Pennies From Heaven

Tony Tomaska and Joyce Sloan won’t name their mystery date, but the city should know within days whether he’s a dreamboat or a dud. Last week Tomaska said he and Sloan were in the final stages of negotiation with a new partner to open their long-delayed Chicago Center for the Performing Arts, a massive theater and film production facility at the southwest corner of Chicago and Halsted. Tomaska would say only that the party would match the funds already committed to stage shows at the facility. “We were presented with a plan that was too good to refuse,” claims Tomaska, and now the facility could open as early as March. “We have some more work to do to finish the build-out, but I don’t believe there will be any more major delays.”

Tomaska, producer of the long-running Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding, and Sloan, producer emeritus at Second City, first announced the multitheater complex in 1995, when the local theater scene was still fairly robust. But months dragged into years, and though Tomaska and Sloan have put considerable work into the 90,000-square-foot complex (one source estimates that they’ve spent close to $1 million), they’ve never announced an opening date, sparking rumors that funds had dried up, that the project was collapsing. “I didn’t want to show the facility to anyone until we were finished,” explains Tomaska.

He says the center will have a restaurant, a production studio for television commercials, several floors of offices and rehearsal rooms, no fewer than four stages ranging in size from 150 to 400 seats, and a 300-car parking lot on the north side of Chicago Avenue. Whether it will prove financially viable is another matter: with stages at the Royal George Theatre Center remaining dark for long periods, Tomaska and Sloan face a formidable challenge in keeping their four theaters lit. Sloan says that some of the stage space might be used for rehearsals and other purposes, while Tomaska hints that film and television production will play a larger role than had originally been planned and that they will count on their new partner to help fill the center.

A source says that as recently as a month ago Sloan seemed despondent about the future of the complex, talking as if it might never open. Apparently recent developments have given her new cause for hope, but she remains more cautious than her partner in assessing the situation. “Not everything is signed and sealed,” she says, “so I don’t want to make any statements yet.”

Sweet Home Athenaeum

Chicago Opera Theater will be returning to its old digs at the Athenaeum Theatre this spring. Three years ago, when COT abandoned the Lakeview venue for DePaul University’s Merle Reskin Theatre in the South Loop, opera officials were awaiting construction of the proposed Chicago Music and Dance Theatre, which was to have opened downtown in 1997. But the $30-million-plus, 1,500-seat facility has been delayed numerous times; one source says that Music and Dance Theatre executives even approached Michael Leavitt of Fox Theatricals about renting his Palace Theatre (now being restored in the Bismarck Hotel) for ten weeks a year in lieu of erecting the building, a proposal that went nowhere. With the new theater in limbo the opera apparently wants to get back to the spring production schedule it enjoyed at the Athenaeum and also do some fall projects. At Merle Reskin COT had to mount its shows during the less desirable months of June and July because DePaul used the theater the rest of the year.

Picking Up the Stagebill

After weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiation, Stagebill has been sold, not to a major media company but to self-made New York businessman Fred B. Tarter. Tarter’s eclectic holdings range from Screenvision Cinema Network, which distributes on-screen advertising in movie theaters, to the Pharmacy Fund, a collection agency for pharmacies. He once published the folk-music magazine Hootenanny and currently owns El vocero, a Puerto Rican daily, and a regional paper called Caribbean News International.

Tarter was traveling and unavailable for comment, but Stagebill publisher Shira Kalish says his acquisition of the company should allow it to expand in a variety of ways. She would like to roll out a new children’s theater program book she’s been developing at Carnegie Hall, and she also expects Tarter to beef up the company’s ad sales department, which by all accounts has been underperforming. Purchasers of media properties often move quickly to bring in a new team, but Kalish says she expects no major changes in the magazine’s current staff.

Fading Beauty

Three months into its Chicago Theatre engagement, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast isn’t breaking any records. Though Beauty runs into March, tickets are selling essentially two for one. A source in the Disney organization admits that a 12-week booking would have been a wiser choice: “We would probably have sold out then.” The same source says executives are booking a variety of Disney and non-Disney shows to fill out the remaining two years of Disney’s three-year lease. Unfortunately Disney’s Broadway hit The Lion King won’t be one of them; Disney’s current plan is to forego a national touring company for sit-down productions in a few overseas markets, including London, Tokyo, and probably a German city yet to be determined.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Chicago Center for the Performing Arts photo by Eugene Zakusilo.