Comedy-Club Glut: What’s So Funny?

Chicago’s comedy-club business appears headed for a shakeout. Too many clubs, too few loyal customers, and too little drinking seem to be the key problems. Two years ago the city and suburbs saw a rapid proliferation of comedy clubs, including the Funny Firm, Catch a Rising Star, and the Chicago Improv. Sources say that since that tidal wave of openings, club managers have increasingly been forced to turn to free passes (“papering”) to fill their many seats, while counting on drink tabs to cover operating costs. “Pretty soon I predict every Chicagoan will receive a free pass to a comedy club,” cracks Bert Haas, manager of Zanies, one of the city’s first comedy clubs. Though Haas concedes he has been forced to resort to passes to keep up with the competition, he refuses–unlike some clubs–to resort to papering on Saturday nights. “That night is sacrosanct to us,” he says.

The freebies may fill seats, say observers, but they don’t ensure that customers will run up hefty bar tabs. In fact, food-industry trade papers are filled these days with articles about a general decline in drinking. Clearly the clubs are trying to respond to mounting pressures. The Funny Firm has hired sports and media consultant Gehrig Peterson to look at their situation. “We’re going to be evaluating operations at the club and making some marketing suggestions,” says Peterson. And Catch a Rising Star has a new manager, Bob Hillman, a former television sports anchor and stand-up comedian. Catch also is experimenting with talent lineups that go beyond the traditional stand-up routine.

Are the Cliff Dwellers About to Lose Their Perch?

One of the city’s oldest arts clubs may be forced to find a new home in the near future. The Cliff Dwellers, an arts and literary club founded more than 80 years ago, is awaiting word from Chicago Symphony Orchestra management about whether the club’s lease on space atop Orchestra Hall will be renewed two years hence. “We need more space,” says Joyce Idema, director of public relations and marketing for the orchestra, which now rents office space at several locations around the city. A subcommittee of the orchestra’s board of trustees is weighing several options, including substantial renovation of Orchestra Hall and even construction of a new home for the orchestra. The Cliff Dwellers’ cozy quarters, which include a comfortable library and dining room, provide some 300 members with breathtaking views across Grant Park and Lake Michigan. The club was founded to bring together artists in various disciplines with members of the community at large. Members include film critic Roger Ebert, CSO executive director Henry Fogel, and various orchestra members. Should the club be forced to vacate its penthouse perch, it would almost certainly mean a move to less inviting quarters and a boost in membership fees to cover increased costs.

A Lesson Learned in Lincolnshire: Rock Doesn’t Pay

Marriott’s Lincolnshire Theatre is trying to march to the beat of a slightly more forceful drummer, and having only mixed success. Producer Kary Walker has managed to snare the Chicago-area rights to Chess, the rock musical by Tim (Evita) Rice and Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson (both formerly of the disbanded Swedish rock group Abba); but the suburban theater has had a tough time selling the show to many of the theater-party groups that regularly attend. The problem? “They hear Chess has got a rock score and suddenly they’re not as interested,” explains Marriott marketing honcho Peter Grigsby If Evita and Abba are a little too fast for the Lincolnshire crowd, perhaps Grigsby will do better with a revival of the more down-home-sounding Pump Boys and Dinettes, which is set to open this summer after its long run in the city at the Apollo Theater. “Pump Boys is going to be our big money-maker,” predicts Grigsby.

Residents in Residence

Maybe rock will get a better reception at the Royal-George when the Residents perform their Cube E–the History of American Music in 3 E-Z Pieces. The show, which reportedly examines the roots of American ethnic, white, and black music, is scheduled for February 14-18. Perkins Productions staffers were having a tough time early this week figuring out whether to call it a rock concert or performance art. Meanwhile, Perkins Productions is moving ahead with plans to present the off-Broadway hit Other People’s Money in late March.

Inter-Continental Decor

The Hotel Inter-Continental Chicago will probably open its doors quietly in early March, but the pleasure palace inside should cause quite a stir. The hotel, at 505 N. Michigan (formerly operated by Sheraton and later by Radisson), has been restored at a cost of more than $150 million, about $50 million more than the Inter-Continental organization spent on its impressive restoration of the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. Visitors to the chain’s new Chicago property will find a range of dramatically different decors. The lobby reflects Mesopotamian and Celtic influences, while the floor above is Byzantine and Assyrian. The Renaissance Room is swathed in burled elm wood from the Balkan Mountains. The Boulevard Restaurant on the second floor will offer views of Michigan Avenue and of the hotel’s rotunda lobby. A night at the Inter-Continental will be priced in the neighborhood of $200, about standard lately for local luxury hotels. The official grand opening is set for April.

Glasnost Gallery

Glasnost just goes on and on: Art dealer Maya Polsky brings it to River North when her gallery opens February 9 showing the work of contemporary Soviet, Ukrainian, and Latvian artists exclusively. The inaugural exhibition features ten artists, including Vasily Shulzhenko and Olga Grechina. “Most of the pieces emphasize aesthetics over politics,” says Polsky. Most of them aren’t too cheap, either: prices range from $3,000 to $15,000. The artists themselves will get their share of the proceeds from any works that are sold. “These artists are allowed to make money,” says the dealer.