Played Out

After 13 years of quiet growth the Kohl Children’s Museum in Wilmette could be entering a tortured adolescence. Last summer Dolores Kohl, the museum’s founder and a major benefactor, brought in John Cartland to replace her as chief executive officer, but after only 15 months Cartland has cleaned out his desk. “I was working 60 or 70 hours a week, and my golf game was suffering,” he quips. Kohl was in Europe and unavailable for comment, but according to John Schornack of the museum’s executive committee, she’ll take up her old duties until a new CEO is named. The museum has a reputation as a difficult place to work–a rap Cartland was trying to correct during his tenure–and he may have found he couldn’t accomplish much with Kohl looking over his shoulder. “Dolores is a very creative but very strong-willed person,” says a local businessman who’s known Kohl for years. Cartland is equally diplomatic: “Dolores is a wonderful idea person…[but] it’s difficult to wean an institution like the Kohl Museum from someone who’s been so closely aligned with it from the beginning.”

Heir to the department store fortune, Kohl returned to a teaching career in the Highwood public school system about 20 years ago, following a divorce; she founded the museum in 1985, a few years after the opening of the larger and better-known Chicago Children’s Museum. The Kohl Museum has only 11,000 square feet of exhibition space, yet it’s become an extremely popular institution on the North Shore, drawing nearly 220,000 visitors annually; it also impacts thousands of children through an outreach program that sends museum representatives into the schools. About half of its $2.5 million budget comes from philanthropists–including Kohl, who’s always covered any financial shortfalls.

In 1997 Kohl decided to step down. Cartland, a 41-year veteran of Arthur Andersen and a longtime civic leader, had served as chairman of the board for the Museum of Contemporary Art, orchestrating the early stages of planning and fund-raising for its new building. At the Kohl Museum he was trying to hire new staffers, beef up the board of directors, implement new fund-raising strategies, and develop a long-range business plan for a new facility. Now that Cartland is back on the putting green, Kohl will have to find someone else worthy of those tasks; Schornack wasn’t sure whether she’d choose an administrator from the museum’s staff, tap one of the trustees, or institute an executive search.

Blue Men Rolling in Green

After a year at the Briar Street Theatre, Blue Man Group is becoming the city’s biggest success story since Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. On a recent Tuesday–usually a dead night even when one can find a show playing–only a handful of Briar Street’s 600 seats were empty. Not only was the house packed at $46 a pop, but the crowd was a healthy mix of middle-aged couples, young adults, and college kids, precisely the spectrum that most theater groups in town are seeking but can’t find. “We’ve played to over 300,000 people since the show opened,” says Manny Igrejas, a spokesman for Blue Man, “averaging about 90 percent of capacity at every performance.” Igrejas wouldn’t reveal the Briar Street production’s total box office gross, but he points out that Blue Man has never had to dump its tickets through the League of Chicago Theatres Hot Tix booths and has amassed advance sales of more than a million dollars as it heads into the holiday season with an expanded performance schedule.

While Igrejas claims that positive word of mouth has fueled the show’s success, Blue Man roared into town on the strength of a costly marketing campaign and a New York run that frequently landed the ensemble on late-night talk shows. The Chicago production’s weekly advertising budget sustains a significant presence on local TV, supplemented by radio spots and print ads. “WGN and WXRT have been the two radio stations that we do the best with,” notes Carol Fox, a local public relations and marketing executive who’s helped shape the show’s campaign in Chicago. The combination of WGN’s retirement-age audience with the baby boomers who tune in WXRT would seem to guarantee Blue Man an older, affluent crowd. College media have been invited to schmooze with the cast and crew whenever possible, monthly promotional performances have allowed for plenty of ticket giveaways on various radio stations, and the show’s novel combination of performance art and vaudeville shtick has gone over well at public appearances like sporting events.

Concerned that the audience might dwindle over the summer, Fox pushed the ad campaign into a few surrounding markets, most notably Milwaukee, but she can’t gauge how much of the city’s tourist trade is heading for the Briar Street. In any case, the show’s open-ended run is still going strong. Igrejas promises, “We’ll keep going as long as the interest is there.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): John Cartland photo by J.B. Spector.