Bad News at the Tribune

After the Tribune supposedly revamped its arts department last fall, John Twohey, who was then overseeing the department, said the quality (if not the breadth) of the paper’s cultural coverage could compete with the New York Times or any paper in the country. But two examples from last week’s Tribune have proven him wrong and shown that the paper’s attempt to clear the cobwebs hasn’t exactly succeeded.

On the front page of the February 20 edition, Tribune reporter Blair Kamin announced, as if for the first time anywhere, that Sara Lee Corporation chairman John Bryan and his research committee had given up hopes of building a massive new arts center to house the Chicago Symphony. Orchestra and the Lyric Opera, a fact covered in this column months ago. Kamin paired that story with more old news: the revelation that the Chicago Community Trust was spearheading a drive to build a theater to showcase local dance and music. That news broke in this column three months ago and was covered in the Sun-Times shortly afterward.

But these little gaffes were nothing compared to the Tribune’s February 22 coverage of John Frohnmeyer’s surprise “resignation” as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Michael Kilian, the gadabout social and cultural reporter best known for his chatty pieces about subjects such as author Kitty Kelley and east-coast society trends, produced a misleading front-page take on the NEA chief’s sudden departure that consisted mostly of quotes from Frohnmayer’s carefully worded resignation letter. At the end Kilian threw in a few paragraphs about the NEA’s recent achievements and pro forma comments from a couple of politicos and Chicago arts executives. To compile this sorry excuse for a story about a development that could have a far-reaching impact on the cultural community nationwide, Kilian required the assistance of reporter Kamin as well.

The real Frohnmayer resignation story appeared in the New York Times. In his story of February 22, reporter William H. Honan clearly stated in the lead sentence that the Frohnmayer resignation had little to do with the NEA chief’s “weariness” over the obscenity controversy (as Kilian stated high up in his story) and everything to do with political back-stabbing. Using key White House sources, Honan recounted in detail the chain of events that led President Bush to dump Frohnmayer, who had told reporters a week earlier that he had no immediate plans to resign. On February 24 Honan followed up with another lengthy piece about the potential impact of Frohnmayer’s dismissal on the NEA and the cultural community it funds.

When the Tribune revamped its arts department last fall, Twohey suggested that the paper would take a more hard-news approach to covering the cultural scene. But these last two failed attempts at timely reporting indicate that it isn’t yet taking arts coverage as seriously as the rest of the news.

Royal George Investors: In Over Their Heads, or Using Them?

Several leaders in the city’s commercial theater industry reacted with surprise and concern last week to news that an investor group called Hollywood Ventures, comprising entrepreneur Barry Schain and real estate developers Bob Athey and Pat Daly, had submitted a bid on the Royal George theater complex at 1641 N. Halsted. Schain and company say their offer was in the neighborhood of $3.5 million, which would mean it topped competing bids by about $1.5 million. Industry executives with the Royal George and the economics of the theater business expressed strong doubts about the group’s chances of turning a profit if they pay such a high price for the property.

Though the details of the deal are still being worked out, Schain’s group has already plans to transform the theater, restaurant, and office complex into a entertainment facility called Hollywood by the Lake. The name alone was a tip-off to many worried observers that Schain and his partners might be in far over their heads.

But speaking from his Jeep in a brief phone interview, the 25-year-old Schain insisted his group could profitably operate the complex. “When we can explain our plans in detail, you’ll see what I mean,” he said. He admitted that his only previous experience even remotely connected to the entertainment was the development of a miniature golf course in North Pier, but he said he plans to bring in people with more experience in the entertainment field to help operate the Royal George. Schain met earlier this week with commercial producer Robert Perkins–who has leased the Royal George for the past two years and appears to have lost out in his efforts to purchase the property–to discuss Perkins’s interest in staying on as a producer or manager.

Growth at the Oak Tree

Five months after the legendary Oak Tree Restaurant’s move into the sixth floor of 900 N. Michigan, owner Hale DeMar has mixed feelings about the change. “The crowd here is a little more homogenous than I would like it to be,” he said, adding, “We don’t get the street people we did at the comer of Rush and Oak.” The crowd also seems to be ordering healthier food–more salads and less meat. DeMar laments the sharp downturn in shopping activity in the Bloomingdale’s building, which has made traffic through his restaurant slower than he would like. “Most of our business is concentrated between 11 AM and 2 PM.” Still, with a better rent deal and more seats (280 in the new location versus 103 at the old), DeMar said the Oak Tree’s monthly gross revenue is about double what it was.