There was a time when concessions at Chicago live theaters were pretty basic: water, soda, candy, coffee, tea, and maybe some beer in a can or wine in a box (depending on whether or not the venue had a liquor license). But as theater bars have expanded their range of legal booze options (or in the case of theaters like Steppenwolf and the Den, opened a separate bar/cafe where people can hang out), their bartenders have become more creative with themed cocktails. Even Chicago Children’s Theatre gets into the act; the “tea” at their current show, The Beatrix Potter Holiday Tea Party, is actually (nonspiked, natch) chocolate milk.
Alexa Ulrich is the front-of-house manager for Theater Wit, where she oversees the bar operations as well as box office and other patron services. I caught up with her to get a little bit of insight into how she and her staff come up with their creative drinks menu.
Kerry Reid: How long have you been working at Theater Wit and what brought you there?
Alexa Ulrich: I’ve been at Theater Wit coming up on seven years, if you include COVID, since we were closed for such a long time. I actually started as a house manager. I was trying to go to a show that I saw on the marquee. It was sold out, so I came back the next day to try to get in, and it was sold out again. It was closing, and I was so disappointed, because I felt like, “Man, I really wanted to see this show. It sounded like fun.” And they were really nice and they felt really bad that I couldn’t get in, so they asked if I wanted to see another show that was playing, which was Mr. Burns, the first time that they did it in 2015. They just redid the play for opening after COVID in August.
I started chatting with them. I had just moved to the city. I ended up getting a job house managing, and I didn’t start bartending for a long time. Because the last person who got hired as a house manager had started bartending and loved bartending so much that she stopped being a house manager. So when I got hired, they said, “You have to be a house manager. You can’t bartend, even though it’s fun.” I was house managing for a long time and became good friends with everybody. The bar manager at the time, Majel Cuza—she’s the one who actually came up with the idea of doing fun show drinks. She always had awesome new beers and wines from local vendors, and she would make these cocktails based on every staff member. So everyone kind of got a cool drink. Majel got a job at a Shakespeare festival, and then the bar manager position was open. None of the bartenders were able to do it, so they were like, “OK, Alexa, we know we said you could never be a bartender, but we need a bar manager.”
What’s your signature drink?
Mine is called the Surly Shirley, because I wanted it to taste like a Shirley Temple. But all of our drinks are quite strong. We use a citrus vodka and some cherry liqueur, along with some other things.
What’s the process for coming up with special show-themed drinks?
Usually when a show is going into rehearsals, we start to chat with them about themes and ideas from the show. Especially if it’s one of our own produced shows, like Mr. Burns, we may already have something specific in mind. We kind of start experimenting based off of any ideas for flavors, or names of a drink. At this point we have a huge long list of all these concoctions we’ve made.
For Who’s Holiday!, we were planning it over the weekend during previews because we usually have more hot drinks [in winter]. We do spiced apple cider and things like that. But with COVID, we haven’t been able to let drinks into the theater. People want faster drinks, and so we decided to do a dessert shot drink [Cindy’s Little Helper] for this show. We came up with a cherry chocolate drink with some touches like whipped cream to make it cute. Since it’s about Cindy Lou Who all grown up, it’s very silly.
A couple of drinks we just renamed for the holiday. Like The Grinch—we have a green drink. It’s really Jeremy’s drink [Jeremy Wechsler, Theater Wit producing artistic director]. Jeremy’s Last Word, which has chartreuse in it to give it that crazy green color. In winter, it’s called The Grinch.
Krampus Cranberry is always a fun one. We use Koval cranberry gin. We love Koval. We have a fun relationship with them. They’re local, they’re female-owned, and our bar is all female bartenders so we’re like, “Yay, we love Koval.”
Do you do nonalcoholic speciality drinks?
One of our staff members, Evan [Bell], we were trying to make him a cocktail and he said, “Well, I don’t drink alcohol. Can my drink not have alcohol?” So we do make a cherry lime drink that is really like Evan’s drink, the Bellmont Red Lime, which can definitely be made with no alcohol.
Themed drinks seem to be the norm now at theater bars. Do you think patrons expect it or look forward to trying them out?
For Mr. Burns, we added a second show drink, which was a shot that people could take before going into the show. We made a Flaming Moe shot, which is a drink from the TV show. And people were excited; they come in and they’re Simpsons fans and they recall that episode. We sold a lot of Flaming Moes.
You’ll always see a section of staff-inspired cocktails. It’s just fun to have everybody included and involved with making the drinks, and when we talk about them to patrons, we’re able to say, “This is Rebecca’s drink,” or “This is Corrie’s drink and she’s right over there.” It’s just a nice way to have that little bit of community.