Cabaret Comes to Wicker Park

Cabaret entertainment, though well established in New York, can’t seem to find

a place in our nightlife. During the 80s the Gold Star Sardine Bar generated some excitement by booking talent like Julie Wilson, Andrea Marcovicci, and Bobby Short. Cite, the elegant restaurant atop Lake Point Tower, toyed with cabaret for a few months last year, presenting the likes of Karen Mason and Amanda McBroom. Now the only solid venues are the gay bar Gentry of Chicago, Gentry on Halsted, and Lincoln Park’s tiny Cognac Bar at Toulouse on the Park, which books local talent and well-known New York artists. This Wednesday, Bill Davenport and Donna Kirchman will drag cabaret into the alt-rock wilderness of Wicker Park when they open Davenport’s, a piano bar and cabaret room at 1383 N. Milwaukee.

Kirchman and Davenport came up with the idea five years ago, when Davenport was a bartender at Spiaggia and Kirchman was an advertising executive who frequented the restaurant. After discovering a common interest in cabaret music they vowed to open their own club, but they spent years wrestling with zoning laws as they searched for the right spot. They considered sites in the west Loop and along the growing entertainment strip on Southport, but eventually they bought a space just north of Division and Milwaukee that had previously housed a dry goods store. Explains Kirchman, “We kept coming back to Wicker Park, because it seemed right to us.”

She and Davenport have lived in the neighborhood for years, and they’re convinced that the area will welcome cabaret entertainment. “As the price of real estate in the area has increased, a somewhat older population is moving into Wicker Park,” says Kirchman. In addition to the older set, they hope to attract those people who flock to the neighborhood’s growing array of upscale restaurants. “There are a lot of 30-plus-year-olds who are looking for somewhere to go in Wicker Park other than a rock club after they dine at Cafe Absinthe.” Area restaurateurs agree. “We’re seeing a lot of people from different neighborhoods coming here to eat,” says Derrick Robles, co-owner of the Bongo Room, one block north of the new club. Joan Welch, executive director of the Wicker Park Chamber of Commerce, also thinks the area is ready for cabaret. “The median age has climbed from 18 to 19 up to between 25 and 30 over the past ten years,” she says. “There’s definitely an older crowd here now.”

Davenport’s will be open six nights a week, with Tuesday the only dark evening; the owners plan to charge a $25 cover for major names, $10 for less established performers. Mason, a former Chicagoan, will open the club with a two-week engagement; after that, says Davenport, “We’d really like to put the spotlight on the talent here in Chicago.” Singer Bob Moreen, a founding member of the new association Chicago Cabaret Professionals (which will host an AIDS benefit this Wednesday at Second City), views the opening of Davenport’s with great interest. “It sounds like a marvelous experiment,” he says. “There are a lot of great cabaret performers in Chicago, but they need a stage.”

Peeved Cheevers

Anita Miller, president and editorial director of Academy Chicago Publishers, took no chances with her new book Uncollecting Cheever: The Family of John Cheever vs. Academy Chicago Publishers. Before it was typeset she had it vetted by two different libel experts to satisfy herself that the material wouldn’t prompt legal action from the clan’s high-powered attorney Martin Garbus or their literary agent Andrew Wylie. Miller’s book details the four-year court battle she and her husband Jordan endured after the family refused to honor a contract authorizing Academy Chicago to publish 68 uncollected stories by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author. When Cheever’s children discovered that his widow, Mary, had signed with Academy Chicago for a meager $1,500 advance, they moved to block publication, an effort that ultimately cost the parties an estimated $1 million in legal fees. Seven years after Academy Chicago lost the book, Miller says she’s found closure with the release of Uncollecting Cheever. “We really didn’t want to publish it ourselves,” says Miller, “because we didn’t think people would believe the book was credible.” Not surprisingly, no mainstream New York publishing house would touch the manuscript; Miller was about to give up and publish it through Academy Chicago when Maryland-based Rowman & Littlefield accepted it. Miller will discuss the book this Sunday at Women and Children First.

Cash Grab

Struggling with alleged irregularities in its financial records, Livent Inc. has introduced a new seating policy at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, where Ragtime premieres this Sunday. House seats, reserved for the well-connected and traditionally among the best in the venue, are typically sold at the regular orchestra seat price ($75 in the case of Ragtime). But Livent is charging $125 for a special “VIP seat” that includes access to a private lounge, coat check, and other amenities. Meanwhile the Ontario Securities Commission continues its investigation into the company’s financial records; the company’s stock has not traded since the story broke in early August, and despite CEO Roy Furman’s promises of new information in late October, Livent is keeping quiet. Fosse, a revue of dance numbers by Bob Fosse that opened to mixed reviews in Toronto that same month, will premiere on Broadway in January; hoping to give the show a new spin, Livent recently dropped the subtitle A Celebration in Song and Dance and tagged the show “a new musical,” though it lacks the characters and libretto associated with such a format. Life is no cabaret.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Bill Davenport and Donna Kirchman photo by Nathan Mandell.