A Phony License? Who Knew?

The biggest surprise to come out of the Department of Revenue’s November 21 surprise visits to 37 businesses was the closing of WNEP Theater. Four other theaters–the Playground, TimeLine, Artistic Home, and Profiles–were shut down that weekend for operating without a Public Place of Amusement license. Not a happy thing–but pretty straightforward. WNEP, on the other hand, was closed for something that sounds like a gag from one of its spoofs. According to the DOR, it was operating with a “counterfeit” PPA certificate.

The license for the tiny space at 3209 N. Halsted, WNEP’s home for more than three years, had been held by its landlord, Wellington Properties, in the name of TurnAround Productions, a now inactive theater company. Earlier this year, says WNEP founder Don Hall, the two companies agreed that the license would be renewed in WNEP’s name. Hall says he filled out the paperwork for that change and sent it to the landlord to complete and turn in to the city. He also says that WNEP made payments to the landlord to cover the license fee. Then he waited a couple months for the certificate to arrive. This spring, “when I realized that our license was about to expire, I called the Department of Revenue,” Hall says. “I explained the situation–that we needed a current license and as far as I knew it was all applied for and paid for, and a couple days later we got the license in the mail. I don’t remember who sent it to us. I don’t keep the envelopes. I just know I opened up one of our many pieces of mail and there was the PPA license. It was pink and had a city seal on it. I was really excited. I went out and bought a nice little glass frame and hung it up.”

The license stayed on the wall until two Fridays ago, when a half-dozen revenue agents arrived at the theater just before the final curtain for WNEP’s extended hit Let There Be Light…! Hall says they agreed to wait till the show was over, then looked at the theater’s occupancy card for 75, counted the 44 seats, and got busy on their laptop. After a half hour or so, and the arrival of three more agents, they informed Hall that they would have to confiscate his license to verify its authenticity. The following Monday he called the DOR and was told that the license was “invalid.” Two days later Hall, who played the title role in WNEP’s Angry White Guy Reads the Paper, had a life-imitates-art moment: he picked up the Sun-Times and read that his license was “counterfeit.” Hall, who also runs a public relations business called Pitbull PR, says at that moment he was Angry White Guy.

“No one counterfeited a PPA,” he insists. “It’s a $350 license, not a bank breaker. We didn’t go out and buy it on the underground PPA black market. If there’s going to be a charge of counterfeit, then someone needs to be charged, and there needs to be a court date–or there needs to be a retraction. We haven’t been charged with anything.” Still, his response has been more poodle than pit bull: “Where that license came from is less of a concern for me than making sure we continue to do shows,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned the point is moot.”

After taking a financial beating during the Cubs’ postseason, Hall says, WNEP is in no position to weather a 30-to-90-day shutdown, which is what he was told to expect. The company canceled its seasonal shows (Christmas My Ass III: What the Hell Is a Magi?, Merry Christmas, Bhtch!, and The Armageddon Radio Hour–New Year’s Eve) and at an emergency meeting Sunday night decided to “go itinerant” for the time being. Hall says the company will try to negotiate an early exit from its lease (which runs through July at a monthly rate of $3,300 plus utilities) and reschedule its shows at other venues beginning in January: “There’ll still be WNEP productions. They just won’t be here.”

WNEP company member Mark Dahl, spokesman for (and nephew of) the building’s owners, says Wellington Properties never received any paperwork or license money from WNEP. Hall speculates that the paperwork was overlooked and says the financial records would be “a nightmare” to find. According to Department of Revenue director Bea Reyna-Hickey, none of the five shuttered theaters had initiated PPA license applications. She says the WNEP license “appeared to be a scanned copy. It was not on our security paper, and we haven’t had an active license for that location for at least one year.”

The Future of Metropolis

Metropolis Performing Arts Centre is either a huge success or a big flop, depending on whom you ask. Both opinions were voiced at a public hearing last month to consider whether Arlington Heights should buy the three-year-old theater. It’s been put on the block by developer Mark Anderson of Banbury Properties, who conceived of it as a profit-making enterprise and ran it that way for two years before going nonprofit. He’s named a price of $2.75 million and set a January deadline for the town’s “right of first refusal.” The village already kicked in $2.35 million in TIF funds for the theater’s construction, so it could wind up paying in excess of $5 million for a mere portion of the building: Anderson’s selling just the main-floor lobby, auditorium, and dressing rooms, together with the classrooms and the theater’s office space on the floor above–all of which Metropolis has been renting for $1 a year. His company would continue to own the rest of the center, including the bar and restaurant that serve theater patrons at intermission, a second-floor ballroom, and two additional floors of rental offices.

The village board sat through more than 40 three-minute speeches. Actors, producers (including Second City’s Kelly Leonard), and theater staff extolled Metropolis’s virtues; members of Northwest Tax Watch argued that it’s not the village’s role to bail out a failing business and demanded a public referendum. (Metropolis executive director Tim Rater says it will lose $200,000 this year, but a village consultant has estimated that annual losses could be twice that.) Friends of the Metropolis, sporting red carnations, said they’re organizing to save the theater, no matter who owns the building. Marj Halperin, president of the League of Chicago Theatres, noted that Metropolis earned about 95 percent of its income, compared to an industry nonprofit standard of 60 percent. Even a “weak” fund-raising effort would be likely to generate an operating surplus for this “remarkably successful theater,” she said. A village committee will meet December 10 to consider whether Metropolis can make another raid on the big TIF piggy bank.

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