Commercial Break: Theater Owners Play Hardball, Producers Cry Foul

Just when the theater scene could have used a little peace and quiet, a battle has broken out in the ranks of commercial producers–a battle that could have a lasting impact on the way the game is played in Chicago. Proclaiming that fair play had been abandoned, the veteran commercial producing team of Michael Cullen, Sheila Henaghan, and Howard Platt (CH&P) spent much of last week decrying the manner in which the operators of the Wellington Theater, Wes Payne and Michael Leavitt, ousted the CH&P production of Shirley Valentine and replaced it with the David Dillon-John Pasinato production of the musical Nunsense, which is moving into the city from the Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace. After a complex concatenation of phone calls, faxes, meetings, and legal maneuvers spread out over three tense days, CH&P finally decided to try moving their one-woman show to the Briar Street Theatre, where it may reopen later this month. But throughout all the wheeling and dealing, CH&P maintain that Payne and Leavitt (who also operate the Apollo Theater) failed to deal openly and in good faith to keep Shirley Valentine at the Wellington. “Their inexperience,” says Cullen, “has manifested itself in their unethical dealings and embarrassed the whole theater community.”

Payne and Leavitt deny those charges, saying CH&P were simply caught off guard, surprised to find themselves competing for the Wellington with another producer willing to pay $4,000 more a week than they had been paying. “They think they are the only ones with problems,” maintains Payne. “They don’t like someone else to have the upper hand.”

Whoever ultimately bears the blame for this unpleasant turn of events, the issues behind the flap will haunt the local industry for some time. After a year of producing shows that have failed to strike pay dirt, CH&P were fighting to save Shirley Valentine, which had been struggling toward profitability. Their need for a hit show is indicative of the difficulties most of the city’s commercial producers now face in finding plays and musicals that will turn a profit for investors. CH&P also have been among the most vocal opponents of rising theater rents, maintaining that fees upwards of $12,500 a week–the amount Nunsense will pay at the Wellington–leave little if any chance of eking out a profit on commercial productions. CH&P had hoped to build their own theater to help control production costs, but those plans are on hold. As theater operators, Payne and Leavitt, on the other hand, are faced with the need to pay off $250,000 in loans incurred when they renovated the Wellington (ne Ivanhoe) earlier this year to make it a more workable space for producers. In their current mind-set, Payne and Leavitt are inclined to favor the producer who will pay them the most money to rent their theater.

The clash of egos cannot be discounted in the Shirley Valentine affair. CH&P consider themselves the senior producers in town. Yet in recent weeks Payne and Leavitt, relative novices as commercial producers, have nabbed the rights to Lend Me a Tenor and M. Butterfly, two Broadway hits that in years past would have landed almost automatically at CH&P. CH&P are openly skeptical of whether Payne and Leavitt can successfully mount the two shows. All the bickering is giving pause to other local producers. “I have no desire to produce in Chicago right now,” says Alan Salzenstein, “because it seems some producers are competing with borderline ethics.” Instead, Salzenstein and partner Criss Henderson are opening A Girl’s Guide to Chaos in Boston in October. And Payne himself concedes the Shirley Valentine mess won’t be easily glossed over. “I do feel guilty in this matter,” he says. “I’m afraid people in this business all over the nation will think we are all a bunch of petty, backbiting individuals.”

Northlight Graduates to a New Theater

Northlight Theatre’s search for a new home has concluded with the signing of a three-year lease to occupy the Coronet Playhouse, a former movie theater on Evanston’s south side that in recent years has been used to house the occasional live theater production. Northlight was forced to vacate its home at 2300 Green Bay Road because it is being reopened as a school. Spokeswoman Julie Goodyear said six weeks of renovation would begin immediately to prepare the Coronet for the opening of the company’s season on October 3; the first show will be the world premiere of Eleanor in Her Own Words, based on the writings of Eleanor Roosevelt.

Cliff Dwellers Hanging in Suspense

The Cliff Dwellers, the club for artists and literary types, may get to stay in their cozy space atop Orchestra Hall, with its breathtaking views of Grant Park and Lake Michigan; Chicago Symphony Orchestra executive director Henry Fogel says he will meet with club representatives later this month or next to “continue discussing” the matter. Earlier it appeared that the club might have to vacate its site to make room for CSO administrative staff, but Fogel says club members have presented him with a compelling case for why they should be allowed to stay. If the Cliff Dwellers are to stay, Fogel warned, they may have to contend with higher rent, to offset more of the cost of keeping CSO staffers housed in locations other than Orchestra Hall.

New Sound to Be Spread Around

Dolby Surround, the newest twist in recording technology, is likely to become more widespread in September, when RCA Victor’s exclusive rights to the sound-enhancing technique lapse. In recent months RCA has released several recordings remastered in Dolby Surround, including Classic Film Scores for Bette Davis and a National Philharmonic recording of the score from Gone With the Wind. Industry sources say CBS Records may use the Dolby Surround system on the next Michael Jackson album.

How Many in the Monet?

It doesn’t look as if the Art Institute’s Monet exhibit, which closes August 14, will break the attendance record of more than 685,000 set by an earlier show of Vatican treasures. But it won’t be for lack of huge crowds trying to squeeze in. Art Institute spokeswoman Eileen Harakal says the Monet attendance will be lower–probably around 400,00–because the show covers less actual gallery space than the record holder; consequently fewer people have been able to see the exhibit on a daily basis. “Had it been a larger exhibit,” says Harakal, “I think it would have been a different story.”

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