North Loop Takes Center Stage

For years Mayor Richard Daley and his economic development team have talked about transforming the once derelict North Loop into a bustling theater district with restaurants and shops. And over the years they made slow and steady progress. The Chicago Theatre is already open, and the Oriental is being renovated. Then last week Daley approved the two remaining components of his plan: a new Goodman Theatre complex inside the shells of the Selwyn and Harris theaters on North Dearborn and a restored Palace Theater in the Bismarck Hotel at 171 W. Randolph. The renovated Palace will be leased and operated by Chicago- and Saint Louis-based Fox Theatricals and Cleveland-based Magicworks Entertainment; a 2,300-seat venue capable of housing the largest productions, the Palace should be open for business by fall 1998. The Goodman project, with its 800-seat main stage and 400-seat studio, won’t be completed until the year 2000.

But when all the work is finished will Daley’s downtown theater district be a hit or a flop? The last few years have been a difficult time for the local theater industry, and federal studies indicate that America is on the verge of cultural change–many young people who will be middle-aged consumers in 10 or 20 years may have little or no interest in the so-called highbrow performing arts, including theater.

Even if the public’s interest in theater remains relatively widespread, there may not be enough product to fill all the large downtown houses. Add the Palace and the Oriental to the Chicago, the Shubert, the Auditorium, and the Civic Opera House, and the Loop will have no fewer than six large theater venues. Throw in McCormick Place’s Arie Crown Theatre and the suburban Rosemont Theatre, and you have a glut of cavernous theaters chasing what looks to be a decreasing number of successful new musicals. Broadway produced no surefire blockbusters this season, while the influx of musicals from London has all but ceased. Even British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber has said that the era of the megamusical is over, which, if true, doesn’t bode well for the Loop.

Fox Theatricals producer Michael Leavitt, who will head the team operating the Palace, would not discuss the details of his deal, but one city source said Fox and Magicworks put up about $2.5 million for construction to win themselves a 50-year lease. Leavitt was also mum about future plans for the theater, at least for the time being. “We’ll have more to say in about 30 to 60 days,” he promises. But Fox is relatively new to the dicey business of developing and producing large-scale musicals, which requires huge amounts of capital that can be lost almost overnight. Several years ago Fox helped develop an excruciating musical called Theda Bara and the Frontier Rabbi; despite much reworking, the show never became a success. Together with New York-based PACE Theatrical Group, Fox took over the languishing Jekyll and Hyde a couple of years ago, brought it to New York last spring with a new director, and launched a new marketing campaign. Though reviews were mixed and the show garnered no Tony Awards, Jekyll and Hyde is holding its own on Broadway against a weak field of new musicals. Fox is also developing a musical adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Styx member Dennis DeYoung. After a couple of workshop productions, the show will premiere September 4 at the Tennessee Repertory Theatre in Nashville. “It’s ready to go to its next level,” notes Leavitt. If all goes well in Nashville, Hunchback could open the restored Palace.

With their commitment to the Palace Theater, Fox and Magicworks will become major players in a North Loop theater game whose outcome is anything but certain. Duncan Webb, a New York-based consultant specializing in theater construction and operations, is conducting a study of the Chicago market for Mayor Daley. He can’t predict what will happen once all the theaters are open: “What is about to happen to theater in the Loop represents a profound change from what has happened in the past ten years.” A decade ago the Auditorium was struggling to find product, the Shubert was dark far more than it was lit, and the Merle Reskin Theatre (then the Blackstone) couldn’t accommodate commercial Broadway product because of its small, 1,400-seat capacity. When the Chicago Theatre reopened in the mid-80s, there were high hopes for it, but within a few years the Chicago was bankrupt.

Has the climate improved? The Shubert appears to have found its niche. The Nederlander Organization, which owns and operates the 2,000-seat venue, has kept it open in recent years with a varied stream of high-profile touring product. And with about 15 bookable weeks each year, the Civic Opera House has aggressively sought touring shows. But the renovated Auditorium, touted just a few years ago as the Loop’s gem, now sits dark without any long-run bookings on the horizon. Once the Walt Disney Company’s three-year lease expires in the year 2000, the future of the Chicago Theatre may be in question as well; its stage is too shallow to accommodate the largest musicals.

If Chicago’s downtown theaters are to survive and prosper, the market will have to become more attractive to the New York-based producers who send shows out on the road. Webb, who has talked to many of them, says their attitude toward Chicago is not positive. “They would rather send a show to Detroit than come to Chicago, where they lose their shirts,” he says. “The only shows that have made money in Chicago are the megahit productions of Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Webb can’t be sure why this is so. He says he’s had trouble prying the information he needs out of Chicago producers and theater organizations. “They want to know ‘what’s in it for me’ before they will hand it over.”

Regardless of what Webb discovers, the die is already cast in the North Loop, according to sources in city government. Apparently city officials are convinced that Chicago is an underserviced theater market; studies indicate that metropolitan Chicago has only 2.32 theater seats per 1,000 residents, while Dallas and Minneapolis have 2.36 and 3.5, respectively. Toronto, which has grown substantially as a theater center over the past decade, has an impressive six seats per 1,000 residents. Even with the addition of the Oriental, the Palace, and the new Goodman, Chicago will have only 3.1 seats per 1,000 residents. Only time will tell whether patrons will fill those seats on a regular basis, making Daley’s vision for the North Loop a reality.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Michael Leavitt photo by Nathan Mandell.