There have been a series of theaters sheltered in the building at 1328 W. Morse in Rogers Park since 1912, when it opened as a vaudeville house called (logically enough) the Morse Theater. In the 1930s, it became the Co-Ed Theater, but that closed down in 1954. After being the home of Congregation Beth Israel Anshe Yanova and a shoe repair shop, the building was acquired by Colonel Jennifer Pritzker’s Tawani Enterprises in 2010 and converted into the Mayne Stage after major renovations, with the Act One Pub occupying the front space. The theater provided rentals for concerts, comedy shows, and live theater productions, as well as for private events.
But by 2016, it shifted entirely into private events. And then the COVID-19 shutdown meant that it was completely in limbo.
Enter a doctor and a magician to enact another resurrection. Oh, and they’re the same person.
Dr. Ricardo T. Rosenkranz, neonatologist, assistant professor in clinical pediatrics at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, and creator of the illusionist show The Rosenkranz Mysteries, has acquired the 23,000-square-foot building and will transform it into Rhapsody Theater, a 200-seat venue set to open this June. The focus, appropriately enough, will be on magic, as well as chamber concerts, cabaret, and dance. (The first announced performers are magician-comedian Carisa Hendrix with her full-length show, Lucy Darling: Indulgence, and Chicago-based psychic Ross Johnson with Ross Johnson: A Funny Thing Happened to Me Tomorrow.) Mark Kozy, a vet of Goodman Theatre and the League of Chicago Theatres, will join Rhapsody as general manager.
But Rosenkranz says the first live performance to grab his attention wasn’t magic; it was The Magic Flute, which he saw when he was ten.
“My big passion was classical music and opera, and it still continues to be. But about 25 years ago or so, I kind of discovered magic. I like to say that I discovered it in the magic store that time forgot. I’m originally from Mexico City. And I was there on a Saturday. And I walked into the store, and lo and behold, there was this magician selling magic. And he actually, when I was a child, used to come to my house when I had birthday parties. I became interested in [magic]. I didn’t really know what to do with it. And then I met this amazing man who lived five blocks away from me here in Chicago. His name is Eugene Burger.”
Burger, who died in 2017, was a huge influence on a generation of magicians.
“I became one of his closest friends and a student,” says Rosenkranz. “Sometimes people in midlife go see psychiatrists. I went to see Eugene and I learned a lot. And the more important thing that I learned is his view of magic was entirely different from the sort of kitschy cliche notions of magic. Because he felt that magic was something deep and worthy to be elevated as an art form when done well. There’s a lot of meaning in magic, so that when we see magicians perform impossible things, it is something that can excite us and stimulate us and inspire us. His best example is when a magician tears up a card and all of a sudden restores it, that’s more than anything a metaphor for loss and recovery, which is something we all pursue in life.”
The restoration of the Mayne Stage as the Rhapsody offers Rosenkranz the chance to provide a focus on illusion, rather than the close-up magic that the Chicago Magic Lounge specializes in. “From day one, when I went in there, I realized what Jennifer [Pritzker] did.” Rosenkranz notes that Jim Steinmeyer, “one of the world’s experts in the history of magic and illusions,” took a FaceTime tour of the space with him. “He said, ‘Well, Ricardo, what you’re holding there is literally the theater that all early 20th-century magic was created for—a beautiful intimate space where people are close, but that has the ability to have all of these beautiful, wonderful illusions.'”
Rosenkranz also called upon his friend Ken Olsen, cellist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, to check out the acoustics along with a sound engineer, which further solidified his desire for Rhapsody to also focus on his other love: classical music. “I think it’s this amazing opportunity to create a home for chamber and other small ensembles and not to just book them, on a one-off basis, but really to try to create a resident company model based on the Harris theater model.” (Rosenkranz spent several years on the board for the Harris, as well as the Lyric Opera.)
Some sort of dining establishment will also be present in Rhapsody, though that is still in the works. But for now, Rosenkranz also wants to make sure that the theater remains integrated into the cultural and community life of Rogers Park.
“We are deeply committed to Rogers Park and really want to be great citizens. So in the contract for performers, we really are requesting that everyone spends some time either doing a talkback session or helps structure some sort of a community educational component, a community connections component. So that with children and adults, there’s a real connection with the neighborhood.”
Mica Cole comes home to Chicago
TimeLine Theatre is also preparing to open a new north-side home. And late last month, they announced that south-side native Mica Cole is coming aboard as their new executive director.
Cole takes over for Elizabeth Auman, who announced last summer that she would be transitioning from managing director to take a more active role in project management for the new theater, which is slated to open in Uptown in 2024. But she’s no stranger to Chicago theater; Cole spent several years as executive director for Free Street and also worked with Writers Theatre as director of education and engagement.
Most recently, Cole spent eight seasons as repertory producer with Oregon Shakespeare Festival, whose “American Revolutions” multi-decade commissioning program focusing on “moments of change in U.S. history” dovetails nicely with TimeLine’s mission of “stories inspired by history that connect with today’s social and political issues.” (Their winter production of Relentless by Tyla Abercrumbie was a big hit; it moved to the Goodman for a remount, which closes this weekend.)
“First of all, I have to say that I’m extremely happy to be joining a team that still has Liz Auman on it,” says Cole. “I think she’s extraordinary and her work is evident in this exciting moment that TimeLine is in. I really think it’s about building on that work. The team that preceded me has really positioned TimeLine to take its work to the next level.” (TimeLine’s general manager, Dan McArdle, has been named interim managing director.)
TimeLine, which is under the artistic directorship of PJ Powers, turns 25 this year, and has spent most of its history in Lakeview at the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ’s Baird Hall.
The new space offers Cole and the rest of the company a chance to reimagine how they can better bring the community into the building, as well as reach outward.
“This role to me is so much about looking out on the horizon and helping to kind of imagine what is possible in this new space, with an organization that is going to be bigger than it is right now, with a more kind of fleshed-out articulation of its mission,” says Cole. “What does that look like, and what does it look like to responsibly move into a community and be in partnership with the organizations and the businesses and the communities that already exist there? I’m spending a lot of my time kind of thinking about that, as well as from a practical standpoint of what it means to move the organization into that direction.”
Cole’s long history with community programming and outreach should serve those goals well. “I think the overall community engagement plans will absolutely involve the expansion of the education and community work,” says Cole. “Just thinking about ways that the building remains accessible to the community—that it’s an asset not just for TimeLine and not just to our patrons, but to the young people in the Uptown community and frankly from all around the city. It’s just so fascinating to think about how much has changed in terms of community outreach in the years since I was a young person in Chicago and looking to get into various theater programs, and there were so few options on the south side. Or frankly in any neighborhoods that were predominantly Black and Brown.”
Free Street, Cole’s former company, has been operating the Storyfront in Back of the Yards for a few years, and TimeLine, through their Living History partnership with Chicago Public Schools, has created the TimeLine South theater arts program on the south side.
We spoke on Cole’s second day on the job, so not all the details of future plans are nailed down. But her vision for TimeLine is expansive.
“I have always longed for what I would call a people’s theater of Chicago. And I think Chicago is perhaps unique because we are a city of neighborhoods. There are multiple people’s theaters in Chicago. And I want to see TimeLine become one of them. And what that means for me is the theater really leaning into its civic identity and again making sure that the programming and the space is accessible to everyone in the city. I’d take it a step further. I want to make sure that people feel like, ‘This theater belongs to us. This is our theater. Our building.'”