Mickey Finn’s Cash Crunch

Mike Houlihan’s play Mickey Finn was conceived as a satire of film noir mysteries, but for three members of his production team the big mystery is when they’re going to get paid. Houlihan is a familiar figure in local theater: he produced and directed A Couple of Blaguards in the mid-80s, acted in Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor at the Briar Street Theatre, and wrote and starred in the popular one-man show Goin’ East on Ashland. Mickey Finn was mounted at a cost of about $150,000, fronted by 35 investors, but after playing for a month on the Royal George Theatre Center’s 450-seat main stage it showed no sign of becoming a profitable, long-running show. Says Houlihan, “My core audience on the south side of the city didn’t want to make the trip up to the north side.” The show closed April 30, but early this week lighting designer Jaymi Smith, costume designer Jennifer Keller, and props coordinator Dena Isaacson were still waiting for their money.

Smith, who declined to comment, has worked for Houlihan as a lighting-board operator several times over the past five years, and she recommended Keller and Isaacson to him. Keller designed costumes for Orson’s Shadow at the Steppenwolf garage and Cloud Nine at About Face Theatre, and she won a Jeff citation for her work on Defiant Theatre Company’s production of The Skriker. She says Houlihan still owes her half the payment he promised her for Mickey Finn. “I don’t think I will ever be working with Mike Houlihan again,” she declares. Isaacson says she used personal credit cards to purchase $480 worth of props for the barroom set that was the story’s principal locale, but she hasn’t been reimbursed or paid for her work and says neither Houlihan nor Cheryl Sloane, the show’s general manager, has told her when she might expect payment. (Sloane did not return calls for comment.)

None of the three women had a written contract, and while Houlihan concedes that some members of his production team haven’t been paid what they were promised, he was quick to criticize the trio: “Jaymi called them the dream team, but they wound up being the ream team.” According to Houlihan, Keller began throwing “hissy fits” after she started work on the show. Keller recalls only one disagreement between herself and Christopher Hart, the show’s director, when Hart decided to use an expensive sweater that forced her to go over budget. Houlihan claims that Isaacson “came by and dumped off the props, and we never saw her again.” Isaacson counters that she and Houlihan had a “shop-and-drop” agreement, and while she admits that job commitments prevented her from delivering a couple props on time, she compensated by reducing her rate.

Houlihan says he’ll make good on outstanding payments once he receives a refund of the bond he put up with Actors’ Equity, “but some of these people will be at the bottom of the list to get their money.” He also claims he’s making plans to remount the show at a south-side venue yet to be revealed. Isaacson says that if Houlihan tries to stage the show again before paying her, she’ll move to repossess the props immediately: “Those props belong to me at this point.”

Side Show Moves to Center Stage

Side Show will be the largest production in the 26-year history of Northlight Theatre. The musical about Daisy and Violet Hilton, a pair of Siamese twins, begins performances May 17 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie with a cast of 16, an orchestra of 6, and a production team with such musical-theater veterans as director Joe Leonardo, choreographer Marc Robin, costume designer Nancy Missimi, and musical director Jeff Lewis. Northlight managing director Richard Friedman expects the production to cost a quarter million dollars; it will incur about $30,000 a week in running expenses, compared to $20,000 a week for Dinah Was, the theater’s most expensive production to date. Friedman says that despite the higher production costs Side Show will break even every week at 35 percent of capacity, and the company is so optimistic about the show that it’s already extended the run from five to seven weeks, with a window that would allow an additional three-week extension through July 23.

B.J. Jones, Northlight’s artistic director, has been talking up Side Show since he arrived at the company two years ago. “I’ve always believed in the power and worth of this show from the first time I heard the music,” he says. The show flopped on Broadway but was nomin-ated for four Tony awards and has since been staged in Cleveland and Palo Alto, California. Jones is counting on Side Show to highlight his success in turning around the troubled company; Northlight has already re-signed two-thirds of the nearly 9,000 subscribers it has this year. Sources say the company is currently negotiating with Jam Productions to coproduce Wit, first-time playwright Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about an English teacher battling ovarian cancer, but Friedman declined to comment.

The Downside of Upsizing

Sometimes a bigger building can be more cramped. Last month Jim Hirsch suddenly resigned from the Old Town School of Folk Music after 18 years as executive director, less than two years after completing a $10.5 million fund-raising campaign and moving most of the school’s programs into the new Chicago Folk Center on Lincoln near Wilson. But Hirsch’s exit follows a familiar pattern: over the past decade three other local arts institutions have suffered unexpected management upheavals after acquiring larger facilities and expanding their operations. In 1995 artistic director Randall Arney and managing director Stephen Eich left Steppenwolf shortly after the company acquired its new home on Halsted near North. In 1997, Kevin Consey was ousted as director and CEO at the Museum of Contemporary Art after masterminding construction of a spacious new building off North Michigan. And Russell Vandenbroucke departed as Northlight Theatre’s artistic director after the itinerant company finally took up residence at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.

New Plan

ComedySportz has delayed its move from the TurnAround Theatre at Belmont and Halsted to the former Organic Theater space at Halsted and Wellington. The company plans a grand opening in August.

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