Big League Tax Break

The League of Chicago Theatres is entertaining a proposal that may boost sales at its Hot Tix booths while strengthening its ties to the city’s commercial theater industry. A group of big-name producers and representatives from large commercial venues has asked the league to chip in $30,000 toward the legal fees involved in lobbying the City Council to reduce or eliminate the city’s amusement tax. The league, whose members include commercial and noncommercial theaters, is prepared to honor the request in return for a promise from the commercial producers to supply the league’s Hot Tix operations with more tickets. Since the league was founded in the early 1980s, the service charges levied on tickets purchased at Hot Tix booths in the city and suburbs have been its largest source of revenue.

Acting as a group, the commercial producers–including the Nederlander Organization, the Royal Group, Jam Productions, Michael Leavitt/Fox Theatricals, and Live Entertainment Corporation of Canada–and representatives from large commercial venues like the Chicago and Auditorium theaters retained the law firm of Mayer, Brown & Platt to handle the City Council fight. Sources say the group has already paid the firm approximately $40,000 and that the final tab could hit $100,000. Convinced that reducing or eliminating the 7 percent amusement tax levied on every ticket sold by theaters with 750 or more seats is in the best interest of all league members, the commercial producers want the league to cover some of these legal expenses.

The proposal is a tricky one for the league, whose large contingent of not-for-profit theater members might not look kindly on such a sizable chunk of money going to fight a battle that doesn’t directly affect them. “We would potentially be trying to do something for the for-profit people to keep them happy,” explains league executive director Tony Sertich.

But Sertich and the league’s board of directors also view the request for funds to fight the amusement tax as an opportunity to force the producers to use Hot Tix more consistently. In recent years most of the tickets available at the booths have come from small theater companies whose tickets often command smaller service fees and don’t usually move as briskly as tickets for productions with more mass appeal.

Led by producer Cameron Mackintosh, who has brought Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, and Phantom of the Opera to Chicago, commercial producers have been increasingly reluctant to put tickets at the booths for fear of revealing that their shows are not sellouts. Toronto-based Live Entertainment didn’t use Hot Tix at all during the 17-month run of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Chicago Theatre, and the producers of Angels in America rarely made tickets available at Hot Tix during that show’s 6-month run at the Royal George Theatre Center. In January, when producers did decide to sell some Angels in America tickets at half price, they sold them at the box office, cutting Hot Tix out of the loop.

Sertich says that before any league funds are committed to the amusement tax fight, he wants the commercial producers to agree to supply the booths with a significant number of tickets whenever their shows run in local venues. Sertich says the agreement also would have to stipulate that

the tickets be for popular weekend performances as well as midweek shows. So far the commercial producers have not indicated whether they will agree to the league’s demands, but a response is expected within three weeks. “I see this as a potentially win-win situation,” says league board president John Walker, who believes the proposed arrangement could increase Hot Tix revenue and ultimately benefit the entire theater community by helping to eliminate the city amusement tax. “If the tax stayed on the books, who knows, it might someday be applicable to small theaters as well as the large ones,” he adds.

Another Theater Exec Exits

The other shoe finally dropped last week at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company with the resignation of Stephen Eich, the company’s managing director for the past 13 years. Eich’s departure comes just weeks after Steppenwolf artistic director Randall Arney announced he would be leaving his post at the end of the season. As reported here two weeks ago, Arney indicated in a confidential letter to Steppenwolf ensemble members that his departure was prompted in part by what he viewed as a behind-closed-doors attempt by the Steppenwolf board of directors and theater cofounders Gary Sinise, Jeff Perry, and Terry Kinney to strip him of most of his powers as artistic director. Earlier this week Eich sought to separate his decision to resign from any developments surrounding Arney’s departure, but the closeness of the announcements suggests otherwise.

Eich said he would like to leave Steppenwolf debt-free, but he conceded the company might wind up in the red if its current offering, Nomathemba, and the last production of the season, ensemble member Frank Galati’s adaptation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, don’t meet projected ticket sales. To ensure a smooth transition, Eich said he would try to stay on until his replacement is on board. A national search is expected, though one source did not rule out the possibility that Steppenwolf’s director of audience development, Tim Evans, might be tapped for the job. Eich plans to explore other opportunities, including coproducing an off-Broadway mounting of Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Armando Villa, Eileen Glenn.