Chicago’s off-Loop theater is so focused on young and emerging talent that it’s easy to forget how barren the landscape was three decades ago, when Ruth Higgins moved to town. In 1969 she and her husband, Byron Schaffer Jr., founded Dinglefest Theatre Company, one of the off-Loop scene’s early success stories. Five years later Higgins started the Chicago Alliance for the Performing Arts, one of the first trade associations to serve the music, dance, and theater industries (not to be confused with the Chicago Association for the Performing Arts, which books the Chicago Theatre). Perhaps most important, in 1977 she and Schaffer opened the Theatre Building at 1225 W. Belmont, providing a welcome Lakeview space for scores of small companies. And in 1984 they relaunched Dinglefest as New Tuners Theatre, with a focus on developing new musicals. Higgins was widowed a decade ago, but now she’s remarrying and moving to the Netherlands with her 12-year-old daughter.

Higgins remembers the early days fondly: she’d been teaching at Highland Community College in Freeport, Illinois, and Schaffer was on the faculty at Northern Illinois University when they founded Dinglefest and began producing satirical comedies. “We would develop a new play each year, open it in the spring for a Chicago run, and then tour it throughout the midwest, east, and south in the fall and winter,” she recalls. Though Dinglefest was a nonprofit, it operated solidly in the black and at its peak had seven full-time employees. In 1976, Dinglefest began formulating a plan to lease the space on Belmont with Michael Cullen’s company, Travel Light Theatre, but in the end Higgins and Schaffer assumed control of the venue and decided it could best be used as an affordable rental space for small companies. “That meant we had to constantly raise money to subsidize the low rents theaters were paying,” says Higgins, “but we never doubted it was worth the effort.”

In May 1990, Schaffer suffered a fatal heart attack at age 59, but Higgins soldiered on at New Tuners, hosting the company’s first national new-play workshop in 1997. The same year, saying she “didn’t want the Theatre Building to succumb to ‘founder’s disease,'” Higgins handed over the operations to her longtime second in command, Joan Mazzonelli, and took on managing and programming the new North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. She soon realized the job wasn’t going to work out. “It was the most unprofessional atmosphere I had ever worked in, and I began to think: ‘I can walk away from this.'” Eighteen months later, she did just that.

Last year Higgins was thinking about staging New Tuners’ musical Hans Brinker in Holland, and during a trip to Europe she contacted Jim Fulkerson, an old high school sweetheart who she thought might help her develop some contacts. A musician and composer, Fulkerson has lived in the Netherlands since 1989 and leads the Barton Workshop, an experimental music ensemble. Higgins has yet to secure a Dutch production deal for Hans Brinker, but she and Fulkerson found themselves skating back into their old relationship; they’ll tie the knot in Evanston next month before Higgins and her daughter relocate to suburban Amsterdam. Higgins plans to remain on the boards of directors for New Tuners and the Theatre Building.

As she prepares to start the next act of her life, Higgins has tried to put the last three decades in perspective. Much of what’s happening now, she says, reminds her of the theater scene in the early 70s. “The city’s big downtown houses were empty then too,” she says. “Only they were more run-down because millions of dollars hadn’t been spent renovating them.” Those were exciting times, as the first waves of young thespians started moving to Chicago to found numerous small companies. “Back in the 1970s people had things they wanted to say,” she notes. “While now, unfortunately, one of the hallmarks of the theater here is self-indulgence. It’s kind of boring, really, because it’s about theater people doing theater for themselves, not for an audience.”

Ivanhoe: Not Dead Yet

It’s back to the drawing board for Atlas Development Company, which wanted to purchase the Ivanhoe Theater from Doug Bragan and build an 11-story condominium complex. At last week’s meeting of South East Lake View Neighbors, residents voted 73 to 2 against rezoning the Ivanhoe property to permit the complex, and 44th Ward alderman Bernie Hansen, who would have to sponsor the rezoning ordinance in the City Council, says he’s with them. Gregg Kiriazes, president of the Lake View Citizens’ Council, says he was surprised that Atlas didn’t seem to realize how closely density issues are monitored by residents of the congested neighborhood. In spring 1999, Broadway was downzoned from Diversey to Irving Park to prohibit high-rise structures.

Atlas executives said they would take SELVN’s wishes under consideration, and Bob Clarke, president of the neighborhood organization, invited them to discuss their revisions at the next meeting, on July 10. According to Bragan, Atlas said they were working on some other proposals and would get back to him. Clarke agrees that residents’ opposition to increasing density in Lakeview was a major factor, but sentiment for the Ivanhoe ran high as well: “I think a lot of people were appalled at the idea the theater might go.” But the Ivanhoe’s days may be numbered no matter what: in 2003, Bragan will lose his lease on the adjoining parking area, and if the theater were unable to find dedicated parking elsewhere it would have to forfeit its place-of-public-amusement license.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.