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Midsize Theater Search Narrows to Two Sites

Two years after the search began, the nine dance and music organizations awaiting a new midsize theater should know by the end of this month whether it will go up at Navy Pier or on a choice parcel of land in Cityfront Center. Late last month the huge consortium of foundations, consultants, and advisory panels involved dropped Dearborn Street Station from the short list of finalists. The primary reason given for axing Dearborn Station was problems with leases and relocation of existing tenants, an answer that left several arts executives more than a little suspicious. Why, they wonder, did it take almost two years of investigation to find out leases were a problem? Right up until it was dumped from the list, the Dearborn location was considered the front-runner by a number of the dance and music organizations with a stake in the project’s outcome. In fact Crain’s Chicago Business erred three weeks ago in prematurely announcing that the Dearborn site would get the nod.

Meanwhile, the deliberation continues over Navy Pier and Cityfront Center. If the cost of building the new theater is a key issue in the final choice, as has been previously indicated, then it will be illuminating to see which site wins given the two very different financial deals on offer.

Several months ago it was suggested that political clout might bring the midsize theater to Navy Pier, now under renovation as a joint project between the city and state. At that time a source at the Chicago Community Trust, one of the lead foundations in the project, insisted that Navy Pier would wind up far down the list of likely locations. So much for naive foundation staffers. Regardless of political pressure, one important factor in Navy Pier’s favor is free land on which to build the theater. Cityfront Center will sell its parcel for about $4 million, a price one Cityfront Center executive maintains is well below market value. Still that is $4 million that will have to be raised in addition to construction costs. According to one source, Navy Pier has sweetened its offer by throwing in free advertising time on WBEZ FM, the public-radio station that is planning to relocate its studios there, plus other in-kind operating and marketing subsidies that could amount to around $200,000 a year.

Cityfront Center has a couple of things on its side too, among them the promise of lower ongoing operating costs if an arrangement can be made with the stagehands union. No such deal is likely at Navy Pier, sources say. And Cityfront Center is considered a more accessible location with more parking. Some also worry that a theater built on Navy Pier might fall victim to city and state officials’ itch to influence programming, particularly if slated attractions should prove too controversial.

Despite the surprising twists and turns this project has taken, the arts groups likely to benefit from it remain reasonably optimistic they will get their theater, even if it means waiting three more years before the doors open. Optimism may be in order, but even after a site is selected much remains to be done, including raising the money to build the theater and designing a management plan for the space. Arts groups yearning for a theater would be ill-advised to uncork the champagne just yet.

Worry Less, Sleep More: Harriet Ross Takes Leave From Joseph Holmes

The city’s theater industry isn’t the only cultural group suffering management departures this winter. Last week the Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre bid farewell–at least temporarily–to Harriet Ross, its associate artistic director and stalwart company supporter for the past 18 years. Ross is taking a leave of absence of an unspecified duration. “I’ve been gone four days, and everyone already wants to know when I will be back,” notes the clearly burned-out arts executive. “It’s been 18 years of struggle for me,” she says. “I’m 52, and there are times when you just get tired.” Ross, whose deep emotional ties to the troupe obviously won’t be severed during her leave, said she had reached a point where she was unable to sleep at night. But she believes a sufficiently strong management team is in place to sustain the company. Ross readily admits the past few years have not been easy for arts organizations, though dance has been perhaps the hardest hit of all. “Just about every dance company in the country with the exception of Hubbard Street and Alvin Ailey is not in good shape financially,” says Ross. “It’s no longer about how well you do your craft, but how well you do the grants game.”

Too Cool for Camels

Eager theatergoers first in line at the Chicago Theatre box office last Monday to buy tickets for the Live Entertainment Corporation of Canada’s joyful production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s disco-enhanced revival of Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat received a free bag of show merchandise. But one thing nixed at the last minute from the box-office opening festivities was a real camel stationed outside the theater to help create an Egyptian atmosphere. A live camel played a major role in the opening-night party for the show’s Toronto engagement last summer. But Live Entertainment and Margie Korshak Associates public-relations firm ruled out using a camel here after concerns were voiced about the weather and the need for an animal permit. “Camels aren’t supposed to be outside when the temperature is below 40 degrees,” notes one Korshak executive. The open-ended engagement at the Chicago Theatre, now set to begin September 23, should prove a welcome financial boost for the theater. If the production runs at least a year, the theater stands to take in well over $1.5 million in theater-rental fees.

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