Famous as he is in other city neighborhoods, suburbs and countries across the globe, Billy Corgan was just another tall, bald, white guy wearing a Bears jersey (No. 1), standing against the gymnasium wall at Christian Fenger Academy High School on the Far South Side and smiling as boys and girls hooted and hollered at a parade of professional wrestlers.
Corgan is most renowned as the frontman for the hugely successful Chicago-based alternative rock band Smashing Pumpkins, and a bit less well-known as the owner of the Madame Zuzu's tea shop in Highland Park.
He was at Fenger in early October because he is also the creative director of Resistance Pro, the 2-year-old independent wrestling league he has helped fund. He assists in booking the wrestlers, adds creative input, writes some of the in-ring scenarios, bolsters and advises the wrestlers and league's founders (brothers Jacques and Gabriel Baron from South Suburban Lockport) and acts in all manner of ways as chief enthusiast. The league celebrates its second anniversary Saturday with a benefit for and at Amundsen High School on the North Side (see resistancepro.com). There is also talk, neither confirmed or denied, that Corgan might buy Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, the second-largest pro wrestling promoter in America.
Corgan and the wrestlers, who have an enviable track record for benefit performances in the area, had come to Fenger to do their thing for some 150 freshman and sophomores who had been given a break from morning classes.
The kids were not sure what to expect. A few were asked about Corgan and their response was similar to that of a 15-year-old named Robert, who said, "I heard that he used to be in a band. I can't remember the name though."
When Fenger principal Elizabeth Dozier was first approached about hosting the wrestling exhibition she was not interested. Her reaction was simply "No way."
"But then I began to understand the overall message was to be about learning and perseverance," Dozier said. "I am glad they came here."
She was standing in the hallway, addressing the kids waiting to enter the gymnasium: "I have behavior expectations. You are going to have fun. You're going to laugh. You'll be talking and stuff. But when we ask for your attention, that's what we'll need. Please keep in mind that you represent Fenger High School."
Fenger is in the Roseland neighborhood, and it is where, on Sept. 24, 2009, 16-year-old sophomore Derrion Albert was beaten to death by five boys outside the school, some of them using pieces of a railroad tie. A video captured the murder and the story made national news. Dozier, on the job for only two weeks, was compelled to meet with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder, who flew into town while the news cameras were still rolling.
That notoriety, in addition to Dozier's compelling personality and the initiatives she has put in place to make a safer school, are among the reasons there was a film crew in the gym this day. They had been to Fenger before, shooting for "Chicagoland," an eight hour/eight part "docuseries" from producer Robert Redford's Sundance Productions scheduled to air on CNN next year.
"This is an important story at Fenger," said one crew member. "And Corgan's here too."
Before the matches, some of the participants — those who were not warming up by flinging themselves against the ropes and onto the canvas in the ring at the center of the gym — talked about their out-of-the-ring careers. Three were public school teachers. Another was in sales. All were in love with wrestling.
"We do this because it is fun and fits into our schedules," said Jazmin Jones, an art teacher at Lovett Elementary School on the West Side.
Why does Corgan do this?
Famously a Cubs fan, the 46-year-old Corgan has long had a passion for sports, once telling a reporter, "I was a total jock (as a kid) and would have preferred to be an athlete than a musician."
At Fenger he elaborated, saying, "Wrestling is one of the last true subcultures left in America. Being off the radar gives it a certain funky credibility."
But there may be something else too, something that evokes a sense of freedom and innocence no longer available to him. Corgan is a thoughtful person, never loath to share an opinion, and that has made him a controversial and often polarizing star.
"This all reminds me of being in a van," he said, "driving eight hours to Minneapolis to play for less money that we spent in gas.
"The lifestyle of musicians and wrestlers is really very similar. There's the focus on the audience, the larger-than-life personalities formed on stage and the sense of drama in what's happening, or going to happen. And there is such an aspirational aspect to it. Everyone here wants to make it to the top, and we are trying to help them. This is so quintessentially American it never gets old: There is no limit to what you can accomplish."
Those words, spoken quietly and thoughtfully by Corgan, took a more forceful form as the ring announcer shouted to the crowd of kids, "We are here for each and every one of you because we care. We want you to know people care about you and your future."
Over the next hour or so the kids were treated to more than a dozen wrestlers, among them two women who proved quite entertaining and athletic and friendly, sometimes going into the crowd and exchanging high-fives with the students.
Dozier sat smiling, sitting in the stands. Corgan too, standing against the wall.
After the matches, Corgan joined the wrestlers in the ring and they all engaged the kids, answering questions, telling stories. It was impossible to know what effect these few morning hours might have had on these young people. But there was no denying that that the playful violence in the ring gave them something to yell about, gave them the chance to shout and to laugh. And, sometimes, in the hard and harsh parts of town, that can seem almost like a miracle.
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