Not in Our Name

Unilateral action is so de rigueur these days. Last week, right after Mayor Daley’s surprise attack on Meigs Field, new Auditorium Theatre Council chairman Melvin Katten marched into the office of executive director Jan Kallish and ousted her–without so much as flashing a code orange to the ATC board. When news of the event reached longtime board members Sonia Florian and Betty Lou Weiss, they were furious enough to desert the cause. “In view of the fact that Jan is no longer a part of the Auditorium and that I consider her departure to have been a unilateral decision and poorly handled, I submit my resignation,” wrote former board secretary Florian.

“Mel Katten, in his infinite wisdom, single-handedly, without consulting his board, fired Jan Kallish and then sent a letter to all the board members stating she had resigned,” fumes Weiss, whose aunt, Beatrice Spachner, spearheaded a major restoration of the 3,700-seat landmark theater in the 1960s. Weiss says she had been looking forward to continued participation on the board, which she’s served on for ten years and which is about to be rebuilt in the wake of Roosevelt University’s victory over the ATC in a legal war for control of the theater. Now, she says, she only hopes Katten’s group “will be as successful as Jan Kallish, her staff, and the [previous] board in preserving the theater for future generations.”

A third longtime board member, former chairman David Smerling, says he’ll remain only until the theater’s liquor license, which has his name on it, is transferred and until he’s done what he can to see that Kallish, whose salary was about $120,000, gets an equitable severance package. (She’s been told she’ll be paid for the balance of her employment contract, which was due to expire in three months.) He expects both issues could be resolved within the month. “When you lose a lawsuit, you lose,” he says. “We put that theater into very good shape; under [Kallish’s] leadership it’s done very well. We’ll see how the university does.”

The termination might be causing a stir, but it couldn’t have come as a complete surprise. During her six-year tenure, and in her previous position as executive director of Friends of the Auditorium Theatre, Kallish had been allied with the council in its costly struggle against the university and its then president, Theodore Gross. The eight-year legal battle–launched when the council thought Gross was about to dip into Auditorium Theatre money to expand the school’s Schaumburg campus–ended with a state supreme court decision last October, and board members worried privately that a staff bloodbath might ensue.

But Roosevelt, under the leadership of new president Charles Middleton, struck a surprisingly cordial posture, issuing a joint press release with the council that suggested the possibility of coalition. Four members of the old council were installed on a seven-member transition board (headed by Katten) that would run the theater through April 30, the end of this fiscal year.

“When we lost the lawsuit, to his credit, [Middleton] was the driving force behind the conciliatory remarks and making a smooth transition,” Kallish says. “He also told me that I reported directly to him. So it’s a bit surprising that I was fired by the chairman of the board and not the president. And I was shocked when I found out that my board didn’t know about it.”

Kallish, who says she agreed to the official description of her departure as a “resignation,” is proud of what was accomplished during her time–both in programming (especially strong in dance) and restoration (a $14 million project was completed last year). She says the theater either broke even or had a budget surplus in five of her six years as director, and was close to breaking even for the season ending May 30 when she was dismissed.

Katten, an attorney and vice president of Roosevelt’s board of trustees, says the theater “lost money for 30 years, made money for 6 years, and is losing money as we stand today,” though that’s not the reason Kallish is out. “We suddenly reached a time where I had to confront certain issues. It was a decision made by myself as chairman with support of the university; I didn’t take it to the board.” He says no further staff changes are planned.

Middleton, who was traveling this week, said by E-mail that he hadn’t issued a firing order and thought Kallish “actually resigned.” According to Middleton, “Mr. Katten has acted responsibly and in the best interests of the Auditorium Theatre. We are moving forward…by recruiting nationally for the best person to take over this great opportunity.” The new governing body, still being recruited, has been named with an eye to avoiding any future confusion over who’s in charge: it will be called the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University.

Short Takes

Seems like salt in a wound, but the Chicago Peace Museum’s staff of two is job hunting. The 22-year-old institution is a casualty of the economy, unable to raise the full $150,000 a year it needs to operate. Executive director Rebecca Williams says the museum’s one permanent exhibit will remain open in the Garfield Park field house, staffed by volunteers. A final Peace Museum event, a lecture on the subject of creating a governmental agency that would be devoted to peacemaking, takes place Tuesday, April 15, from 6 to 8 PM at Hostelling International Chicago, 24 E. Congress. Call 773-638-6450 for more info….Starting this week, a series of Chicago artists are taking up residence in a long-vacant space in the Page Brothers Building, next door to the on-the-block Chicago Theatre. The city, which owns the building, is paying $500 to artists to work there for three-week stints from now to October 1, when it hopes to rent the space–along with the adjacent storefront, now occupied by an offtrack betting parlor–to a restaurant. First up are muralists Chris Silva and Michael Genovese, followed by clothing designer Cat Chow….After dissing supertitles for operas in English last year, Chicago Opera Theater artistic director Brian Dickie has relented: the company is touting titles for every production this season….It came to them last weekend: Visions & Voices Theatre, unable to charge for tickets because of their venue’s licensing problem, has closed The Devil’s Sonata three weeks early.

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