Landmark Decisions

North Michigan Avenue has never offered much in the way of live theater: its last venue disappeared in 1984 when producer Tony DeSantis shut down Drury Lane at Water Tower Place and lit out for suburban Oak Brook. But since then North Michigan has become a consumer paradise of shops and hotels, one of the first locales tourists seek out when they arrive in Chicago. Several local producers have expressed a desire to establish themselves on this popular but expensive street, and now Lois Weisberg, cultural affairs commissioner for the city, hopes to carve a 200-seat theater out of the old Chicago Avenue Water Pumping Station south of Water Tower Place. The designated space, which previously housed the “Here’s Chicago” audiovisual facility, has yet to be renovated, but Weisberg confirms that she’s held at least two sessions with Lookingglass Theatre Company to explore the possibility of its becoming the anchor tenant.

The Pumping Station, a historical landmark that predates the Chicago Fire, was closed to the public in fall 1996 following the demise of “Here’s Chicago,” a commercial venture that exposed tourists to the city’s past and various attractions. “We were in court for two years trying to get access to the building,” says Weisberg. “We talked endlessly to folks in the neighborhood about what they wanted us to do at the Pumping Station and held focus groups.” Last month she finally unveiled the city’s plan for a makeover of the Pumping Station, and now the building has reopened: there’s an information booth, a Hot Tix desk selling discount theater tickets, a wood-paneled lounge with comfortable chairs and a working fireplace, a buffet run by Lettuce Entertain You, and a gift shop. Still to come are storage lockers, a table where tourists can interact with residents, and–perhaps–the theater.

Weisberg won’t say whether the Pumping Station theater is a done deal: “There have been talks, but we haven’t worked it all out yet.” Funding is a big hurdle: the “Here’s Chicago” space would have to be built out into a theater. And because of the building’s landmark status, city laws govern what sort of signage can be attached to the facade. In addition to these problems, few of the city’s off-Loop companies mount productions that would appeal to a broad-based audience of locals and tourists.

Lookingglass, a high-profile young company, would love to find a new home to kick off its tenth-anniversary season this fall; its last three shows were presented in three different venues. But a source familiar with the company’s business says it filled only about half its seats last season. The Arabian Nights, at the Steppenwolf studio, proved to be a popular offering, but the dark drama George, presented at the Theatre Building, was less successful. The company had high hopes for The Idiot, which featured ensemble member David Schwimmer, but the show opened to mixed reviews, and despite talk of a two-week extension it closed after completing a month-long run at the 130-seat About Face Theatre in the Jane Addams Center. A spokesperson for Lookingglass confirms that the company is considering a show about the Chicago Fire for next season, a production that might play well to a mix of locals and out-of-towners.

Even if the company does move into the Pumping Station, it could hardly be expected to fill the theater with product all year. Weisberg says that other nonprofit companies would probably be invited to use the space as well, and she might consider a commercial venture such as Shear Madness, the comedy that’s been running for years at the Blackstone Hotel’s Mayfair Theatre. If, as reports indicate, the Marriott corporation has taken over the Blackstone, then Shear Madness could be in play. Whatever the fate of the proposed theater, Weisberg doesn’t expect smooth sailing: “You have to make so many people happy in a project like this.”

Building the Brainier Multiplex?

Century Shopping Centre, the languishing high-rise mall near Clark and Diversey, could soon become a magnet for movie lovers. No fewer than seven screens–a combined total of 1,300 seats–will open on the upper floors there in fall 1999, according to Harold Eisenberg, whose Lake Shore Development Corporation helped develop the mall. The theaters, which will show a mix of art films and mainstream releases, will be the first stage in a renovation of the mall that Eisenberg hopes will eventually bring in upscale food vendors and boutique retailers. “We wanted to put in the new movie theaters first,” he explains, “to help build a certain kind of traffic in the facility.”

The seven screens will be operated by Landmark Theatres, a Los Angeles-based chain that specializes in art-film multiplexes, and both Pipers Alley to the south and the Music Box to the north might have to hustle harder for bookings and audiences. “There is a finite audience for these kind of films,” says Brian Andreotti, who books the Music Box. Yet his theater tends to present actual art films–foreign and independent releases–as opposed to high-toned Hollywood movies, and the quarterly calendar it distributes (in this newspaper, among other places) is attractive to small distributors, who usually foot the bill for advertising. Cary Jones, director of marketing for Landmark, says his chain also produces calendars in certain markets. Eisenberg indicated that the Century multiplex could be the first of several facilities Landmark will build throughout the Chicago area; the chain has already inked a similar project for a retail complex Eisenberg is building in downtown Highland Park.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Water Tower Pumping Station photo by Eugene Zakusilo.