Out of the Flat Iron, Into the Streets

On July 31 HotHouse will close its doors at its current location, a space in the Flat Iron Building the club has called home for the past six years. “We were forced out,” says owner Marguerite Horberg, who, unable to pay the rent and other expenses spelled out in her lease, had no choice but to agree to the move. Flat Iron Building property manager Wendy Berger says Horberg was nine months behind in her rent and has no grounds for complaint: “We are willing to work with people, but Horberg shouldn’t expect us to finance her business.” Horberg admits she was in arrears with her rent, but claims she only owed around $1,000.

With Wicker Park increasingly attracting high-powered real estate developers, as well as the high rents and bottom-line-oriented attitude they bring with them, Horberg predicts that artists and arts organizations in the community will have a hard time dealing with unfamiliar, hard-nosed business realities. “What are people going to do to protect the small arts organizations in the community?” she asks, adding, “It’s getting harder and harder for small, intellectually focused arts enterprises to find a place to operate.”

Horberg claims she was pushed out of the Flat Iron Building when Berger Realty Group suddenly began requesting large sums of money in addition to the monthly rent the club was paying. “Berger began sending unitemized invoices to people they wanted out of the building,” says Horberg, who was hit with a bill for $28,000 that she describes as part rent and part “unsubstantiated charges.” She and her attorney tried to contest the bill but have had little luck doing so. “Ultimately, you have to settle,” says Horberg.

According to Berger, the additional fees that began showing up on HotHouse rent statements last year were pass-through charges Horberg’s lease required her to pay. “Every lease is different,” says Berger, who adds that Horberg and her attorney knew what the charges were for but simply balked at paying them. A monthly pass-through charge is a percentage of the building’s operating expenses based on how much square footage a tenant occupies. Though Berger says such charges are assessed in many office buildings, the Flat Iron’s previous owners had apparently never collected the fee from Horberg.

Mark Thomas, who about a month ago opened up a Wicker Park branch of The Alley in the Flat Iron Building, thinks Berger Realty Group would be within its rights to evict Horberg, though he believes her club was a welcome cultural addition to the neighborhood. “Berger Realty bought the Flat Iron when it was in bankruptcy, and now they are trying to make it work,” says Thomas, whose lease includes no pass-through provision. He says the rents Berger is charging are “high market, but they are market.”

Meanwhile, Horberg already has failed twice in her efforts to find a new home for HotHouse. Late last month she sent out a mass mailing to her customers announcing a new location at 1152 N. Milwaukee, only to have the deal collapse at the last minute. She then considered a space in the basement of Chicago Filmmakers, but that deal also fell through.

Theater League Has Funds, Will Travel

For the third year in a row the League of Chicago Theatres has wound up its fiscal year in the black. Although all the numbers aren’t yet tallied, executive director Tony Sertich estimates the league finished the 1994-’95 fiscal year with a surplus between $15,000 and $20,000. Its operating budget is $500,000.

Thanks in part to the surplus, in 1996 the league will be able to revive its annual retreat, where representatives from member theaters convene to discuss issues of concern to the industry. The last such event was held in 1991, when the league was just beginning to feel the devastating effects of several years of mismanagement and huge deficits. Sertich says the league plans to hire an additional staff member to handle the planning of next year’s retreat, as well as some marketing and public relations work.

But with so many theaters hurting for audiences, some in the theater community believe the organization needs to do more. “Sure, there’s a lot more we ought to be doing,” says Sertich. Last fall the league retained a public relations firm to aggressively promote Chicago theater here and elsewhere, but that effort petered out when the firm disbanded several months after it was chosen. Now Sertich says the league is planning to hire PR firms only on a project-by-project basis. “That approach worked well for us when we opened the new Hot Tix booth on North Michigan Avenue in May,” he says.

Whether the league will ever have the money for a high-visibility marketing campaign is doubtful. Though it’s a not-for-profit entity, it has never been able to tap into foundation funding for fear of diverting money from hard-pressed theater companies. The majority of its income comes from service fees levied on tickets purchased at its Hot Tix booths.


Last week’s column inadvertently omitted the full name and title of Arnold Breman, acting executive director of the proposed Chicago Joffrey Ballet. We regret the error.

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