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Can the Old Town School Survive Permit Parking?

A worsening parking situation in the area around Armitage and Sheffield could force the Old Town School of Folk Music to seek a new home. The well-known music institution, which has been housed at 909 W. Armitage since 1968, appears to be fighting a losing battle with permit parking, which the City Council is expected to approve within the next couple of weeks for the area bounded by Armitage, North, Halsted, and Sheffield.

With permit parking already in effect for a broad stretch of streets north of Armitage, Old Town School executive director Jim Hirsch finds himself running a business in a neighborhood that’s not very user-friendly to many students and concertgoers. “We teach about 1,500 a week,” says Hirsch, “and about 60 or 70 percent of them arrive by car. Hirsch estimates 65 percent of the school’s revenue is generated during evening hours, when parking is toughest for neighborhood nonresidents.

Though sympathetic to the school’s plight, 43rd Ward Alderman Edwin Eisendrath says he has no choice but to accede to the wishes, of the community he serves. “Personally, I hate permit parking,” says Eisendrath, “but if that’s what the people who live there want, that’s the way it is.”

Meanwhile, the only alternative available to Hirsch short of moving the whole operation is a shuttle bus service between the school and a remote parking lot. “I don’t know if the students would use it,” says Hirsch, “and of course we’d have to absorb the cost somehow.” If Old Town should move to a new location, the school stands to profit handsomely from selling its Armitage Avenue facility. The property, bought in 1968 for $41,000, was recently assessed at $1.2 million. “Moving would be our absolute worst-case last scenario,” says Hirsch. Adds Eisendrath, “I really hope the neighborhood and the institution haven’t grown apart, but that very well may be the case.”

Theda Bara Cuts Back

Much has changed in Theda Bara and the Frontier Rabbi since it opened in mid-February at the Wellington Theater, to mixed reviews. The show’s weekly box-office grosses have yet to rise above 50 percent of capacity, and the need to get operating costs in line with income may have prompted the departure in late March of the 9 orginal cast members (out of a total of 14) who hailed from New York, including leading lady Rachel Sweet and leading man Jason Graae. “It had never been our intention to renew those actors’ contracts,” says producer Michael Leavitt. With Chicago actors filling those slots, Leavitt estimates there’s been at least a $2,000 reduction in weekly operating expenses because he no longer pays the New York actors’ housing costs. The musical’s creators, Jeff Hochhauser and Bob Johnston, departed only recently, after making extensive script revisions requested by Leavitt and coproducer Fox Theatricals that among other things cut at least 20 minutes from the show’s total running time. Though the Wellington engagement was expected to be a pre-New York tryout, there is no word yet on whether the musical ever will open in the Big Apple. “Fox and Leavitt still are in discussions with potential New York producers,” says a Theda spokeswoman.

Drained Profits

The Great Chicago Flood’s financial impact on the Loop theater industry could be felt for weeks to come. Already the Shubert Theatre has suffered losses that general manager Ken Shaw estimates at around $200,000. When the flood hit April 13, the musical Once on This Island was in the final week of a three-week engagement at the Shubert and just beginning to experience some build in ticket sales after a slow first couple of weeks. The Shubert suffered no flooding, but the power shutdown forced the cancellation of four performances, bringing the final week’s box-office total to only around $70,000 out of a potential $460,000 the week’s eight scheduled shows could have earned at capacity. Shaw said the Nederlander Organization, which operates the Shubert, and the Once on This Island tour producers will share the losses. The Civic Theatre, on the west side of the Loop, suffered no power outages or flooding, and Aspects of Love opened on schedule with advance sales of around $1.3 million. Could the on-street-parking ban and theatergoers’ uncertainty about Loop safety hurt other shows already running or those heading into the Shubert and the Auditorium in weeks ahead? “There could be a loss in advance sales momentum,” notes Auditorium Theatre executive director Dulcie Gilmore, “but it’s a hard thing to gauge.”

American’s Chicago Connection

Dallas-based American Airlines is moving in on United’s hometown turf to establish itself as the official airline of a number of the city’s cultural institutions. In recent months American has negotiated relationships with the Goodman Theatre and Light Opera Works. The airline already has ongoing relationships with the Chicago International Film Festival, the International Theatre Festival, the New Regal Theater, the Chicago Sinfonietta, and the Lyric Opera, and it’s in the final stages of negotiating an agreement with the Museum of Contemporary Art. American spokeswoman Mary Francis Fegan said American’s aggressive push to hook up with a broad cross section of cultural institutions is part of an effort to give something back to a community where American is a major presence. “We are one of the fastest growing corporations in the city,” said Fegan, adding that American and other subsidiaries of its parent, the AMR Corporation, employ some 12,000 people in Chicago.

Straight Talk a Bust

Though it was filmed entirely in and around Chicago, the Dolly Parton movie Straight Talk suffered a quick and miserable death at area movie theaters. Now in its fourth week, Straight Talk averaged a sad $1,200 last weekend at the few screens where it was still playing. The film’s poor showing didn’t surprise most veteran local exhibitors. “It was a terrible picture that had a big-titted broad in it,” said one.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.