New York Says No to Hauptmann

John Logan’s Hauptmann will not go down in history books as one of off-Broadway’s greatest hits. The drama about the man convicted of kidnapping the Lindbergh baby suffered a quiet but painful death on June 14, just two and a half weeks after it opened at the Cherry Lane Theatre to notices that ranged from mostly positive to sharply negative. Coproduced by Kevin Dowling of New York-based Dowling Entertainment, Hal “Corky” Kessler, John Walker, Pamela Gay, Charles Scibetti, and Gintare Sileika Everett, Hauptmann lost all of its $175,000 capitalization, which came from approximately 28 investors, the vast majority of them Chicagoans.

The effort to move the Victory Gardens production to New York was a struggle from the beginning. Investors did not rush to open their checkbooks, which meant that the original opening date of April 3 had to be pushed back twice while the producers continued their search for capital. Dowling says the show’s prospects were also hindered by the fact that neither the actors nor director Terry McCabe were known in New York theater circles. “We were taking a chance,” says Dowling, “and hoping the reviews would help us sell the show.”

When the money was finally raised, the producers faced the unwelcome prospect of a late May opening, which–barring a slew of rave reviews–meant the show would struggle to find its audience during the sluggish summer months, traditionally the toughest time to sell tickets to any but the frothiest hit musicals. There was talk of postponing the opening until the fall, but the producers worried that the ensemble would not be available after such a long hiatus.

The producers decided to go with the May 28 opening even though they sensed another potential problem brewing uptown, where a busy Broadway season with hit shows such as Guys and Dolls, Jelly’s Last Jam, and Falsettos was diverting media attention from off-Broadway and its lower-key productions.

Hauptmann went into rehearsal with a budget that broke down as follows: $50,000 for advertising and publicity; approximately $25,000 for rehearsal expenses; $15,000 for production-related fees; $10,000 for sets and other physical production costs; $25,000 for various Actors Equity bonds and other deposits; and a $50,000 reserve that would, be used in part to cover losses in the first weeks while the production found an audience.

Director McCabe remembers chafing about having to pay for the 50 hours a week of rehearsal time required by the actors’ contracts. “We ended up using about half of that,” says McCabe, who also wasn’t happy that the actors were preoccupied with searching for suitable housing in New York.

As opening night neared, Hauptmann was the subject of a number of newspaper feature articles, many of which explored the question of whether Hauptmann was guilty or innocent. But the producers worried about the New York Times’s lack of interest in the production. The Times’s powerful Frank Rich displayed no curiosity about it. “Frank never requested tickets,” says Dowling. Instead the paper’s second-string drama critic, Mel Gussow, was assigned to cover the opening.

Hauptmann debuted with about $5,000 in advance ticket sales, and the next day the New York dailies ran mixed reviews. Veteran critic Howard Kissel of the Daily News described the production as “an evening of emotional browbeating.” Newsday’s Jan Stuart was more favorable, but his review had the off-putting air of a history lecture. Nor was there much to crow about in Gussow’s review, which was as wishy-washy as they come. Gussow praised Denis O’Hare’s portrayal of Hauptmann as “uncompromising,” but then went on to note that nothing else about the production matched his performance.

With their small advertising budget, Hauptmann’s producers could not mount much of a fight against the Times’s cool assessment. They tried direct mail, flyers, and invitations to VIPs who could get out the word about the show, but time and the box office were not on their side. “From the beginning we did no business,” says Dowling. In the first two weeks losses far exceeded the $6,000 to $8,000 a week they had budgeted to lose based on weekly production costs of $22,000. The closing notice went up on June 10, four days before Hauptmann ‘s final performance.

Coproducer John Walker says he learned a lot in his first foray into the dicey New York arena. “One thing I learned is that you can’t make it without the Times.” Dowling now wishes the producers had waited until next fall to mount the show, saying, “We really started out behind the eight ball.”

He Drives by Night

Two years ago entrepreneur Jack Smith started driving a cab and quickly discovered his vehicle was a great vantage point from which to collect consumer reviews of city night spots. “People would start talking and forget that I was there in the cab,” says Smith, who came up with the idea of collecting the information for an entertainment guide. The result is A Cabbie’s Guide to Chicago at Night, just published by Chicago-based Fun Guide Communications. Unlike more generic and Loop-centered tourists’ guides, this one focuses on nightlife after 7 PM everywhere in the city. It tells where you can roller-skate to gospel music (Rainbo Roller Rink), play pool until 4 AM (Skinny’s on South Michigan), or tryst in a Hawaiian Waters- or Spacewalk-themed room on the southwest side (Pink Palace Motel). Each listing includes notes on the clientele and estimated cab fare from the Loop. A ride to the Pink Palace costs about $17, plus tip.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.