Cubby Bear’s Revenge

Believe it or not, some players in the city’s hotly competitive nightclub scene did not exactly shout for joy last week when the Cubby Bear, nestled in the shadow of Wrigley Field, was named national nightclub of the year by Pollstar magazine, a respected weekly trade publication serving the concert industry. “The Cubby Bear isn’t even the best club along Clark Street,” howled Nick Miller, a Jam Productions promoter. Jam books a number of local venues, including the Vic, Park West, and the Riviera, and looks with obvious disdain on the Cubby Bear and the potential competition it represents.

Cabaret Metro owner Joe Shanahan doesn’t begrudge the Cubby Bear its national recognition, but at the same time he points out that his club beat out both the Cubby Bear and Jam’s Park West in a recent WXRT listeners’ poll. (Music industry managers, agents, and promoters vote on the Pollstar winners.) “It’s more important for me that the people who go to my club like it,” said who added that he’d read newspaper reports of overcrowding at some Cubby Bear concerts.

Sniping aside, there is no denying the Cubby Beam has found its niche in the local concert business, and the man who’s responsible for much of the success–as well as much of the sniping–is Brad Altman, a former messenger boy and bartender. In August 1989 Altman started doing promotion and public relations for the Cubby Bear; later he would take on the job of booking music acts there as well.

When Altman arrived, the Cubby Bear couldn’t begin to compete with other local concert venues. “It was the stepchild of a place like Cabaret Metro in terms of size, sound, and reputation,” admits Altman, who immediately set about making improvements with the blessing of owner George Loukas. Altman restored the building’s facade to its original 1920s appearance, knocked out walls, and repositioned the stage, producing a space much more sensibly configured for concerts. He also rehabbed the club’s erratic booking policy. On one front he aggressively and flamboyantly–and for the most part unsuccessfully–tried to wrest some popular rock talent away from the city’s established bookers and promoters. (Their lack of enthusiasm for his recent good fortune can probably be traced to this attempt.) But at the same time he sought niches for his club to occupy, booking jazz, blues, reggae, and finally his big winner, country. “I had a sense that country was about to explode,” says Altman, whose relatives happen to hail from Tennessee. When it did, the Cubby Bear was ready. “We opened up the market for country music in Chicago,” Altman boasts.

Jam executives bristle at Altman’s suggestion that he put country on the map in Chicago. They point to Jam’s major country bookings at the Rosemont Horizon and evenings of new country music acts at Schuba’s as indications of their commitment to developing a country audience here. But since April of last year Altman has booked almost 20 country acts at the Cubby Bear, from newcomers such as Pam Tillis to veterans such as Johnny Cash and Gary Morris, with tickets ranging from $5 to $25 for established acts such as Cash. He believes the healthy country franchise he has developed at the Cubby Bear was largely responsible for the Pollstar magazine award. “I am treated with a great deal of love in Nashville,” he allows.

With the Cubby Bear established, Altman is now dreaming bigger dreams. I would like to compete with Jam Productions,” he says. He quickly acknowledges that he doesn’t control nearly enough venues to pose much of a threat to the city’s most powerful concert promoters. But don’t count him out. “Can things change?” he wonders at the end of a long interview. Then he answers his own question. “Definitely.” We’ll see.

Hart to Hart Love Letters

Put television stars into an intimate theater piece and suddenly it seems you can sell it anywhere. How else can one explain the brisk ticket sales prompted by the announcement that a production of A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters starring Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers will play the vast Chicago Theatre for a week beginning February 26? “I think a lot of people just want to stare at two TV celebrities for a couple of hours,” said one source close to the booking. Gurney’s play is a touching piece performed in its entirety at a desk where two characters read aloud a series of letters chronicling their romantic relationship over most of a lifetime. It’s generally performed in small theaters where audience and actors are in close proximity. It first was presented in Chicago, in fact, by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company at its former home, which seats a mere 211. A source at the Chicago Theatre, which seats 3,600, said every effort is being made to give the production there some feeling of intimacy. The desk from which the actors read will be positioned close to the audience, and only 2,000 seats in the center section have been put on sale.

Hard Times, Harder Job

Many people are looking for work in this economy, but not many have jumped at the opportunity to replace Keryl McCord as executive director of the League of Chicago Theatres. Mary Badger, president of the troubled League’s board of directors, says she’s received about 14 resumes for the position; some people were approached about the job but did not submit resumes. Badger and her selection committee have narrowed the list of candidates to four (three local and one from Boston) and are in the final stages of interviewing those candidates. One of the leading finalists is Alton Miller, former press secretary to the late Mayor Harold Washington. In addition to his political connections (he’s now communications. director of Carol Moseley Braun’s Senate campaign), Miller has a background in arts administration. He came to Chicago as managing director of Maria Tallchief’s defunct Chicago City Ballet, having previously been associated with the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Miller is married to Cindy Bandle, press director of the Goodman Theatre.

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