Meet The Third Word, the Arts Magazine That Exposes the Underexposed

It takes guts to debut an arts magazine in Chicago at the peak of three-peat hysteria, but publisher Penny Larsen-Hillman, editor Brendan Baber, and art director Ed Collins weren’t deterred. Late last month 5,000 copies of their compact, cleanly designed new bimonthly, The Third Word, rolled off the presses.

Larsen-Hillman and her colleagues will need plenty of luck and more publishing savvy than they currently possess to ensure The Third Word’s long-term survival, but for now they are optimistic. “We want to produce an arts and life-style magazine that helps expose the underexposed cultural world in Chicago,” explains Larsen-Hillman, who’s married to Third Coast Cafe and Wine Bar proprietor Gary Hillman. She admits feeling frustrated that so many of her talented friends in the arts felt compelled to move to either New York or Los Angeles, and she plans to publish the many art stories she feels the other media overlook.

Perhaps unintentionally, the debut issue reveals in part why so many of Larsen-Hillman’s chums may have chosen to leave. Dan Decker’s story about the inchoate Chicago motion-picture industry quotes sources who complain that Chicagoans don’t understand moviemaking or the huge profits to be reaped from the business. Playwright Eric Spitznagel penned a humorous (and quite sad) piece on the gross unprofessionalism he discovered in a penniless storefront theater company that wanted to produce his play; the company, mercifully, remains nameless. Another story by Tracey Pepper makes open-mike night at several local music bars sound like it’s an experience to be missed.

In recent years Chicago has seen several glossy new magazines come and go, among them Stan Malinowski’s Metro and the yuppie-oriented Inside Chicago, for which The Third Word’s Ed Collins worked as an art director in its final months. Collins’s impressive design for the first Third Word includes the use of heavy glossy paper and fancy photo manipulation.

To guide The Third Word editorially, Larsen-Hillman brought on board Brendan Baber. The 25-year-old Baber, son of Playboy magazine columnist Asa Baber, has never edited an arts magazine, though he has written a few television scripts on the Hollywood circuit. Baber says he wants The Third Word to be “interesting, comprehensible, and accessible.” He hates arts stories filled with jargon, which he has tried to keep out of the first issue. Baber also intends to keep the magazine’s editorial mix eclectic; a future issue could include piece about the five best unknown restaurants in Chicago, for instance. Even fiction and that hardest of sells, poetry, are fair game as long as they’re good, insists Baber. One of the best things in The Third Word’s first issue, in fact, is Rob Harless’s poetic meditation on the word “cool.”

From a marketing standpoint the big challenge for the Third Word crew is getting the word out to potential readers and advertisers. Larsen-Hillman is working with minimal start-up capital, never easy in publishing, where money is quickly spent. Eventually she wants to shift to monthly publication but as yet has no subscriber base; the $2 copies are distributed primarily through a few bookstores and the Third Coast. Larsen-Hillman herself sold most of the 19 or so ads in the 26-page debut issue. At least one of the advertisers, restaurateur Jerome Kliejunas (Jerome’s and the Big Shoulders Cafe), says he bought into the project because he knew the Hillmans and liked the concept, but he worries about whether the magazine is sustainable: “It’s nice, but it may be a little too extravagant for its own good.”

Alene and Annie in the Big Apple

The New York production of Annie Warbucks, which opens August 9 off-Broadway, could prove a big break for veteran award-winning Chicago actress Alene Robertson. She has been with the show since its Marriott’s Lincolnshire Theatre debut in winter 1992 and had never even visited the Big Apple before rehearsals began last month. Robertson, who gives a deliciously evil performance as the show’s principal villain, received rave reviews in Chicago and throughout a four-month west-coast tour.

Annie Warbucks’s hopes of a New York opening were dealt what many thought would be a fatal blow when former producer Karen Goodwin revealed last February, only two months before the scheduled Broadway premiere, that she had not come close to raising the required investment capital. A dejected but by no means defeated Martin Charnin, who directed the Chicago and touring versions, vowed the show eventually would open in New York, and it appears he has made good on that promise. With three new producers and a much lower budget than would have been the case on Broadway, Annie Warbucks begins previews this week at the jewel-box Variety Arts Theatre on Manhattan’s lower east side.

Joining Robertson in the New York cast is dancer/actress Donna McKechnie, star of the original Broadway company of A Chorus Line. They sing “Leave It to the Girls,” one of several new numbers. New songs aren’t the only change in the show since its Marriott’s Lincolnshire mounting; there’s also a new opening–a flashback to the end of Annie that includes that show’s final song, “A New Deal for Christmas.” And the black sharecropper family that befriended the runaway Annie in Chicago and on the road will be white in New York, played by actors doubling up on roles because of the low production budget.

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