Woo Woo News
- Northwest Indiana Times

Northwest Indiana Times

SUNDAY SPECIAL

March 3, 2005

American Beauty
By Jeff Carroll

Some look at Ronnie 'Woo Woo' Wickers and see a Wrigley Field sideshow. But local film-maker Paul Hoffman sees a remarkable triumph of the human spirit.

As comfortable in front of rolling cameras as their father grew to be over four years in their presence, Ronnie Wickers' two children attempt to describe their dad's unique celebrity.

"He's really famous," explains 11-year-old stepson Scott.

Wickers' daughter Yolanda, 9, nods nearby.

"He's not rich," continues Scott, clarifying, "He's like the people's champion."

Paul Hoffman laughs while recalling the scene.

"That about sums it up, doesn't it?" he asks.

"WooLife" is fledgling film director Hoffman's first project, and the 1985 Lake Central graduate feels re-energized as years of work speed toward the final edit and the April 1 premiere screening at the Chicago Historical Society.

Ronnie Wickers is better known as Ronnie "Woo Woo," the high-decibel Wrigley Field bleacher bum with the piercing trademark Cubs cheer. Wickers is beloved by many, unbearably annoying to others, and Hoffman became entranced by the story behind the public persona.

"The fans and the people in the media, they're always looking for a story," Wickers says, shrugging one recent afternoon while he works through a basket of appetizers at a Wrigleyville bar. "And I guess Ronnie 'Woo Woo' was a story. You thought it was a cartoon character, but it's live. I have feelings and wants and needs and desires just like everybody else."

Hoffman grew up a Cubs fan in St. John, enduring the heartbreak of the 1984 National League Championship Series collapse in his final summer before graduation. He went on to Indiana University, then moved to Chicago to work in the software business, gravitating toward the Wrigley bleachers like generations of young urban professionals.

A mutual friend named Lou Stanczak introduced him to Wickers in 2000, at a Cubs-White Sox game. Hoffman pitched to Wickers the idea of filming a documentary on his life.

On the surface, Wickers' celebrity seems like a thin premise to carry a two-hour movie. He's famous for cavorting through Wrigley Field and the surrounding neighborhood on game days, serenading the locals with his "Cubs, Woo! Cubs, Woo!" cheer. He wears a game uniform, including pinstriped Cubs pants and a pair of blue shoes donated by former Cubs star Andre Dawson a few years ago.

Feeling there wasn't enough of a story to sustain a cohesive picture, Hoffman's first editor backed off the project. But Hoffman, with hours and hours of tape and undying belief in the power of the Wickers story, endured.

Wickers, 63, was born on the South Side, living impoverished on 48th Street as a child. Considered different even when he was a young boy, he was abused by his mother, an allegation substantiated by a brother and sister in Hoffman's movie.

His grandmother, Mamie McGee, took him under her wing, taking Ronnie to Wrigley Field and urging him to take particular notice of Brooklyn Dodgers star Jackie Robinson. There were afternoons, Wickers recalls, when it seemed like he, his grandmother and Robinson were the only blacks in the ballpark.

"He really didn't have anything on the South Side that resembled a family," Hoffman said. "It just grew on him where he felt he belonged there (at Wrigley). The passion he had for the Cubs and baseball, it became his open-air cathedral. It saved him from so many things in life."

Wickers worked a night job as a custodian at Northwestern University, attending Cubs games in the afternoon and becoming a cult figure among the other bleacher dwellers. But the summer of 1984, a period of bliss for most Cubs fans as the team rolled to the National League East title, Wickers' stable life began to unravel. First, his long-time girlfriend Anita Crandall died suddenly. Soon after, his grandmother, the other light in his life, also died.

Hoffman wasn't around for those tough times, including a period in 1987 when Wickers took a day job and disappeared from Wrigley Field, fueling a rampant rumor that he had been murdered.

The filmmaker was on board, however, during Wickers' recent renaissance.

Practically toothless when Hoffman met him, Wickers was fitted for dentures in 2000 after a media money-raising campaign. Hoffman's camera follows him into the dentist's office.

"Will I still be able to 'woo?' " Wickers asks the dentist.

Told that he will, Wickers lights up.

"Look out, corn on the cob," he tells the camera. "Look out, chicken wings."

Hoffman is also present when Wickers sings "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" at Wrigley Field, the documentary's climax. It's a bittersweet experience that shows the Cubs' front office's uneasy attempt to set boundaries between the organization and its fandom's fun-loving embodiment.

The camera also peers into dark corners of Wickers' life, rolling while he assembles a cardboard box home under a Wacker Drive bridge, where he lived from 1984 to 1990. In fact, a large part of the net proceeds for "WooLife" will benefit the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

More recently, the film takes us into Wickers' appointment with a psychologist who helps Ronnie fight a gambling addiction.

There every step of the journey is his close friend and money manager Janet Tabit, a Notre Dame graduate and counselor at Quigley Seminary who rescued Wickers from the streets when she met him in 1990.

"I wouldn't say I'm his agent, because I'm not getting any money off it," Tabit says.

There is a famous scene in the Academy Award-winning movie "American Beauty" in which a new boy to the neighborhood lets his camera roll while a plastic bag shifts in the wind. The introvert tears up, overcome by the presence of so much overlooked beauty in an otherwise cruel world.

Ronnie Wickers is Paul Hoffman's plastic bag, hurled around Wrigleyville by whatever wind grabs him.

"See you at the World Series," he tells a beaming family one late March afternoon while strolling along Addison Street.

Minutes later, he's talked his way atop one of the famous rooftops, where his beloved ballpark opens up in front of him below. This is Britney Spears without makeup in the morning, a relic stripped of sections of seats and covered in ivy-less brown vines as workers strive to ready it for Opening Day.

Like any loving soulmate, Wickers doesn't seem to notice.

Hoffman's biggest influence isn't Sam Mendes, the director of "American Beauty." It is Albert Maysles, the director of the Rolling Stones Altamont concert chronicle "Gimme Shelter." Maysles is the anti-Michael Moore. He stays out of the way.

"I loved his style of allowing life to unfold before the camera and capturing the truth without directing the subject," Hoffman said. "He taught me that it was all about capturing on film those little moments like Ronnie getting his teeth for the first time that stop you in your tracks and you can feel in your heart.

"That was always on my mind when I followed Ronnie. You just let it play out like a nonfiction film and bring others into this special world you've found. He said we have a whole new world ahead of us that we can make better with our small cameras."

To learn about film-making on the fly, Hoffman attended classes at Columbia College in Chicago as well as Sundance workshops here and in his current home of San Francisco.

He eventually hooked up with experienced film editor Joe Marrazzo. Marrazzo is not a sports fan, and said that actually helped the chemistry between him and Hoffman because his judgment wasn't compromised by a lifetime of Cub love.

For his part, Wickers has no problem with the good, bad and ugly of his life bared so openly.

"It happened," Wickers said. "Maybe I can get across to some people my life, what I've been through. Maybe I can send a message to some people -- it all happened.

"It's like baseball. You have good innings and bad innings, but it all happened. I'm only human. I'm not the most perfect guy in the world. I've made some mistakes and I'll probably make some more mistakes. But it all happened."

Like a graduate approaching a major change in his life, Hoffman is excited to finally present a finished product and sad to close this chapter.

"It's been a great experience," Hoffman said. "Ronnie's changed my life. I'm in business and deal with people who aren't passionate, people who are millionaires and they don't have passion.

"Ronnie doesn't know how to drive a car. He doesn't know how to work a cell phone. He wouldn't know what to do with a computer. But this guy knows everything about baseball and he's one of the happiest people I've ever met in my life. He's living outside of our society as we know it. I thought he must have a secret."

The experience of committing Wickers' story to film has hooked Hoffman on the documentary-making process. He plans to continue his foray into the field, hoping that "WooLife," which doesn't yet have a distribution deal in place, will be enough of a success to boost him into other projects.

He says subsequent films don't have to use sports as a backdrop. He has only one prerequisite.

"Just beautiful spirits," Hoffman says.

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