John R. Powers, the author of the made-in-Chicago hit “Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?” and a nostalgist who helped thousands laugh at their complex memories of rigorous parochial schooling, died early Thursday morning. He was 67.
Powers suffered a heart attack while exercising at home in his most recent hometown of Lake Geneva, Wisc. “He cherished every moment and lived with tremendous passion and motivated others to do the same,” Jacey Powers, his daughter, said.
Powers had lived the last 25 years in Lake Geneva, spending almost all of his time writing on the front porch, she said.
“He had just finished rewriting his one-man show and wanted to put it up,” Jacey Powers said. “(He) was always looking for new ways to reinvent himself and to find the next challenge and to live life better.”
Powers was a man of many parts: playwright, novelist, motivational speaker. But in Chicago, he was best known for his shrewdly titled play, “Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?,” part of the subset of shows wherein writers exorcised some elements of their Catholic education. First written as a novel, the cheerfully satirical piece was adapted into a musical at the Forum Theater in Summit (music was by James Quinn and Alaric Jans) in 1979, from where it went all the way to Broadway, where it opened in 1982. “Patent Leather Shoes” was a monster hit for the Forum Theater. In 1987, the Tribune reported it had cost $75,000 to produce but grossed more than $600,000, running for more than two years, a record for a locally created show at the time.
“It was an enormous hit,” said Tony D'Angelo, formerly the co-producer of the Forum and Candlelight theaters. “It didn't just appeal to Catholics. Everybody came. At one time, (publishing house) Samuel French told me it was their most requested show.”
“Patent Leather” lasted just five regular performances in New York, where Libby Adler Mages was the lead producer, but had a long life in community theaters thereafter. Powers, who was known for his quips and perennial sense of fun, saw the New York failure of the show as a consequence of its sweetness and his determination to tell the story of grade school through a child's eyes. “The critics were expecting a biting, anti-Catholic satire, and when they didn`t see it, they let us have it,” he told the Tribune's Richard Christiansen in 1987, as the show was about to undergo one of its many heartland revivals. One revival, at the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in 1994, starred Will Chase.
Powers had taught at Northeastern Illinois University and was also the author of such novels as “The Last Catholic in America,” and “The Junk-Drawer, Corner-Store, Front-Porch Blues.” He made, he often said, a very comfortable living from “Patent Shoes.”
Powers earned a bachelor's degree from Loyola University in Chicago, and a master's and doctorate from Northwestern University. He attended Brother Rice High School in Chicago.
Visitation and services are planned for Sunday at The Chapel on the Hill in Lake Geneva.
Powers is survived by his wife, JaNelle Powers (whom he met when she appeared in “Patent Leather Shoes”), and daughters Jacey Powers and Joy Powers.Copyright © 2015, RedEye