Whether it’s the piercing stare, epic music, or, of course, the bald blue heads, chances are you’ve seen the Blue Man Group. What started as a small street act quickly grew to one of the largest performance acts in the world, with troupes based across the country, including right here in Chicago. You may be plenty familiar with the music, the wacky antics, or the unique instruments, but one thing you probably don’t know are the people behind that iconic blue paint.
Tom “Boomer” Galassi, Callum Grant, and Brian Tavener, three of Blue Men for Chicago, spend their nights dazzling audiences but during the day they reside right here in Logan Square.
Welcome to the Neighborhood
Galassi, captain of Chicago’s troupe and a Blue Man for 20 years, has spent the past 16 years living in Logan Square. “I remember I was looking for a place to live and I instantly just fell in love with the area.”
His fellow Blue Men share similar love stories.
“When I first moved [to Chicago], I was staying in Lincoln Square just because it was so close to work and the Brown Line,” said Scotland-native Callum Grant. “But I just found myself hanging over [in Logan Square] most of the time. I was either playing music or singing karaoke at Café Mustache and eventually, I thought ‘why don’t I move here?’”
While changing neighborhoods might be a big adjustment for some, Grant felt right at home when he moved right across the alley from Galassi.
Tavener, the newest addition to the Blue Man Group starting in 2007, was tipped off by his bandmates about the area. “I was originally looking at Lakeview, and I kept thinking, ‘Yeah this is cool, it’s close to work…but I don’t necessarily see myself living here.’”
Putting on the Paint
For anyone who’s seen the Blue Man Group in action, you know that shows can be wild, frenetic and unpredictable. The process of joining the Blue Man Group, and how each member got involved, is just as unique.
“I had no idea what it was,” Grant said. “I was studying a weird theater degree—sorry, a ‘Devising Contemporary Theater’ degree—and trying to keep track of what that was, when a friend suggested that I check out the Blue Man Group. By pure coincidence, they were auditioning in Glasgow, which they had never done before or ever again. It was a pure fluke, [but] I went to audition—it was perfect—and that was 13 years ago.”
Tavener shares a similar story, saying he found them when they played at a show in Raleigh, North Carolina. Before that, he’d only known them from Intel commercials in his middle school days.
“I had been playing in a band, and bartending, and I studied theater for a little while in college, but eventually just got out with a mass communications critique degree,” Tavener said, adding that it goes perfectly with Blue Man Group’s themes and commentary on technology and communication.
“After I saw the [Raleigh] show I thought, ‘I’m going to send them some material from my band’ and they got back to me within a few weeks,” he said. “But it was never, ‘I want to be a Blue Man.'”
He said he just wanted to do something that blended his talents and skills for theater and music and that led him to be “in the right place at the right time.” Galassi also found the blue bald guys by a coincidence that took him by surprise.
“I moved to New York back in ’97 and about two months later I was walking by the Astor Place Theater and saw a poster of these bald blue guys,” Galassi said. He then ushered for the theater and saw a few performances before making a try at auditions.
“[When I first saw it] I thought to myself, ‘I can’t do that stuff, there’s no way’ but then they put me through about six months of just crazy auditions.”
One of the legends surrounding the Blue Man Group are the crazy and wacky auditions that aspiring blue men go through.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” Galassi said. “There was one day where they just make these water balls (they’re paintballs in the show) and they just threw them at my head for three hours to see if I could catch them in my mouth.”
Losing Yourself in the Group
The unorthodox training is an extension of the eccentricity of the group, the three explained.
“[While the trial-by-fire aspect] has been taken out of it a little bit, I just knew that these people were really interesting as soon as I met them…they said things I had never heard before and thought in ways I had never thought before,” Galassi said. “They were really abstract, really fun, and a little intimidating because they were so confident in their own weirdness.”
That weird confidence is one of the draws to why so many people stay in the group, Grant added. “A part of it is because of the people you work with; there’s sort of a high-caliber of not only talented performers, but there’s also no room for ego,” he said. “There’s no room for someone to be the star… that’s not how the show works.”
The creative community that Blue Man Group creates also feeds into the members’side projects. Grant said he’s proud to be able to create projects and have time to be creative elsewhere while keeping up similar skills and collaborating with the same people.
Galassi, his brother, Grant, and a few other members of the group came together to collaborate on Galassi’s film, “The Know,” which was featured in the Chicago Independent Film. Galassi returned the favor by helping film videos for Grant’s band, Whiskey Tales. Members are constantly working together on creative projects ranging from film, to music, to art and other media.
While the group can throw themselves into the creative pool that is the Blue Man Group, the character itself also provides an outlet for the members.
“There’s also something to be said of the freedom of being the character, not only during the show but interacting with the public,” Grant said. “People are vulnerable and honest, and they interact with you in an incredible way. Kids are coming up to me and hugging me and it’s so strange, but they’re just like, ‘You’re like me, I get it.’”
“It does a remove an element of who we are, and there’s a deeper connection because they can start to see themselves and find certain connections in the character,” he said.
Galassi also mentioned the liberating aspect that comes with being another blue face on stage.
“It’s something we talked about a lot—but when we put the makeup on—it’s like you’re ripping off your cultural mask. All of that stuff you’ve been taught: how to be polite, how to be self-conscious, all that stuff you’ve learned over the years, it’s gone,” Galassi said. “And all of a sudden we’re just there and we’re just exploring. “Fans see that we’re not faking…we’re being raw on stage and they latch onto that.”
Highlights During the Ride
The Blue Man Group has performed for over 35 million people, and with Grammy nominations, multiple TV appearances and several international tours, it’s no wonder that the members have had some incredible highlights during their careers.
“Performing with Kodo drummers in a 3D television special in Tokyo was probably the coolest,” Grant said. “Or, performing with Monobloco, on a bus, driving through a million people, in Rio during Carnival.”
These guys have had some crazy experiences that are unlike any other public figure or actor in the show business industry. It is pretty surreal, Galassi admitted.
“I’ve found myself jumping on Jay Leno’s desk while the credits roll, performing for the Queen of England and shaking her hand, and being pulled in a room by Ozzy Osbourne and asking how we came up with the show and if it was drugs,” Galassi said. “Every one of those moments I just think, ‘What am I doing?’”
Interacting with fans and reading their body language, connecting with them and sharing personal moments make for memorable, touching experiences. Tavener remembered one that struck him.
“There was this elderly man… and he was looking me in the eye and just weeping. In character, it really touched me, because we can have these intimate moments without talking. So I just stayed with him and he was looking right back at me,” Tavener said. “Something clearly had happened, and that’s when you realize, ‘OK, I’m a part of something much larger.”
When the Paint Comes Off
While the characters may resemble something closer to an extraterrestrial being, they still have normal lives out and about in Logan Square, each with their own favorite hangout spots.
“Logan Arcade is my go-to,” Tavener said, who can be found there just about any night (literally). “But I do love Lonesome Rose for a lunch, and Estereo for the music.”
“I like Crown Liquors a lot… but I also really love JJ Peppers on Diversy and Kedzie. I’ve been there so long that I know some of the staff and can just have some friendly banter each day,” Galassi said.
“A shot of bäsk at Cole’s,” Grant said, a very Chicagoan thing.
Though the three enjoy Logan Square like the rest of us, they are also aware of the ever-changing dynamic of the neighborhood, something most residents can’t help but acknowledge these days.
“I got a single-story house when I first moved there…which you probably can’t afford nowadays,” Galassi said. “I just hope it doesn’t get too out of control where people can’t afford to live there. We have people of all different backgrounds here and I hope that all the new additions don’t change that.”
Blue Man Group is currently performing at Briar Street Theatre this summer. For their schedule, go here.