Annoyance Calls a Summit

A year after he decided to give it a go, Mick Napier still hasn’t managed to sell the business of his dreams to the investors he needs to launch it. Napier shut down his Annoyance Theatre 14 months ago to transform it into an “alternative comedy” production company that could provide clients with anything from live theater to digital animation to streaming video or short comic bits for the Web. He named it Annoyance Productions and, with partner Jennifer Estlin, wrote a preliminary business plan that was a finalist in the PrairieFire High Tech Business Plan Competition in October. Last February, with the plan complete and their hopes high, the pair began searching for someone to invest the $500,000 to $3 million needed to build their production facility. They had the Annoyance name, a projected return to investors in five years, and a track record that included long-running hits like Co-ed Prison Sluts and Manson: The Musical. Now where were the venture capitalists? The pension funds? The little old ladies?

In what sounds like a concept for one of their own send-up sketches, Annoyance ventured out in search of capital just as the dot-com bust blew it away. When the high-tech backers that were their initial targets vanished, they moved on to entertainment investors and ran up against another obstacle: “No one in the entertainment community seemed to think this kind of business could succeed in Chicago,” Estlin says. They chewed their way through prospect lists and collected stacks of form-letter rebuffs, including one from Time Warner saying it “doesn’t invest in this kind of business.” By the end of June they decided they’d have to be more creative. That’s when they came up with the banana plan.

The strategy was simple: if the money wouldn’t come to them, they’d go to the money. Every Thursday morning in July they met 10 or 20 associates in front of the Board of Trade. Though each of them was carrying a banana, they blended into the scene. “We would walk around, mingling among the people there,” Estlin says. “Then, at a predetermined moment, we would all freeze.” The result was a scattering of instant statues among the crowd, some with bananas aloft, all holding business cards bearing a question mark and Annoyance Productions’ Web address. After 15 or 20 minutes of freeze-frame they’d move on and repeat the act for passersby (mystified or oblivious) on Michigan Avenue or Daley Plaza. “It was a huge success. The first day we gave out 300 business cards,” Estlin says. “It increased hits on our Web site by thousands. But no one stepped up and said they’d like to invest.”

“After spending July doing that,” she continues, “we said we need to get the entertainment community together and address this.” According to Napier, Chicago has a trio of problems. First, “the financial community in Chicago has no education or inspiration to invest in entertainment production in this city.” Second, “Chicago has a hard time believing it can do serious production”–though, he adds, such “disparate entities” as Oprah and Joan Cusack are. And third, Los Angeles and New York think of Chicago not as a production center but only as a source for talent, which they “cherry-pick” at will. In 12 years of directing at Second City, Napier says, he observed the talent drain hundreds of times. The most aggravating instance came when four of the seven actors in a television pilot he shot two years ago were picked up for network or cable shows, leaving him with a product difficult to market.

This week Annoyance Productions sent out 500 invitations to a diplomatic-style summit September 11. They hope to bring entertainment producers, government officials, and investors together to discuss how the local community can help itself “realize its potential as an entertainment/technology industry powerhouse.” Speakers for the event, sponsored by Sony and hosted by Buzz nightclub, include director Harold Ramis and Richard Moskal of the Chicago Film Office. “We’ll make proposals and seek suggestions,” says Napier. “We want to create a support network for the entertainment production community.”

Tapped Out

Dance fans were aghast when they thought they saw guest star Savion Glover getting the hook in a Chicago Human Rhythm Project performance earlier this month. Artistic director Lane Alexander says he was following Glover’s instructions when he had the lights dimmed after 12 minutes in order to bring the tap master out of his “dance trance.” Glover “loses track of time when he improvises,” Alexander adds. “Unfortunately, coming out of it, he was a little confused. He forgot he told us to do it.” The audience, including Glover’s mother, heard him ask aloud: “Oh, is that my cue? Am I done?”

Claiming the Gold

Peggy Chambers called to dispute our story two weeks ago about the origins of the Gold Coast Art Fair: she says it was brewed up in her coffee shop at 103 E. Oak. A couple of regulars were sitting around one winter night in the mid-1950s, Chambers says. “Frank Oehlschlaeger, who owned the art gallery next door, was there, and Lou Mariano, who wrote a column for the North Loop News. We were talking about summer, and we said we ought to have an art fair right here on Oak Street. We went to a carnival store and rented booths for each artist. It went over great, and we did it for two or three years before it was taken over by Arnie Matanky. Soon after that I had to close the shop–the Gate of Horn wanted the space for a saloon. But my husband got the little triangular park where State Street and Rush Street meet named for Lou, and it’s still called Lou Mariano Park.”

Too Much Kern for Cole

A Shine on Your Shoes? Hey–that’s not the Jerome Kern musical Kevin Cole was planning to debut at Ravinia’s Bennett Gordon Hall on Sunday. When Cole learned that two other Kern musicals were in production elsewhere, he and author Leeds Bird switched keys and came up with a narrative using the songs of Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz as the inaugural project of the Steans Institute music-theater program.

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