Earn As You Learn

CityFiles, the all-Chicago bookstore, memorabilia shop, and gallery that writer Rich Cahan and his wife, broadcaster Cate Cahan, opened last fall, is curiously located at the corner of Greenleaf and Wesley in a mostly residential part of Evanston. “We saw the space and just fell in love with it,” Rich Cahan explains. “We weren’t thinking about the fact that three people a day walk by. I thought all I had to do was put beautiful art on the wall and people would come and buy it. I went to the bank to talk about a loan and they said, ‘How much do you expect to make?’ I had no idea. My wife, who’s very impractical, says it’s going to be a sort of clubhouse. I say, that’s fine, who’s gonna pay the rent?”

The space was an art and antique shop when the Cahans first laid eyes on it last year, and it still is. There are baskets of old Chicago History magazines, matchbooks from long-gone businesses like the Silver Frolic (“a taste of Paris” at 400 N. Wabash), and license plates from the 1920s and ’30s. Plus striking new Chicago images by a dozen or more local photographers–culled with the eye Cahan developed in 16 years as picture editor at the Sun-Times and two years as director of the CITY 2000 project, which recorded Chicago life in a half million images for posterity. There are Chicago paintings (Bruno Surdo’s commanding Flora of the Subway is reason enough for a visit), a thousand Chicago novels, Arthur Rubloff’s custom-made size ten-and-a-half shoes, doorknobs pulled from a City Hall Dumpster, and Linda B. Lyon’s exquisitely crafted new hats, indistinguishable from the vintage pieces that were her models. There’s jazz in the air and hot cider to drink, and as little or as much informed conversation with the owners as you might want.

The Cahans are walking databases of Chicago lore. Cate, longtime editor of WBEZ’s local morning program, Eight Forty-Eight, is now a contributing editor at the station; Rich, who does what he calls “little histories,” is the author of a number of remarkable books about the city, including They All Fall Down, the biography of architectural photographer and preservationist Richard Nickel, and, coauthored with Mark Jacob, The Game That Was, a treasure trove of vintage baseball photos by George Brace. Early last year, steeped in artifacts Rich had collected for Chicago: Rising From the Prairie (published in 2000), the Cahans began thinking about a store that would “catch the spirit of Chicago” and “put things in the hands of people who love them.” After four months, Rich says CityFiles is on the cusp of breaking even. A ravenous consumer of both Cahans’ time, it will never take the place of Rich’s writing career (he’s currently working on a commissioned history of the Owen Coon Foundation). It’s a gamble and a grind. But Cahan says he’s intrigued by “the stories people bring in every day”–like those of the LaFramboise family, descendants of an explorer who was in the area in the 1790s. He says Cate will be setting up her tape recorder to capture some of those tales, which will be archived at a future Web site: “Cool stories, from CityFiles.”

The Fool and the Pheasant

If Noble Fool Theater Company makes a profit in its new outpost at Pheasant Run Resort in Saint Charles (scheduled to open in June), “it’ll go to help cover costs downtown,” says managing director Paul Botts. The Fool is in the process of hiring three full-time suburban staffers–a marketing manager, a production manager, and a house manager–for what’s been set up as a joint venture: “Pheasant Run is delivering the theater space; we are the operators,” Botts says. “We’ve agreed on an annual budget. [Once it’s covered] we’ll split the net.” Pheasant Run instigated the partnership, and the resort’s owner, Oakbrook Hotels, Inc., is sinking $20 million into renovations on the property, including a new lobby, stadium seating, and new sound and lighting systems for the theater. A studio theater is being built above the main stage to house Fool’s long-running improv comedy Flanagan’s Wake, which will open there in September. Botts plans to sell season tickets for four main-stage shows, which will transfer to the burbs after normal downtown runs; Pheasant Run will continue to market group sales. Ticket prices will be lower than in the Loop: $25 for Flanagan’s Wake (compared to $29 downtown) and $30 for the main stage (instead of the $35-$39 they’re charging for the downtown production of Vikings! A Musical in Two Axe, which opens Monday). The actors will get overnight accommodations on Saturday nights, and for the first time since the late 1980s, Pheasant Run will be an Equity house.

“Pheasant Run used to be in the country,” Botts says. “Now it’s surrounded by suburbs with residents who want professional theater, not ‘dinner theater.'” (Seventy percent of Pheasant Run tickets are purchased by people not staying at the hotel.) “We’re presenting fully produced professional theater in a 151-seat main stage downtown. From our point of view this is expanding our capacity, so when we go to the expense of mounting a Vikings it’s a little less scary.” At the same time “this is a separate area–one and a half hours away. We don’t believe we’re robbing customers from ourselves. Most of the folks out there are not gonna come down to 16 W. Randolph. They’re only coming downtown so many times a year for entertainment.”

Keeping It In-House

Netropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights, conceived as a for-profit presenter of theater imported (mostly) from the city but recently recast as a nonprofit producer of original work, has hired an education director (Sasha Clayton) and is making plans for classes, a summer camp, and possibly a theater for young audiences, according to executive director Tim Rater. Where does that leave Apple Tree Theatre, which has been conducting classes at Metropolis since it opened? “Apple Tree has one class here this session,” says Rater. “They’re in their fourth term here, and the number of classes and class sizes has continually lessened. Economically, it’s not what we’d hoped to generate.” Coming off a successful first solo production–this winter’s holiday run of A Christmas Carol–Metropolis is working on a second, To Kill a Mockingbird, scheduled to open in late May. The current Arsenic and Old Lace and a planned South Pacific, to be directed by Sheldon Patinkin, are coproductions with Bog Theatre. Rater is “in discussions” with Actors’ Equity about becoming an Equity theater but says “we need time to grow into it. It’s a matter of how many [Equity contracts] we can afford.” He expects Metropolis to produce (rather than transfer) most of its four-show season next year, because then he can pick the plays and control the quality–and it’s cheaper to cook than to carry out.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.