Midsize Theater Project Shifts Its Sites

Navy Pier and the midsize theater development project have parted ways–at least for now. Late last month, the Chicago Music and Dance Theater Transition Advisory Board set up by the Chicago Community Trust abruptly announced that its new preferred site was the $92-million symphony center the CSO recently voted to build next to Orchestra Hall. Not long after that, James Reilly, CEO of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, informed the advisory board that the authority would begin pursuing other options for Navy Pier.

The board had been interested in Navy Pier for about two years; last spring it made its opinion official by voting to build there instead of at Cityfront Center. But this spring the CSO notified the advisory board that it was planning a new complex and asked the board to consider putting its theater there. Deciding that the Michigan Avenue site would be more central and closer to other cultural attractions than Navy Pier, the board announced their new preferred site at the end of June–curiously, a few days before the official CSO vote to move forward on the project. All along, however, the Chicago Community Trust has maintained that construction cost will be a key factor in choosing a theater location, and according to a preliminary estimate, a new theater inside the symphony center would be several million dollars more expensive than one at Navy Pier. The trust apparently hoped to keep Navy Pier as a backup in case the CSO site proved too expensive, and Reilly has indicated that the trust could come back to Navy Pier, but only if the pier doesn’t find another use for the space first.

Meanwhile, the turn of events has fueled cynicism and even anger among some of the dance and music organizations for whom the theater is supposedly being built. They claim they were not consulted by the trust or its advisory board about the sudden site change. Chicago Community Trust executive director Bruce Newman was unavailable for comment, but unrest among groups who would use the facility is not sitting well at the trust. “If they are angry, let them go and build their own theater,” remarked one staffer.

Some of the groups who plan to use the theater suspect that advisory board chairman Joan Harris’s seat on the CSO’s board of trustees may have had something to do with recent developments. Most of these groups weren’t that thrilled about Navy Pier to begin with; they had unanimously voiced a preference for Cityfront Center last spring. But they don’t like the current choice either. One of their biggest worries is that they’ll have to battle the CSO for use of the theater, despite Fogel’s assurances last month to the contrary. “I certainly wouldn’t look forward to tussling with Fogel over scheduling,” worried one source. Then there’s the fact that any small theater built inside the behemoth the CSO has planned probably wouldn’t get a lot of visibility.

Most problematic, however, is the delay likely in opening a theater in the symphony center. CSO executives say the new facility would not open until 1998 at the earliest, two years later than would have been the case at Navy Pier. For many of these midsize organizations, two more years could mean the difference between life and death. “We can’t afford to wait,” says a source for one group hoping to use the new theater. Chicago Opera Theater, another potential user (formerly based at the Athenaeum Theatre), has already canceled next season, and whether it will ever start up again remains to be seen.

A Meeting of Minds

Members of the League of Chicago Theatres, the Chicago Dance Coalition, and the Chicago Music Alliance will convene at the Water Tower campus of Loyola University this Saturday for a day of seminars, pep rallying, and socializing. The event marks the first time the organizations have joined forces for a retreat like this; for many years the League of Chicago Theatres held its own annual weekend retreat at Alpine Valley, but that tradition ended last year when the league decided it was too broke to host such a money loser again. This weekend’s more modest affair is intended as a sign that the league is reemerging from its slump, according to executive director Tony Sertich. The retreat’s cost of about $5,000 is being split by the three trade associations; a chunk of that sum is being spent to fly in two consultants from Virginia who will discuss audience development–a topic of great concern to almost all of the city’s theater, dance, and music executives.

Music Mall

DePaul University is planning to turn part of the former Goldblatt’s building at 333 S. State (now called the DePaul Center) into a music-oriented shopping mall. DePaul is leasing as many as 100,000 square feet to a variety of music retailers and will unveil the Chicago Music Mart in February of 1994. Six leases or letters of intent to lease have already been signed, and the building has space for at least ten more stores. Already signed on are Carl Fischer Music, a Yamaha piano retailer, and the Old Town School of Folk Music, which will open a branch of its retail operation. Besides music retailers the mall will include a 100-seat performance area where merchants can sponsor concerts several times a day, and a cafe and a bookstore are also possibilities. Ken McHugh, DePaul’s executive vice president for operations, says the Music Mart was launched to complement the university’s music program. He maintains that the building’s financial well-being is in no way based on the projected success of the Music Mart; it will continue to house some classrooms and university offices, and a good portion of the building’s office space will continue to be leased to the city.

Hollywood in Aurora

At a reception last Saturday night for the grand opening of the Hollywood Casinos in Aurora, a woman from the New Jersey company that made the casino uniforms commented on the cream puffs laced with cinnamon: “Peculiah, ya know?” That observation also applied accurately to the spectacle as a whole: a brightly lit pavilion and two gaming riverboats with glittering signs on their smokestacks, all in the middle of a remarkably drab stretch of the Fox River in Aurora. Local officials are counting on the casino to revitalize the town, and executives repeatedly harped on that point at the grand opening. “You’ll never be sorry you decided to work with us,” said one casino honcho to the crowd. We’ll see.

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