Heading for the Hills

Chicago’s performing arts organizations have always presumed that suburbanites would venture into the urban jungle to sample its superior culture. But the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, opening this weekend in Arlington Heights, could be the prototype that finally shatters that presumption. In addition to its 360-seat theater, the center includes an 88-seat jazz club, a 150-seat restaurant, a 4,000-square-foot banquet room, 21,000 square feet of retail space, 36,000 square feet of office and rehearsal space, and 63 loft-style condominiums. Mark R. Anderson, the developer whose Banbury Properties built the $22 million structure, thinks that similar developments will become a reality in other communities. “We’ve shown representatives from five suburbs around the facility already.” In the past two decades some of Chicago’s suburbs have grown into “edge cities”–densely populated burbs with vibrant economies of their own. If Anderson’s hunch proves correct, Chicago’s small theaters might eventually find themselves ringed by well-equipped arts centers offering a wide range of live entertainment.

One of the first suburban arts centers was the Schaumburg Prairie Center for the Arts. Opened by the village in 1986, the center has a surprisingly diverse schedule that has ranged from folk-rock legend Jim Post to the Elgin Symphony Orchestra, from the Milwaukee Ballet to the Vienna Boys’ Choir. But the blueprint isn’t foolproof: in the four years since it opened, the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie has struggled to find a niche, its 845-seat room too large for small shows and too small for touring musicals. After the Wisdom Bridge Theatre collapsed, the North Shore Center wound up with no anchor tenant for its main stage, and Centre East, a nonprofit presenter, has tried to bring in a short season of attractions, with mixed results.

Privately developed by Anderson, the Metropolis Centre may be surrounded by enough commercial ventures to cover any shortfalls. But Anderson also thinks the theater’s broad lineup of attractions will keep it in the black. The venue opens with three principal presenters firmly attached: Highland Park’s Apple Tree Theatre, which will transfer several of its productions to the Metropolis Centre each season; a rotation of Second City’s three touring companies, which will keep the marquee changing during the summer months, and the Metropolis Youth Symphony, a year-old nonprofit orchestra comprised of 79 suburban teen and preteen musicians, which will present at least four concerts a year. Anderson and Alan Salzenstein, the center’s executive director, have booked an inaugural season that includes the Joel Hall Dancers, the Cerqua Rivera Art Experience, and cabaret singers Liz Callaway, Jeff Harner, and Karen Mason, an Arlington Heights native.

If the Metropolis model–private developments girded by retail and residential space–catches on, the city’s performing artists might have to bring the mountain to Mohammed or surrender a significant portion of their audience base. Some companies are already exploring possibilities for moving their work to the suburbs. Live Bait, which currently pulls about 30 percent of its audience from outside the city, might transfer some of its productions to the performing arts center at Elgin Community College, now run by former City Lit Theater Company managing director Mary Hatch. Jacqui Russell, managing director of Lookingglass Theatre Company, says that ensemble companies like hers have more trouble keeping several productions going at once but admits that Lookingglass has long considered mounting a tour of its popular Arabian Nights. And Fred Solari, general manager of the Athenaeum Theatre, thinks a savvy non-Equity company could develop a profitable new niche in the suburbs: “All they would have to do is pile their props in a van [and] play their show a few weeks in each performing arts center on the circuit.”

A Folk Hero Departs

“Iompletely amicable” are the words Jim Hirsch uses to describe his departure from the Old Town School of Folk Music after 18 years as executive director. “For the last year I had been thinking about what I wanted to do with the next phase of my life after reaching my goals at the school,” he says. But Hirsch’s resignation sent tremors through the Chicago Folk Center south of Wilson on Lincoln. On April 26, Hirsch called a meeting of the staff and broke the news, and within hours he’d cleaned out his desk and was gone. The next day the school issued a terse press release: marketing director Gail Tyler had been named interim executive director, though Hirsch will serve as “consultant” to the board of directors. Neither Tyler, public relations director Bob Medich, nor board members returned phone calls for comment. Howard Green, who was elected board president only last week, says that Hirsch and the board agreed on a quick, low-key exit. But for all the thought Hirsch says he’s given his career, he hasn’t yet decided whether to look for a job in the arts or in a different field altogether. And the board is only now assembling a search committee to replace him; it hopes to hire a new director by November.

Hirsch’s resignation comes one year after the board asked his wife, Michelle, to step down after 11 years as the school’s finance director. Marjorie Craig Benton, who preceded Green as president, said last fall that the board thought it unwise for an organization as large as the Old Town School to have two relatives in key positions. Immediately after Michelle Hirsch was ousted, her husband took a nine-week leave, which he said he’d been planning to do after completing a $10.5 million capital fund campaign and opening the new 40,000-square-foot facility. But some observers believe that as the school ballooned into a major arts organization with an annual operating budget of $6 million, Hirsch had to relinquish some control over an institution he’d been instrumental in building. “To bring about that growth, Jim had to bring a lot of powerful people on to the board of directors, people that may have wanted a say in how things were done,” notes one executive at a major philanthropic organization who knows Hirsch well. “Jim’s genius was that he ran the school like a real business.” Unfortunately, business is business.

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