Mr. Singer at the Farm-in-the-Zoo, 9:15 and 10 a.m. Wednesdays and Fridays,♦Lincoln Park Zoo, 2001 N. Clark. Free admission. Visit www.sharpcookies.net
Updated: June 21, 2013 11:45AM
It’s the question on the lips of parents of Chicago’s happening 5-and-under set: Have you seen Mr. Singer at the Lincoln Park Zoo?
The denim overall-wearing, guitar- and harmonica-wielding, handlebar-mustached musician rocks the zoo’s Farm-in-the-Zoo Main Barn four times a week, twice each on Wednesdays and Fridays.
Each show’s crowd numbers in the hundreds as he, and occasionally his duet partner/real life wife, Kerry, play a set of covers and original music.
Mr. Singer has groupies, including 3-year-old Will, and 2-year-old Andrew King, brothers who dress identically to Singer at the shows.
“He wants to be Mr. Singer all day and he makes his brother be Kerry Appleberry,” said their nanny, Greer Hengesbaugh, who added that Will recently built a Mr. Singer amplifier out of a stack of “Curious George” books.
Mr. Singer’s also a favorite of nannies and will often entertain Spanish-speaking ones with their requestsfor “La Bamba” and “Chocolate.”
“We are here all the time, all the time,” said nanny Hilda Samori, who takes her young, overall-wearing charge to see Singer twice a week. “If he does anything bad I tell him that ‘I’ll tell Mr. Singer,’ and he stops.”
Even first-timers leave impressed.
“We took her to the zoo, we found Mr. Singer,” said Ray Silverman of Highland Park, who spends Fridays with his 2-year-old granddaughter Abby. “I think he’s doing great. She’s enthralled.”
Neil Firstenleit first took the name Mr. Singer more than a decade ago when he was in the punk band The Arteries. He grew up wanting to be a rock star; his parents suggested he consider performing at children’s birthday parties.
“They had that foresight,” Firstenleit said.
He worked as a sound engineer and was living in San Francisco on Sept. 11, 2001, dating Kerry long-distance. The attack on the World Trade Center made him realize he wanted to be with her full-time in Chicago. Looking for a job, he started teaching music to a Naperville kindergarten class. The kids liked it, he realized, and so did he.
Kerry sings with him under the name Kerry Appleberry, the nickname her mom gave her as a child. Kerry Firstenleit, a photographer and painter, said performing doesn’t come naturally. Like Beyonce Knowles using her Sasha Fierce alter ego, she needs the costume to get on stage to sing backup and keep the beat on colorful percussion instruments.
“The wig helps,” she said.
As Mr. Singer, Firstenleit is a regular on the summer festival circuit, sometimes backed by his full band, the Sharp Cookies. He teaches Wiggleworms at the Old Town School of Folk Music, is booked for a number of Millennium Park gigs this summer and has a monthly engagement at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.
In 2011, after zoo funding for his performances ran out, a grandmother who had done fund raising for Steppenwolf stepped in to raise enough for a year’s worth of free concerts. Parents chipped in money to keep him singing in the barn through April 2014, and Firstenleit hopes they can find a way for Mr. Singer to rock out for years beyond that. “We’re flattered and honored and can’t believe it,” he said.