Auditorium Fracas: The University Strikes Back

The war between the Auditorium Theatre Council and Roosevelt University, the Auditorium’s owner, is intensifying, though it appears steps taken by Roosevelt president Theodore Gross will ensure the university winds up in control of the theater and its revenues. In mid-December ATC members Fred Eychaner and Betty Lou Weiss filed a suit alleging Gross was improperly seeking ATC funds for other university-related purposes. Early last week Roosevelt filed a counterclaim in Cook County Circuit Court, alleging that ATC was never formally granted authority to operate the Auditorium and seeking an injunction to prevent it from doing so. “The only purpose of the ATC is fund-raising,” says Stan Eisenhammer, attorney for Gross and the university. Though it doesn’t dispute that funds contributed to the theater should be used solely for theater-related purposes, the university argues it has clear legal rights to revenues generated by the Auditorium.

Last week at the council’s first regularly scheduled meeting since the lawsuits were filed, ATC treasurer Tom Kallen read a resolution asking Gross to step aside as ATC chairman for the duration of the meeting. A source present says the resolution passed by a vote of 13 to 9, but when Gross refused to relinquish his post, no further steps were taken to press the point. Later in the meeting ATC members passed a resolution prohibiting Roosevelt from diverting $1.5 million from the Auditorium’s reserve fund to finance its new Schaumburg campus. Eychaner described the passage of that resolution as “one success along the road to a larger victory.”

But it may prove a moot victory. Still in command of the council, Gross told the group he would not need Auditorium revenues to fund the suburban campus because he had obtained $16.5 million from a local bank. Gross went on to inform ATC members that he was going forward with plans to establish a new university-controlled board that would have direct control over management of the theater. In October Gross outlined such a plan in a confidential memo to ATC members. If implemented, Gross’s plan would likely leave the ATC with little power over Auditorium Theatre revenues.

When the Auditorium has housed long-running hits such as The Phantom of the Opera or Miss Saigon it has generated considerable revenue. Figures for the 1993 fiscal year indicate a surplus of $900,000 in operating revenue. The theater also took in approximately $750,000 in contributions that year for a total surplus of $1.65 million. The 1994 fiscal year was slightly better. A $1.1 million revenue surplus and an additional $600,000 in contributions created a total surplus of $1.7 million.

The ATC says it needs these and any future surpluses to fund a variety of Auditorium renovations that will cost nearly $10 million. They include $2 million for restoring and redecorating walls and ceilings, $1 million to install an elevator for the disabled, $250,000 for new carpets, and $1.5 million for rewiring. The list also includes $750,000 for development of a studio theater that would allow the Auditorium to compete with off-Loop venues for smaller productions.

Chicago Theatre in a Jam?

John Bruns abruptly resigned last week as chairman of the Civic Preservation Foundation, which was formed in October to oversee operations at the Chicago Theatre. The bankrupt State Street venue has defaulted on repayment of millions of dollars in city loans made to renovate the theater in the mid-1980s. In addition to the departed Bruns, who is general manager of the Stouffer-Riviere Hotel, the board includes the city’s cultural commissioner Lois Weisberg, Marshall Field’s president Daniel Skoda, art dealer Isobel Neal, and WLS TV president and general manager Joe Ahern. Bruns hasn’t given specific reasons for his unexpected resignation, citing only “philosophical differences” with other foundation members, but sources familiar with developments say Jam Productions, arguably the city’s most powerful concert presenter and a contender for the job of managing the Chicago Theatre, is at the center of the controversy.

If Jam were named to manage the theater’s day-to-day operations and handle its booking, it would almost certainly replace Joe Arneth, the theater’s general manager for the past two and a half years. During Arneth’s tenure, the theater became the nation’s second-highest-grossing theatrical venue. According to 1994 figures compiled by the trade publication Amusement Business, only New York’s much larger Radio City Music Hall earns more. The Chicago’s newfound success can be attributed in large part to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which ended a 17-month run with a total gross of more than $50 million.

Bruns did not return a call to his office, but according to one source who spoke with Bruns before he resigned, the departed chairman identified himself as a friend of Arneth; as such he was presumably disinclined to vote for making Jam the Chicago’s new manager. Though Jam’s Jerry Mickelson declined to comment, some sources say Jam is destined to get the job because of its connections in city government. Last spring Jam and Weisberg cohosted a reception for attendees of the NEA’s “Art 21” conference.

Some observers apparently fear that if it were awarded the job of booking the Chicago, Jam would favor concerts and short runs, like the one-week engagement of Fiddler on the Roof it’s presenting this month at the Chicago. Mickelson dismisses such fears, stating that it would be simpler and more profitable for the organization to book long-running shows.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Cynthia Howe.