Ballet Chicago: Splash or Crash?

Ballet Chicago was hoping to make a big splash at the Chicago Theatre, where it had scheduled six performances between October 25 and November 3. But early this week sources at the Chicago Theatre said the ballet company was having trouble coming up with its theater-rental payments, and just as we went to press the company’s executive director, Oleg Lubanov, told us the engagement was being scaled back to four performances because of slow ticket sales. The company is charging a steep $36 for the best seats, which seems high for a group with a short track record.

Sprung from the ashes of former prima ballerina Maria Tallchief’s doomed Chicago City Ballet, Ballet Chicago, under the artistic direction of Daniel Duell, has been the focus of much attention in the dance world. Should the company be unable to find its footing, it could be the last gasp for locally produced ballet on the relatively grand scale. Performing at Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts last summer, the company did receive some encouragement from New York Times dance critic Jennifer Dunning.

The Solti Shuffle

Critics who insist that Maestro Georg Solti hasn’t lavished enough attention on Chicago Symphony Orchestra business may have another bit of ammunition. Sir Georg and CSO composer-in-residence John Corigliano will meet in November to decide whether Corigliano’s Symphony no. 1 will debut as planned on January 18, 1990. Sources say Solti may want to postpone the debut; he may not have had sufficient time to study the score last summer because he accepted last-minute work at the Salzburg Festival filling in for the late Herbert von Karajan. Sources also say Corigliano is concerned that any postponement might appear to be due to displeasure with the completed score, which apparently is not the case.

Actor Comes to O’Rourke’s Rescue

Veteran actor Brian Dennehy has come to the aid of one of Chicago’s legendary saloons. O’Rourke’s, the longtime journalists’ hangout on West North Avenue, will shut down on Saturday night after almost 25 years in the same location. “The building owner told me he needed to get a lot more money for the space than I could afford,” explains owner Jay Kovar.

If all goes according to plan, though, O’Rourke’s won’t be gone from the scene for long. Thanks to a loan from Dennehy, Kovar is hopeful he will be able to sign a lease on a new space in a building at 1625 N. Halsted and reopen there around the first of the year.

“Dennehy wants to see the place survive,” says Kovar. The actor became a fan of the bar while appearing in plays at Wisdom Bridge and the Goodman. He still visits the city; his daughter is enrolled at Northwestern University medical school.

The move to North Halsted, a growing center for theater production, would parallel a change in O’Rourke’s clientele. “Our crowd’s been getting a little more theatrical,” notes Kovar. Jim True, a Steppenwolf ensemble member, once worked behind the bar at O’Rourke’s. And the cast of Methusalem, a play directed by rising film star John Cusack, frequently shows up at O’Rourke’s.

As for the journalists who put the place on the map, they aren’t the wild animals they used to be, according to Kovar. Some don’t drink as much as they used to, while others, such as Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, apparently have abandoned the bottle altogether.

Phantom of the Box Office

The folks peddling Ken Hill’s production of The Phantom of the Opera are no fools when it comes to selling tickets. Scheduled to play the Chicago Theatre February 6 through 11, Hill’s Phantom has been advertising heavily for weeks, taking full advantage of the fact that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway hit version of Phantom hasn’t announced its Chicago engagement (it’s expected to hit the Auditorium Theatre in early May). The Hill Phantom, which uses music by Mozart, Verdi, and Offenbach, already has racked up more than $400,000 in ticket sales at a top price of $34.50, with a potential $800,000 take for the week. Just how many of those ticket holders will be surprised and/or upset to see the Hill version is anyone’s guess at this point.

Theater Troupe Leaving Pilsen: “Couldn’t Draw Flies”

Attempts to turn the Pilsen neighborhood into a hotbed of theatrical production aren’t working. The Econo-Art Theater Company, one of the city’s cleverest groups, has pulled out of the East Pilsen Center for the Arts at 1935 S. Halsted, and is looking for a space back on the north side.

Explains Econo-Art ensemble member Ileen Getz: “We had high hopes we could make the Pilsen neighborhood work for us, but we have found that trying to run a theater is quite enough.”

Econo-Art moved to Pilsen last year after establishing themselves in a cozy River North basement space that was not zoned for theater. Operating on the theory that good theater should be affordable, Econo-Art’s top ticket price was a mere $5.99. The premise was a good one, and it worked. “Whether or not we got rave reviews,” explains Getz, “our loyal audiences showed up in River North.”

But all that changed when the company went south. “We couldn’t draw flies,” says Getz. Some important community newspapers also refused to review the company’s work because the new space wasn’t in their neighborhoods.

Frustrated and financially pressed, Econo-Art opted to shut down and relocate. Members hope to have a new space and a new show early in 1990.

The Fine Art of Marketing

Has art dealer Roberta Lieberman found a way to boost sales in the River North gallery district? In her new space at 230 W. Huron, Lieberman is experimenting with tape-recorded information and critiques in Japanese and German.

“If people from Japan or Germany came in to look at art,” explains Lieberman, “we had no way of effectively communicating what the art was about.” A new sales tool could be welcome in River North; some gallery owners were not happy about September receipts, which in some instances were as much as 50 or 60 percent off projections. Customer traffic through the area is not what it should be, according to some dealers.

Still, tepid business hasn’t stopped gallery owners such as Lieberman and Susan Sazama from reopening in River North after last spring’s devastating fire.

Lieberman and Sazama had been operating in temporary space at the Merchandise Mart, which they found a difficult location for art dealers. “I was glad to have the space,” says Lieberman, “but the Mart has its drawbacks. It’s really a wholesale kind of environment. The people passing through there are not in the market to buy art.”

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