an accent, going, 'Yeh, this is Ishmael, I'm calling about the [security] code,' or he'd do his Sylvester Stallone Italian guy. And they'd always give him the code, no questions asked!"
Chott's father had wanted to be an actor, and on Saturday nights he let the kids stay up late to eat caramel corn and watch Saturday Night Live, SCTV (Second City Television) and Fernwood 2 Night. After Chott won his first leading role in a grade-school production, his parents, Bill and Terri, had no doubt he wanted to see his name in lights someday. Says his father: "Oh, boy, did we see it coming!"
In high school Chott tried out for Affton CenterStage, a community theater, and easily secured the lead, according to executive director Judy Rethwisch.
Rethwisch was also John Goodman's first theater coach. To this day her two former students remind her of one another. "They have a natural sense of timing and an innate ability to create humor out of anything," she says. "It's a gift, and when you see it, you know."
Chott was plotting to attend Second City's conservatory immediately upon graduation, but his father and Rethwisch persuaded him to go to college. After graduating from Central Methodist University northwest of Columbia, Chott returned to St. Louis for a year and worked as a bank teller while performing with a comedy group. "At the end of the night," remembers fellow troupe member and current Improv Trick instructor Doug Golden, "we'd all get introduced, and it was pretty clear that it was Bill who got all the applause."
Chott moved to Chicago in 1992 and enrolled in classes at Second City's conservatory. Several years later Leonard, Second City's VP, hired Chott for the touring company. "He was an easy pick — and this was at a time when he was playing with people who are now the icons of the industry: Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Amy Sedaris, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler," Leonard says today.
Leonard remembers how Chott's "Frederick" character "used to just kill us. I also recall Bill and Amy Poehler playing a hardcore Christian singing group who did a doo-wop adaptation of the Violent Femmes' 'Blister in the Sun,' which was just the most ridiculous scene I'd ever seen in my life!"
Adds Poehler via e-mail: "We drove many hours in a sweaty van across these fine United States. Bill was always a great performer, a kind gentleman and game for anything."
If there's anything for which Bill Chott is infamous — in entertainment circles, anyway — it's his hyperactive gag reflex. Dubbed "epic" and "Homeric in scope," the quirk makes Chott the butt of many a, uh, gag.