Making History

In 1991, when history professor George Chauncey joined the University of Chicago faculty, not a single graduate student there was writing a dissertation on a gay-oriented topic. But all that has changed, and one factor may have been Chauncey’s Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, a comprehensive history of homosexual New Yorkers and their surprisingly uncloseted lifestyles. Published in 1994 by Basic Books, Gay New York made quite a splash in literary circles–in the New York Times, op-ed columnist Frank Rich called it “one of the most fascinating works of American social history I’ve ever read”–and the book has sold more than 35,000 copies, an impressive feat for a scholarly tome. Since the book’s success, Chauncey has won tenure at the U. of C., and two years ago the university’s Center for Gender Studies established the Lesbian and Gay Studies Project to organize conferences, bring in guest lecturers, and fund graduate research. Now the school has at least a dozen grad students writing dissertations on various aspects of gay life and history.

“It’s a breakthrough for the field as a whole,” says Chauncey of the new program, “because the University of Chicago is regarded as anything but a trendy school. This sends a message that gay and lesbian studies is a serious discipline.” According to Chauncey, he’s only the second person in the U.S. to get a tenure-track job in a history department after writing a dissertation in gay history, but that situation might change with the program, which awards grants to worthy students. “For someone trying to live on a few thousand dollars a year and write a dissertation, a grant of $1,000 can mean a lot,” he says. In addition to teaching classes and administering and raising funds for the Lesbian and Gay Studies Project, Chauncey is writing a sequel to Gay New York, tentatively called The Strange Career of the Closet. The book opens in postwar New York, a period that Chauncey says was much more treacherous for gay men than the climate of 20 years earlier. Undercover policemen lurked in bars across the city, trying to entice gay men to make passes at them so they could be arrested and warning bar owners that they’d lose their licenses if they served openly gay men. The situation began to improve slowly in 1967, says Chauncey, after gay bars were decriminalized and entrapment was no longer tolerated. If all goes according to plan, Basic Books will publish the new work in 2001.

See Me, Heal Me . . .

According to a source on the Auditorium Theatre Council, as of April 14 the theater had sold only about 15 percent of the available tickets for its upcoming production of The Who’s Tommy. The show opens its one-week engagement this Tuesday, and unless a last-minute storm of advertising, publicity, and rave reviews moves a large number of tickets, the Auditorium could lose tens of thousands of dollars. Dan McMahon, director of marketing for the theater, says, “We’re counting on a lot of last-minute walk-up business.”

This will be the second incarnation of the Who’s rock opera to play at the theater: the original Broadway production, directed by former La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff, opened at the Auditorium in 1994, but despite its whiz-bang effects, baby boomer cachet, and aggressive marketing, the show received mixed reviews and drew somewhat disappointing audiences. This time around The Who’s Tommy will be simpler, without all the bells and whistles of the Broadway edition, though an Actors’ Equity cast will help push the top ticket price to $75. The production was cobbled together by the Bushnell Theater in Hartford, Connecticut, the Playhouse Theatre in Wilmington, Delaware, and Jeffrey Finn Productions in New York City. A dearth of popular touring shows has forced some large venues to coproduce musicals themselves, and the new production of The Who’s Tommy is being used to flesh out skimpy seasons at several theaters, including the Bushnell, the Playhouse, and the Auditorium.

Things weren’t always so grim for the theater. A decade ago it was the place to see big shows in Chicago: Les Miserables opened there to ecstatic reviews and millions in advance ticket sales, and Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon soon followed. The three shows helped reestablish the theater as a profitable venue after it had been ignored for years. But since December 1994 the ATC has been duking it out with Roosevelt University in the courts for control of the theater, and the new North Loop theater district has begun to land most of the major touring productions. The situation is particularly tough for theaters like the Auditorium that aren’t aligned with a major touring organization. A thousand-pound gorilla like the Nederlander Organization (which books the Shubert) or New York-based SFX Entertainment, Inc. (which books the Rosemont) can slot its shows into a growing chain of theaters it either owns or leases. According to McMahon, the Auditorium is trying to take advantage of “an informal network” with other independent houses like the Playhouse and the Bushnell. But The Who’s Tommy is the last major booking at the Auditorium until this fall, and its next scheduled theatrical production, a revival of Oliver! by British producer Cameron Mackintosh, won’t reach Chicago until next January.

Leaving the Pasta Behind

Tom and Gino Marchetti, whose family operates the old-world Como Inn, have teamed up with Dion Antic, known for the trendier Iggys and Harry’s Velvet Room, to open Fahrenheit, a sleek eatery at 695 N. Milwaukee. Fahrenheit serves contemporary American cuisine with French roots, and it’s starting to generate buzz among restaurant-goers. Initially the Marchettis wanted to carve a hip restaurant out of the Como Inn, but that plan was nixed by others in the clan, and the brothers began looking for another site while trying to raise the $650,000 needed to build out the restaurant. Antic, an old friend of theirs, bought in on their idea, but he leaves the day-to-day management to them while tending to several other new projects. This year he plans to open a nightclub called Hell, with an attached restaurant called Hell Kitchen, and in early May he’ll reopen Harry’s Velvet Room in the basement site formerly occupied by the shuttered 56 West in River North. Later this year Antic will unveil his first boutique hotel, the Cooper Hotel, in the old Cooper Building at 152 W. Huron.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.