Famous Door Shows Its Board the Way Out

Taking its uncertain future firmly into its own hands, the award-winning Famous Door Theatre Company has made the unusual decision to fire its entire ten-member board of directors. Usually a theater company’s board makes the final decisions about how the company is managed and who is hired or terminated, not the other way around. Famous Door’s extraordinary action apparently reflects the significant growing pains and financial pressure that the six-year-old company faces. “Famous Door is going through a period of transition,” notes Dan Rivkin, company cofounder and artistic director.

The company hopes to replace the board with a new lineup that can make influential contacts and channel significant new money into the increasingly visible and critically acclaimed organization. “What we are looking for now,” explains Rivkin, “is a fund-raising board, people who can help us in the business community.” Before asking the present board members to resign, Famous Door made overtures to some potential new members, though no one associated with the company expects that it will be easy to find replacements. “The right people are hard to get,” says managing director J. Spencer Greene. Rivkin says two of the board members–Lydia Stux and board president Gary Green–probably will enlist for the new board. Sources close to the developments say Green is a close personal friend of key company members, so it isn’t surprising he would carry on even though he was also offered the chance to resign. Both Green and Stux were out of town and unavailable for comment.

The outgoing board members, some of whom were surprised by the theater company’s abrupt action, were notified via letter of Famous Door’s request for their resignation no later than June 6. “It may seem abrupt,” notes Greene, “but the board restructuring is something we’ve been talking about for almost a year.” Coincidentally, the deadline for the resignations was the day before the 20th annual presentation of the Joseph Jefferson Citations, which recognize excellence among non-Equity theater companies. Famous Door wound up the big winner with eight citations for The Conquest of the South Pole and the deeply moving Shrapnel in the Heart. The company won more awards than several other troupes that are much older and often more heavily hyped, including Lookingglass (five citations), Shattered Globe (four), Pegasus Players (three), and Bailiwick Repertory (two). At this crucial juncture in Famous Door’s history, the value of such recognition has not been lost on Rivkin and his cohorts. He says, “The awards have raised our visibility and provided a little extra boost.”

But the ten-member ensemble and a new board of directors clearly have a long way to go before the company becomes a firmly established, solidly funded part of the theater community. To date Famous Door has managed to mount some of the slickest and most sharply acted off-Loop productions while operating under what some have described as Rivkin’s iron rule. “If you disagree with Rivkin in this group, it’s bad news,” said one source. “We’re all very strong-willed people in this company,” counters Greene. Rivkin says that for most of its history the company has raised money for each production as it went along. “We weren’t getting the foundation grants,” he notes, “and most of the money we did get came from corporate sources and individual donations.” Rivkin says Famous Door began to realize it could no longer work this way when it moved at the beginning of last season from the Theatre Building into the cozy 130-seat thrust space in the Jane Addams Center Hull House, at 3212 N. Broadway, previously leased by Bailiwick. He says, “That move raised the stakes for us.”

At the Hull House theater, Famous Door mounted two big hits in a row, The Conquest of the South Pole and Shrapnel in the Heart. They were followed by the much less successful mounting of Tiny Dimes, a black comedy about big business in the 1980s whose script problems were compounded by Dexter Bullard’s ridiculously over-the-edge direction. Tiny Dimes closed last weekend after a two-month run. The popular late-night show Hellcab, now in its seventh month, will continue to run through the summer.

To bring in more revenue after the closing of Tiny Dimes, Famous Door has sublet its space for the summer. In addition to selecting the new board over the next several months, the company hopes to start raising approximately $50,000 to cover its theater rental fees for the next year. “That will give us a good cushion so we don’t have to worry about getting kicked out of our space,” says Greene. The company has also made some small strides toward becoming a professional theater company with a paid administrative staff and acting company. Famous Door has begun paying its box-office personnel, and Greene says actors are paid when a show’s run is extended.’

Ten Years of Mass Attraction

Given the snail’s pace at which Chicago has developed as a tourist destination, who would have thought that an attraction like Here’s Chicago! would have lasted a decade? But lasted it has, and this month William Hartnett, creator of the audiovisual salute to the Windy City, celebrates the tenth anniversary of its opening in the old Water Tower pumping station at 163 E. Pearson. Even Hartnett himself admits to being somewhat surprised by its longevity. He also concedes having made many mistakes along the way, particularly in the beginning when he concentrated his marketing efforts on drawing Chicago residents rather than tourists. Since then, more than five million people, including droves of local schoolchildren and large. contingents of foreigners, have seen the slide and film tributes to the city. Hartnett has subtly updated the slide show, adding images of the late Harold Washington, Mayor Richard Daley, and Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Daniel Barenboim. But visitors come not just to gawk at Hartnett’s pleasingly sentimental homage to Chicago; they also plunk down plenty of cash at the gift shop in the lobby. Hartnett said about 50 percent of his annual revenue comes from the gift shop, which includes just about every kind of tchotchke imaginable.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.