All Lit Up and Nothing to Show

On Broadway, a theater marquee goes dark as soon as a show closes and stays that way until a new one begins performances. “They’re too cheap to even take down the old posters,” says one local theater executive familiar with Broadway management. So who’s paying the electric bill for Mayor Daley’s comatose theater district? The marquee of the Oriental Theatre has been lit day and night even though Fosse closed January 8, and the same goes for the Palace, where Aida closed the next day. Keeping a marquee lit might help keep up appearances, but according to the same theater exec, such a display could cost $10,000 a month.

Michael Leavitt, president of the Cadillac Palace Theatre, claims that city officials have neither pressured him to keep his marquee lit nor picked up the tab. “We felt it was appropriate because this is basically a new theater,” he says, “and we wanted people to know it is here.” He also thinks a lit marquee creates a more inviting atmosphere for patrons approaching the box office to buy tickets for upcoming productions of The Civil War and Jekyll & Hyde. “At some point, if we’re dark for a long period, I’m sure we’ll start turning off the lights.” A spokesperson for SFX Entertainment, Inc., which owns and operates the Oriental, says its marquee is lit because the box office is selling tickets for the Chicago Music Awards on February 5. Around the corner, the marquee for the Chicago Theatre is lit every day until 10 PM, courtesy of Chicago taxpayers. The city took control of the theater in the early 1990s after the Chicago Theatre Restoration Associates defaulted on city loans used to purchase and renovate it. “We don’t pay any of the electrics,” says general manager Mike Rilley, whose employer, the Chicago Association for the Performing Arts, just signed a new multiyear lease at the theater. Rilley says that city officials like having the word Chicago in lights on State Street.

Tapped Out? Not Anymore

The Chicago Human Rhythm Project is back from the dead. The annual tap dance festival was poised for a breakthrough in 1998, following the phenomenal success of Tap Dogs and Riverdance, and founder Lane Alexander spent lavishly, hoping to make the CHRP bigger and flashier than ever. But a deal to produce a commercial videotape of the performances fizzled at the last minute, and the festival wound up more than $10,000 in the red. Last summer the CHRP failed to materialize for the first time since Alexander launched it in 1990. Now, following months of negotiation, Alexander has struck a deal with the dance department at Northwestern University to present a scaled-down and considerably more academic version of the festival from August 7 through 20.

“We felt this was an attractive opportunity to carry on a project, and the educational outreach aspect of it really appealed to us,” says Susan Lee, longtime director of Northwestern’s dance program. Lee has been instrumental in bringing similar events to the university, including the first annual Jazz Dance World Congress in 1990 and an international tango congress. To keep the CHRP in the black, she and Alexander are focusing less on public performance than on the classes that sustained the festival in the past. The program of concerts will shrink from ten in 1998 to between four and six this year, while class offerings will be expanded to include such topics as medicine for dancers and elements of concert production. Neovaudevillian Bill Irwin will teach and perform during the festival, and all events will be held on the Northwestern campus.

Alexander hopes this year’s event will get a boost from another video project, Channel 11’s upcoming documentary about the 1998 festival: Juba! The Masters of Tap and Percussive Dance will air February 23 and might be broadcast nationally at a later date. Neither he nor Lee will reveal how much Northwestern is kicking in for this year’s budget, which is still being finalized, but Alexander says several veteran sponsors have stepped forward again, including the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, the Illinois Arts Council, Leo’s Dancewear Inc., Fred Eychaner’s WPWR Channel 50 Foundation, and Richard G. Wineberg, a philanthropist who’s been a key backer for years.

Guffaws for the Cause

It’s not over till the fat fella sings.

La Gran Scena, a New York opera company whose cross-dressing singers spoof the pomposities of the form, will appear February 24 through 26 at the Athenaeum Theatre. But unlike the group’s last Chicago concert, presented in 1995 under the aegis of Performing Arts Chicago, next month’s three-night stand will benefit In All Things Charity, a local organization campaigning to change the Methodist church’s official position on homosexuality. Last summer the church’s judicial council suspended Reverend Gregory Dell as pastor of the Broadway United Methodist Church near Broadway and Roscoe; Dell had been performing same-sex unions for decades and continued to do so even after the council prohibited the practice in August 1998. Now Darrell Windle, a retired banking executive, and Dave Samber, owner of Polo Cafe & Catering in Bridgeport, are bankrolling the La Gran Scena engagement to raise funds for IATC, which Dell and his congregation started in 1997.

Both Windle and Samber attend Broadway United Methodist, and the two businessmen believe in Dell and his cause. “He’s a good guy and deserves our support,” says Samber. He and Windle first saw La Gran Scena at a Miami Beach theater a year ago and found themselves rolling in the aisles. According to Samber, the group was “clever, clean, and witty,” and the two men decided it would be the perfect draw for an IATC fund-raiser. Tickets to the first two performances will range from $22 to $48, while tickets to the Sunday gala will range from $50 to $100. Windle and Samber hope to raise as much as $60,000, but first they’ll have to recoup a $75,000 investment that includes $35,000 for the services of the 11-person troupe, about $6,700 for their airfare and hotel accommodations, and $10,000 for theater rental, stagehands, and tech crew. Admits Samber, “We’ve learned very quickly how expensive it can be to bring in an event of this size.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.