Vintage photograph of the audience at the Studebaker
That was then: archival photo of an audience at the Studebaker Theater Credit: Courtesy Fine Arts Building

Last August, I caught up with Jacob Harvey just as he was taking over as the new (and first-ever) managing artistic director of theaters for the Fine Arts Building. At the time, he noted that with the loss of the Royal George as a midsize rental house, the soon-to-be-remodeled Studebaker Theater in the Fine Arts could be a good option for “an in-between place where a small tour or an out-of-town production can happen and sort of help fill that void.”

Earlier this week, I caught up again with Harvey in person to see what’s new at the Studebaker. As he gave me a tour, the crew for Skates, a new musical by Christine Rea and Rick Briskin described as “Grease meets Hairspray with a dash of Xanadu” (and starring American Idol alums Diana DeGarmo and Ace Young) hammered away at the set. (The show begins previews next week.) Skates was six days away from opening at the Royal George before the COVID-19 shutdown of 2020. Then the Royal George itself, a commercial rental house with four venues just across Halsted from the Steppenwolf campus, closed for good in 2021 after nearly 37 years of operation.

So that’s one item off Harvey’s wish list. But Harvey and the rest of the Fine Arts team still have big plans. Right before we met, NPR announced that the popular quiz show Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me! was leaving its longtime home at the Chase Auditorium on South Dearborn and taking up residence at the Studebaker; the first live taping there is scheduled for June 16. (The Studebaker, which used to seat 725, now seats between 600-650; part of the renovation involved expanding legroom for the seats in the balcony.)

Erica Berger of Berger Realty Group, who oversees the Fine Arts Building (she’s the daughter of the late real estate mogul Bob Berger, who bought the building in 2005), was the catalyst for the Wait Wait coup. In an email, she explained, “Almost three years ago, our late building manager received a cryptic call about an NPR show interested in moving into our space. Knowing that I had a history with NPR through being a founding member on their young board Generation Listen (as a journalist and media executive), he called me; I immediately booked a flight home to Chicago to take the meeting. When I walked into the room, to our surprise, I knew the Senior Operations Manager of Wait Wait . . ., Colin Miller. . . . Like a wink from the universe, the synchronicity was hard to ignore.”

The renovations at the Studebaker actually began before Harvey took over back in 2014, but during our tour, he points out that a big part of what they’ve been focusing on is beefing up the technical infrastructure. “The most impactful but not visible portion of the renovation is all audio, video, and lighting and electrical. Berger Realty Group put some money into it as proof of concept six or so years ago, but it really in earnest hasn’t been a live theater since the late 70s.” From 1982-2000, the Studebaker housed the Fine Arts movie theaters. Since the Bergers took over the building, groups such as Chicago Opera Theater and Chicago Jazz Orchestra have performed there.

Harvey asked dramaturg Tanya Palmer, former producer and director of new play development at the Goodman and currently assistant dean and executive artistic director for Northwestern’s theater program, to research the tangled history of the Fine Arts Building and create a timeline. The story begins in 1883, with the purchase of land on Michigan Avenue by the Studebaker brothers of South Bend, with the aim of creating a Chicago branch for their carriage business. Architect Solon S. Beman designed the building, which originally opened in 1886 and expanded gradually over the years, until the building assumed its current footprint in 1898. It quickly became a hub for artists, teachers, musicians, and the “little theater” movement of the early 20th century. Today, it’s still home to many creative endeavors, including the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, whose workshop looks out over the lovely little open-air Venetian Courtyard nestled in the center of the building on the fourth floor.

The Studebaker Hall itself opened in 1898 with a piano recital by Fannie Bloomfield-Zeisler, but business in the classical world was slow, so building manager Charles S. Curtiss convinced the Studebakers to convert it into a theater. In 1910, the Studebaker hosted the legendary Sarah Bernhardt in a two-week repertory engagement, featuring her signature roles in Camille, Phedre, and Jeanne D’Arc. (Unlikely that any of those performances involved roller skating.) Other big names who have appeared onstage at the Studebaker include Eartha Kitt, Henry Fonda, Peter O’Toole, Rex Harrison, an old Claudette Colbert, and a young Martin Sheen.

Upgrading the technical bells and whistles not only helps NPR (Harvey showed me the private tech booth for Wait Wait . . ., right next to the spacious main booth for Studebaker shows), but also enhances the ability for livestreaming performances—a practice which has become even more important since the COVID shutdown. Harvey points out that there are now three cameras installed in the balcony that provide that capability.

The Studebaker is the crown jewel for the Fine Arts performing venues, but smaller groups will also soon have a potential performing space once the former Playhouse Theater next door completes its renovations. That venue, renamed Carriage Hall as a nod to the building’s origins, will function as a flexible multidisciplinary and event space. Harvey notes that there are ongoing conversations with local theater and dance companies about the possibilities of establishing residencies for that space. 

All of these plans reconnect the Fine Arts Building and its theaters to the vibrant history uncovered by Palmer. The Studebaker’s physical renovations, including art deco-style wallpaper, also provide a vintage throwback feel alongside the new technical improvements. 

But Harvey says he remains committed to the vision of the Fine Arts as a downtown incubator of the nonprofit arts. And he hopes that both the Studebaker and the Carriage Hall, as well as other spaces in the Fine Arts Building (including the second-floor bookstore, Exile in Bookville, run by Javier Ramirez and Kristin Enola Gilbert and the successor to the former Dial bookshop) can provide an integrated approach to giving Chicago artists of all kinds access to audiences and resources. 

“How does a for-profit entity operate as a mission-driven organization, where we can act in service of the community, we can help build community?” asks Harvey. “We can sort of figure it out on our own terms as to how we can create the most impact and be the most beneficial, while also opening the doors as much as possible.”

Exterior of Court Theatre in Hyde Park Joe Mazza/Bravelux

Tony time at Court

Earlier this week, Court Theatre found out that they’re joining the growing list of Chicago theaters honored with the prestigious Regional Theatre Tony Award, which is selected by the Tony committee of the American Theatre Wing, based on recommendations from the American Theatre Critics Association. The award will be presented during the Tonys ceremony at Radio City Music Hall on June 12 (though in recent years, the regional award hasn’t been part of the main broadcast).

The regional Tony honors companies outside of New York City (well, and also off-Broadway), and comes with a $25,000 purse, as well as bragging rights. Court is the sixth Chicago company to win the prize. The others are: Steppenwolf (1985), Goodman (1992), Victory Gardens (2001), Chicago Shakespeare (2008), and Lookingglass (2011). By my math, that makes Chicago the city most recognized by the Tonys. 

This weekend, Court opens a revival of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running (the 1960s entry in the late playwright’s Century Cycle of plays about Black American life in the 20th century), directed by resident artist Ron OJ Parson. The company’s 67-year history began with amateur outdoor summer theater at University of Chicago produced by Marvin E. Phillips and Paul Sills (the latter the original director of Second City). Their permanent home on the UC campus was built in 1981. In 2013, current artistic director Charles Newell initiated the Center for Classic Theatre at the university to deepen Court’s ties to the research and academic resources available at UC. 

In a press statement, Newell said, “Since my start at Court in 1993, it has been my life’s joy to be a member of this vibrant, fertile community. This award belongs to them. It belongs to the Court community, the South Side community, and the University of Chicago community. It belongs to everyone who has fought to see themselves onstage and to everyone who has been moved by the power of storytelling. That is why we do what we do. Any recognition for that—let alone recognition of this caliber—is a delightful and thrilling gift.”