Class Conscious

Mark Curtis is betting more than a million dollars that Chicagoans long for the days of the Chez Paree and Mister Kelly’s. Curtis says he wants to “bring back the glamour and elegance that used to be the hallmark of the Chicago nightclub experience,” when he converts the giant space atop Piper’s Alley into the Black Orchid Showroom and Lounge, a 500-seat art deco nightclub.

Former tenants haven’t been lucky: the room once housed the short-lived musical Song of Singapore and the low-budget tribute The Pack Is Back. The Rat Pack show disappeared in August 1997, leaving some furious customers with worthless tickets, and after that fiasco MCL, which owns Piper’s Alley, sifted through proposals from several groups before leasing the space to Curtis. Among the candidates were the producers of Shear Madness, the audience-participation whodunit trying to relocate from the Blackstone Hotel after more than 17 years. But MCL vice president Kevin Augustine says he preferred Curtis’s business plan, and with Second City and the audience-participation show Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding already thriving there, MCL chose a venue with an audience that would sit down and be quiet: “We selected what we felt would work best with the existing mix of entertainment already in the building.” Among Curtis’s partners is Tony Tomaska, producer of Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding; perhaps Tomaska can create some crossover between his popular show and the new club. Kelly Leonard, producer of Second City, was surprised that the Black Orchid beat out Shear Madness, but he says Curtis has already proved an affable neighbor, offering to let Second City use his space for classes when the club is dark.

Curtis, a former comic and Las Vegas casino operator, says he wants to book “the best America has to offer,” including vocalists, specialty acts, and jazz performers who are too pricey for a bar like Green Dolphin Street. (The original Black Orchid on Ontario featured artists ranging from Burl Ives to Harry Belafonte.) The first month’s bookings, however, are strictly stand-up, including David Brenner, Robert Wuhl, Kevin Nealon, and Robert Klein, with Joe Piscopo set to open the club on New Year’s Eve.

Leonard would like to see something click in the space: “It would be great for all of us to have a successful business there.” But Curtis may find comedy a tough sell. “At one time Chicago had 16 stand-up comedy clubs,” Leonard notes. “Now we’re down to just one, and that’s Zanies.” Zanies is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, but even owner Rick Uchwat admits the business isn’t what it used to be. “Dining out has become the entertainment of choice for the 1990s,” he says, “and people who spend a lot of money eating out don’t tend to spend more to buy a ticket to see something afterwards.” He recently shut down the Zanies in Mount Prospect. Even with low ticket prices, Uchwat says, only a handful of stand-up acts draw. “Jackie Mason sold out three weeks, but he’s the rare exception nowadays.”

Crossover Dreams

Dance productions have been gaining a foothold on Broadway lately: in addition to recent favorites like Stomp and Tap Dogs, a radically reconceived version of Swan Lake with homosexual overtones is one of this season’s only hits. Now the New York-based Nederlander Organization, trying to gauge the crossover potential between Chicago’s dance and theater audiences, has added Hubbard Street Dance Chicago to its 1999-2000 subscription series at the Shubert Theatre, along with theatrical productions like Jolson, Cabaret, and Two Pianos, Four Hands.

“I think the Nederlanders had seen how popular the company was with audiences when we appeared at the Shubert as part of the spring festival of dance,” explains Kim Swinton, marketing director for Hubbard Street. If the troupe is a hit with Shubert subscribers, the Nederlanders might add it to the subscription series in Detroit or Los Angeles. Gail Kalver, executive director of Hubbard Street, says such a plan hasn’t been formally discussed, but “it would be a great idea.”

Joffrey’s Ex on the Rebound

Robert Alpaugh, who left the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago last September after only 18 months as executive director, may not be out of work much longer. Sources close to the nonprofit Chicago Opera Theater say Alpaugh will be the interim general director, replacing Mark Tiarks, who’s relocated to Colorado with his family. When Alpaugh left the Joffrey, he seemed reluctant to continue in the nonprofit arts sector, but apparently he’s rethought that decision. Chicago Opera Theater, which just concluded a reasonably successful run of Hansel and Gretel at the Athenaeum Theatre, continues to fight its way back to full health after nearly being sunk by mismanagement in the early 90s.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): David Brenner, Joe Piscopo uncredited photo.