Chicago Theatre Installs New Manager; Will It Get a New Owner Too?

Two weeks ago Larry Sode quietly left his post as general manager of the Chicago Theatre, and the Chicago Theatre Restoration Associates, the investor consortium that operates the magnificently restored but financially troubled theater on State Street, replaced him with Joe Arneth, an entertainment-industry consultant out of Milwaukee.

Margery al Chalabi, a general partner in the consortium, said Sode’s decision to resign was linked to conflicts in management philosophy with executives at Los Angeles-based Haddad Entertainment. Promoter Eddie Haddad, whose company operates Milwaukee’s Riverside Theatre and several west-coast venues, has begun to play a more prominent role in booking and operating the Chicago Theatre while he attempts to put together a financial package to buy it. Sode did not return several phone calls.

Though al Chalabi says money matters were not a factor in Sode’s departure, recent developments suggest that the theater’s shaky financial situation has been worsening. “The recession has had a dampening effect on what we thought was going to be a better year than last year,” notes al Chalabi, who said the theater hoped to book 108 performance days in 1992, approximately the same number as last year. Al Chalabi Says Haddad has agreed to book at least 50 dates there this year.

One source suggested the management change may have been precipitated by Sode having booked attractions that did not bring in enough revenue, a point al Chalabi also denied. “Larry was doing as well as he could,” she said, adding that the theater has been under great pressure to cut deals that were competitive with other venues.

Six months ago the financially strapped theater instituted a controversial $3 surcharge on tickets purchased at its box office, a practice Haddad instituted at two theaters on the west coast. At least one local presenter pulled a month’s worth of dates from the Chicago Theatre in protest. The fee was intended to pay for the box-office staff’s union salaries, which the theater apparently could not cover with money generated from rentals alone.

Jerry Mickelson of Jam Productions, Chicago’s most powerful promoter, was not happy about Sode’s dismissal, saying, “Larry had a long list of clients he was used to dealing with and he knew the players in the entertainment business.” Arneth, the theater’s new general manager, moved from Chicago to Milwaukee in 1987 after having worked for seven years in city government under former mayors Jane Byrne and the late Harold Washington. Arneth says he will seek to book a wide range of attractions at the Chicago, including more theater.

Meanwhile, al Chalabi says she and her associates are working on a plan to repay by next January the $12.5 million federal loan used to buy and restore the theater. Al Chalabi says one option involves selling the theater to Eddie Haddad. “We are working very, very hard to put a deal together,” adds Larry Mandell, vice president of talent for Midwest Theatre Group, a subsidiary of Haddad Entertainment. Haddad could not be reached for comment.

Navy Pier Maneuvers for a Theater

The Chicago Community Trust has postponed its announcement regarding a site for a proposed midsize theater to serve the city’s dance and music organizations. Some observers believe the Trust may be leaning toward Navy Pier, where a theater would be built to the Trust’s specifications from the ground up. Other potential sites include the deserted Oriental Theatre on Randolph and Dearborn Station.

Several sources maintain that one factor in Navy Pier’s favor is the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority’s promise of operating support for a theater built there. Community Trust officials deny it, however; Richard Turner, a spokesman for the group, said, “I don’t think financial support will be a factor in the decision.” In any case, some arts executives connected with organizations expected to become tenants of the new theater remain disenchanted with Navy Pier and skeptical of the MPEA’s ability to provide ongoing funding.

“We are enthusiastic about the theater and think the pier would be a great place for it,” maintains MPEA chairman John Schmidt. Plans for pier renovation, scheduled to begin later this year, now include a tented performance space that could be used about six months of the year. Schmidt also said serious consideration is being given to constructing a 500-seat children’s theater in the pier’s family pavilion. He suggests that the children’s theater, the tented theater, and the 1,200-seat midsize theater would provide an ideal configuration for an event such as the International Theatre Festival of Chicago.

State of the State: Belt-Tightening at the Tourism Bureau, Slow Business at the Film Office

The Illinois Bureau Of Tourism has seen the future, and it doesn’t look pretty. As part of statewide budget cuts announced July 15, the tourism bureau’s overarching agency, the Department of Commerce and Community Affairs, suffered a 70 percent cut in funds for the upcoming fiscal year. The tourism bureau’s staff had to be slashed in half even though it managed to hold onto its $10 million advertising budget. Tourism officials note the cuts come despite the fact that tourism contributed $15 billion to the state economy in 1991. The state also closed five tourist information centers around Chicago, including those at O’Hare and Midway airports. Some tourist centers along the state border may remain open only part of the year.

In another curious development associated with DCCA’s budget cuts and subsequent restructuring, the Illinois Film Office now reports to the tourism bureau, in what spokesman Marshall Rosenthal describes as an attempt to merge all of DCCA’s leisure-related activities into one unit. The Film Office was the only department not decimated by the recent budget cuts; it will keep its entire staff and the same $500,000 budget it had last fiscal year. Suzy Kellett, director of the Film Office, said filming starts in the state are down substantially compared to last year’s record-breaking pace, a reflection of a general downturn in movie production on the west coast. She notes, “Filming is slow in a lot of states.”

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