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All in the Family

Ravinia has a new staff member with a last name already quite familiar to the festival’s em-ployees and audiences: Mervon Mehta, son of Ravinia executive director Zarin Mehta, has just come on board as a talent coordinator with a particular focus on pop music. He re-places Ron Pateras, who had been booking the festival’s pop and jazz events since 1988. Needless to say, Ravinia is trying to play down the appearance of nepotism. Notes Zarin Mehta: “Mervon was the candidate with the most diversified background. The position requires a wide knowledge of the performing arts.” He said Mervon will book acts in consultation with members of the artistic staff and marketing department, with the executive director reserving final approval.

Mervon Mehta and his wife have lived in Chicago for about a year. During that time he’s worked primarily as an actor, appearing in Court Theatre’s recent production of Once in a Lifetime and last season’s Touchstone Theatre revival of The Seagull. Before moving to Chicago, while living in the Toronto area, he appeared at the Stratford Festival and produced some jazz shows. His wife, Sandra Caldwell, is a jazz singer.

Though he does have an arts background, Mehta doesn’t bring to his new post the pop music connections that may be essential in a business where success is based on relationships with agents and managers. “For all of the obvious attributes he brings to the job–he’s intelligent and he knows music–he lacks experience,” says his predecessor Pateras, who left Ravinia last summer to form Brio Productions, a jazz and world-music concert production company. (One of his partners in that venture, Penny Tyler, is now booking Ravinia’s jazz programming.) Pateras predicts booking pop acts at Ravinia will be more difficult now that Jam Productions and the Nederlander Organization have joined forces to book the World in south suburban Tinley Park, offering performers big grosses for a single night’s work.

In recent years Ravinia has been expanding its pop and country programming with good results. Acts such as Dolly Parton, John Denver, Tony Bennett, Kenny Loggins, Jane Olivor, the Manhattan Transfer, Anne Murray, and Tom Jones have attracted large crowds.

Bookmakers Seek Better Odds

Illinois book publishers are uniting to form the Illinois Book Publishers Association, a new not-for-profit trade group. Nicholas Weir-Williams, director of Northwestern University Press and the association’s first president, describes the new organization as a consciousness-raising effort. “I think people elsewhere think of Chicago as a publishing center, but people who are here in the business don’t necessarily think of it as one. Chicago is in fact a center for education, religious, legal, and financial publishing.” Weir-Williams estimates the entire book-publishing business could be generating $1 billion or more in annual sales in Illinois, but among the first things the new trade group will do is pull together some hard numbers.

One impetus for starting the trade group came from a number of Illinois-based book publishers who believe it is imperative that the local arm of the industry raise its visibility before next May, when the annual convention of the American Booksellers Association comes to McCormick Place. At the convention, the nation’s largest book-publishing trade fair, publishers display their most important upcoming releases and booksellers place orders. Chicago has hosted the ABA only twice in the past three decades, but starting next year the convention will be held every year at McCormick Place.

Local book publishers believe that with the ABA convention permanently in Chicago, the city’s book-publishing business could be poised for growth. Vice president of Academy Chicago Publishers Jordan Miller says, “I think the city will be more attractive to publishers because the convention is here, and there will be more ferment about book publishing.” Miller and others in the local publishing business predict the ABA convention could wind up rivaling Frankfurt’s annual book fair, the world’s largest book-publishing conclave.

Beyond the ABA convention, Illinois book publishers hope their new trade association will become a networking forum. Says Miller: “Nothing beats like-minded people getting together, and until now there has never been that kind of book publishing community in this area.” The Illinois publishing trade group already has more than 50 members, and the number is expected to grow as word spreads. Annual dues, which start at $50, are scaled according to sales. The association is also making memberships available to individuals. Any funds raised by the not-for-profit group will be used for advertising to promote book publishing in Illinois, among other things.

Not everyone in the local book-publishing business is prepared to get behind the organization. Ivan Dee of Ivan R. Dee, Inc., a small Chicago-based publisher, says he is “baffled” about the association’s goals. “If book publishers expect to get more attention focused on books and more reviews, they will be disappointed,” he says. “Publishers get reviews based on the quality of the books they publish and the push they give them when they are released.” Morris Philipson, director of the 102-year-old University of Chicago Press, the nation’s third largest university-affiliated publishing house, says, “I don’t think getting together with other publishers in Illinois and Chicago would enrich our common interests.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.