Playing Catch-Up

Michael Jordan may not have anything to do with science, but he’s definitely an industry. On May 5 the large-format documentary Michael Jordan to the Max began a ten-month run at the Museum of Science and Industry’s Omnimax Theater, the first time in recent memory that the museum has shared a booking with the entertainment-oriented Navy Pier Imax. The MSI has screened films about mountain climbing and the like, but the Jordan film is a stretch: a New York Times review compared it to an infomercial, and Roger Ebert described it as “essentially just a promotional film for Jordan as a product. It plays like a commercial for itself.”

The film’s dubious educational value must not faze museum administrators: as a tie-in they’ve unveiled the MSI’s first sports-themed exhibit, “Michael Jordan: Exhibiting Greatness.” The collection of Jordan memorabilia (or “artifacts,” as the museum’s publicity puts it) includes uniforms, collectibles, the Bulls’ six championship trophies, and replicas of Jordan’s championship rings. The largest of the exhibit’s three rooms re-creates the basketball court at the United Center, complete with such sound effects as the Bulls’ bombastic team introduction. After hours, moviegoers can enter the Omnimax Theater directly, but during museum hours they must pay $7 for museum admission plus another $7 to see the film.

Normally curators will spend a year or two preparing a high-visibility exhibit, but according to Jennifer Johnston, curatorial assistant at the MSI, the idea for the Jordan project didn’t surface until early March, after the MSI secured its booking of the film. Originally the exhibit was conceived as a small show for patrons to look at while they waited to get into the movie, but then MSI executives decided to move it to the museum proper and give it a full 1,300 square feet. A few weeks prior, the annual survey of the Museums in the Park had revealed that in 1999 the MSI suffered a 5 percent drop in attendance; one of the two museums to post an increase was the Field, which had pumped up its numbers with an exhibition of Chicago Bears memorabilia last fall. With less than two months remaining, Johnston and a team of staffers assembled more than 750 items: “We surfed Web sites and contacted companies that collect memorabilia, and did a lot of networking.” The team discovered one key collector who contributed nearly 70 percent of the pieces.


The Black Orchid Showroom and Lounge finally gave up the ghost last month, closing its doors at Piper’s Alley after a grueling nine months. Marc Curtis, a former stand-up comic and Las Vegas casino operator, wanted to recapture the glamour of a 1940s supper club, but the project seemed cursed from the start. It was scheduled to open December 31, 1998, with two performances by comedian Joe Piscopo, but the club wasn’t ready, the shows had to be moved, and the second of them was canceled after a blizzard shut down the city. Curtis had trouble getting a liquor license and satisfying the city’s building inspector. The club finally opened in August 1999, but by the end of the year Curtis was being sued by Beverly Hills press agent Lee Solters for nonpayment of fees. The club owner tried to get the suit dismissed; his attorney, Cory Aronovitz, now says that effort has been complicated by the discovery of a written contract with Solters. Curtis set a top ticket price of $75 at the Black Orchid, promising major nightclub attractions, but the big names never materialized, and in its waning weeks the 250-seat club was lucky to pull in 100 customers a night. A former employee says that business plummeted during March and April and that Curtis grew more detached from the club’s operations.

Curtis did not return calls for comment, nor did house bandleader Doug Lawrence, who was in New York last week, reportedly looking for other gigs. The Black Orchid hosted three programs for last weekend’s Chicago Comedy Festival, and sources who worked with Curtis say he hinted that the club might reopen in the fall. But Curtis has other irons in the fire: a few months ago he and a partner opened the Plex Cafe, a delicatessen at the Gold Coast Galleria on Clark.

Has Jeannie Still Got the Magic?

Has Rob Kolson been watching too many I Dream of Jeannie reruns? On July 11 the producer and operator of the Apollo Theater will open a five- to eight-week run of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, adapted for female leads Barbara Eden and Rita McKenzie, with a top ticket of $54.50. Blue Man Group currently holds the off-Loop record of $49, with other big shows hovering around the $40 mark, yet Kolson and his coproducers, Rob Stein and Jam Productions, think Eden can command top dollar. “She looks great,” says Kolson, “and I wanted her in my theater.” In addition to the stars’ salaries Kolson attributes the high ticket price to steep production costs, though The Odd Couple is hardly what one would call a spectacular. The production is being pieced together with the help of Scott Stander, Eden’s agent in Los Angeles, who intends to mount a tour after the show closes here; Kolson says about three-quarters of the cast and crew are local, with the remainder–including Eden and director Harvey Medlinsky–coming from LA.

A Shortage of Sure Things

Loop venues such as the Palace and Oriental theaters are suffering from the dearth of popular new musicals, and according to the League of American Theaters and Producers, a New York-based trade association, the 1999-2000 season was a real bust. The combined box-office gross for touring musical productions plunged from $707 million the previous year to $571 million this year, a drop of almost 20 percent. The number of shows dropped as well, from 34 to 29. According to Kylie Robertson, a spokesperson for the league, road revenue this past season was the lowest since 1991-’92, when it totaled $503 million. One reason for this, suggests Robertson, is that producers in the hinterlands are booking more “nontraditional” (read non-Equity) productions instead of costly Broadway tours. The recent Tony awards don’t help: like Fosse in 1999, this year’s best new musical, Contact, has been perceived by critics and industry executives alike as a dance production rather than a musical.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Carl Kock.