Frankie J’s: Wet at Last

Last time we checked on Frankie Janisch, nearly two years ago, the comic, crooner, and Culinary Institute of America-trained chef was reeling from a badly botched attempt to get the neighborhood around his Uptown restaurant and theater, Frankie J’s and the MethaDome, to go wet. Thanks to a mistake by the city clerk’s office, Janisch had conducted a vigorous campaign for yes votes on a referendum when in fact he needed no votes to reverse the area’s longtime dry spell. After he blanketed the hood with flyers and took to the streets with banners, 65 percent of the voters did exactly what he asked, and the 38th Precinct of the 46th Ward remained alcohol free. To make matters worse, Janisch learned that–the city’s mistake notwithstanding–he’d have to wait four years to get the referendum on the ballot again. But today, after 34 bone-dry years, the area around Frankie J’s is scheduled to go suddenly and quietly wet. All it took was a few hundred more signatures on petitions and a little redistricting magic. Janisch had never really needed the $360-an-hour lawyer or the $1,500 “consulting services” of two guys who promised to “ease the process” when city inspectors came around.

These days everything is cozy between Janisch and the city–but not so long ago his lawyer was looking for a way to sue the city clerk over the referendum debacle. That turned out to be unnecessary after Frankie J’s hosted a January 2003 campaign event that was attended by Mayor Daley and a half-dozen aldermen, including the 46th Ward’s Helen Shiller. “This was a historic moment for the Daley administration to extend its arm and for the Shiller administration to extend its arm to work together,” Janisch says, and the following Wednesday he got a phone call from the city suggesting that Frankie J’s might be a candidate for a bypass. A bypass, as Janisch came to understand, is an alternative to a go-wet referendum, but it requires signatures from 67 percent of the affected area’s residents. On the advice of his lawyer, Janisch set out to collect them. At the Salvation Army, where most of the precinct’s new voters had been registered, he received a mixed reception: “I was spit on, beer was thrown at me, and one guy urinated on my leg.”

Several months later, when his lawyer dropped 275 of the 325 signatures Janisch had collected because they’d expired–a detail Janisch says hadn’t been mentioned till then–the two parted ways. Last December, feeling desperate, Janisch wrote a personal letter to the mayor asking for assistance “as a born Chicagoan, a son of a firefighter for 39 years, and a small business owner in an area in dire need of the kind of change [Daley] envisioned for Chicago.” He says he doesn’t know whether the mayor intervened or not, but after that “things began to roll.” He was called to City Hall “to discuss my situation,” and learned to his horror that before he could get a bypass the area would have to be redistricted. He was alone and lawyerless, but the atmosphere around him had undergone a change: Alderman Shiller and the city bureaucracy were taking an interest, trying to help. This spring, without any fuss, an area bounded by Montrose, Sunnyside, Broadway, and Sheridan–including 4437 N. Broadway, where Frankie J’s sits–vanished from the 38th Precinct and reappeared in the 32nd, which happens to be wet. Once again Janisch set out to collect signatures from 67 percent of the voters in the area that would be affected by the bypass (now smaller), and on July 28 he turned in the required 230 names. The 30-day period for objections before the annexed part of the precinct goes wet was due to expire on Friday, August 27. After that, there’s a minimum 45-day waiting period for a liquor license. If all goes well, by mid-October he could be serving Sonoma Cuterer with his wood-grilled salmon in Jack Daniel’s glaze.

Janisch says this adventure has cost him more than $70,000 in legal and printing fees and salaries. Now he’s got another worry: after running the business for three and a half years without a profit, he’s defaulted on his mortgage. He has a new lawyer and says he’s lining up financing. “But it was very hard on me. . . . The mortgage people were calling me two, three times a day, saying, ‘You know we’re going to take your building.’ I said, ‘Sir, you will not. You would have to drag me out. I’m not going anywhere. I’m gonna make it, and this isn’t how my book ends.’ There’s so many things I want to do with this place; I’ve put everything into it. As close as I am to destruction, I’m that close to brilliance.”

Through With the Lookingglass

Help wanted: On the heels of Court Theatre’s announcement that executive director Diane Claussen would be departing for New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse came Lookingglass’s news that executive director Jacqueline Russell will resign this fall to launch a “sophisticated” Chicago children’s theater. Russell says she expects to have the new nonprofit up and running in a downtown location sometime next year. She joined Lookingglass after heading children’s programming at the Old Town School of Folk Music; as executive director she led Lookingglass’s move to the Water Tower pumping station, including an $8.5 million funding drive. Now she says of her new venture, “If we’re the best theater community in the country, we need to be doing this.” She’s looking for a 500-seat venue to keep ticket prices low and plans to hire someone else to handle the business side….In Lookingglass’s first year at Water Tower, general manager David Schmitz says, attendance doubled to 32,000 and single-ticket revenues tripled to about $575,000, with only subscription growth failing to meet its target. But higher expenses in the new theater resulted in a small deficit of less than 1 percent of the budget. The budget for this season is $2.8 million.

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