Don’t Touch the Plumbing

Security was tight last week when Lookingglass Theatre conducted a press tour of its new digs, still under construction at the Water Tower Water Works on Michigan Avenue. After the usual check-in, the crowd had to produce photo IDs and don double badges before being shepherded from the woebegone tourist center (who decided this space needed a fast-food restaurant?) into the dugout-in-transition Lookingglass will call home. Back in 1998, when the Department of Cultural Affairs began to hunt for a theater company to bunk with the working pumping station in the city’s most venerable landmark, it seemed like a cool idea. In 2000, when the space was awarded to Lookingglass (with a two-decade, dollar-a-year lease), it sounded even better: a heady cocktail of innovative theater, historic architecture, and muscular infrastructure. For the nomadic Lookingglass, which has performed in 22 venues since its founding by a group of Northwestern University graduates in 1988, it promised to be a rocket to establishment status. Chicago theater specialist Morris Architects/Planners, Inc., set to work on the design, and Lookingglass began to plan its fund-raising strategy. Then came 9/11.

Suddenly the odd-couple arrangement looked really odd. A theater cheek to jowl with the waterworks? A chance for anyone with a play ticket to get familiar with the pipes that supply nearly 400,000 Chicagoans with 250 million gallons of water a day? Everything stopped. “It was a tense and sad time for everybody,” says Lookingglass executive director Jacqueline Russell. A longtime employee “lost her father when the Pentagon was hit; then came this call that things had to be put on hold. The city hired an outside firm to review all the security related to the water plants, and we had to wait for that review before our lease could be issued.” In October 2001, with its plans still on hold, Lookingglass kicked off a capital campaign. The city and state were each in for $1.5 million, but the goal (including $5.4 million for construction) was $7.5 million, and Russell was asking herself “whether theater would still be important to people.”

Lookingglass was originally projected to open in March; now it’s set to do so June 14 (with an adaptation of Studs Terkel’s book Race). The three-month difference is about the time it took for the consultants to give them a green light. Company members were holding their breath, Russell says of the time-out. In the end, “we had to make some changes and settled for a little less space.” The main stage will still have 250 seats, including a balcony; there’ll be a studio theater on the second floor. Architect Melissa Neel says “security was always an issue, but after 9/11 we had to be able to totally separate the pumping station from the theater in the event of an emergency.” To achieve that, the interior lobby entrance was moved closer to the street. Theatergoers will still have a behind-glass view of the waterworks when they come through the Lookingglass street entrance, which is being cut at a spot on Pearson where a door was converted to a window nearly 100 years ago. But plans to allow patrons to leave through the pumping station gallery in an emergency were revised. If necessary, fire doors will shut at the shared openings (at the elevator and the lobby vestibule); theatergoers will exit through the visitors’ center or directly onto the street. “This hasn’t been easy,” says Russell, who still has nearly a million dollars to raise. “But we feel like the little theater company that could.”

Work Release Program

Christian Narkiewicz-Laine made a deal with federal prosecutors late last month: he agreed to plead guilty to lying to the FBI (and accepted the prosecutors’ version of the case), and they agreed to drop charges that he defrauded the government of Denmark. Contrary to a January 29 report in the Tribune, this hasn’t affected his status as president and executive director of the Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design in Schaumburg. Federal prosecutors had charged Narkiewicz-Laine with inflating and making up invoices he then presented to the Danish government for payment in conjunction with “Denmark Through Design,” a show it was sponsoring at the Athenaeum (then located in Chicago) in 1996. He was indicted on two counts of mail fraud and one count of making false statements by telling an FBI investigator he hadn’t altered invoices to the Danes. The feds are dropping the mail fraud charges.

His sentencing is scheduled for May 14; he could get as little as a so-called home confinement, which would keep him from partying on the international circuit but allow him to go to work. That might be a good thing, since the Athenaeum has pretty much been his one-man show. On the other hand, a federal offense could be a bit of a drag when it comes to fund-raising and rounding up exhibit sponsors. But the Athenaeum’s board chairman, Florida real estate developer Neil Kozokoff, says the possibility of Narkiewicz-Laine stepping down “has never been considered. I don’t think he’s going anywhere. This is a guy who has devoted his life to the development of an educational institution. Christian deserves a lot of credit.”

Roosevelt’s President Under Wraps

Roosevelt University is hoping to make a splash when it formally installs its new president, Charles R. Middleton, on March 10. To that end Roosevelt PR czar Tom Karow is forbidding interviews with Middleton–who’s been on the job since last summer–until early March. A former vice chancellor for academic affairs at the giant University of Maryland system, Middleton is also a history professor who lists among his affiliations a life membership on the American Historical Association Committee on Lesbian and Gay History. Karow says Roosevelt is the only university in the nation to have an openly gay president.

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