Poi Dog’s Ravinia Jam

The Ravinia experience–a starlit evening, a leisurely picnic, and great music–has always been the drawing card for the prestigious Highland Park summer festival. But when the local band Poi Dog Pondering made its festival debut on August 23, the Ravinia experience was hardly a pleasant one. Be-sieged by a mass of loyal Poi Dog fans that the park couldn’t begin to accommodate comfortably, Ravinia was, according to some observers, a disaster waiting to happen. Fortunately for all those who packed the grounds, the concert passed with no major injuries and only a few arrests. Highland Park police chief Danny Dahlberg says, “It was a subjective call as to whether the park was overcrowded.”

But Poi Dog Pondering’s management clearly thinks Ravinia erred in allowing too many people onto the north lawn, where most of the perceived overcrowding occurred. In a scathing letter to Ravinia talent coordinator Mervon Mehta (son of Ravinia executive director Zarin Mehta and principal programmer of the festival’s pop-rock events), Poi Dog’s record label manager David Prince wrote: “You cheated our fans out of a proper Ravinia experience by subjecting them to a negligently overcrowded park. . . . The lawn was a disaster. . . . It felt dangerous out there–I’m sure it was a public safety hazard.”

In an unusual move, disc jockeys on WXRT FM, which sponsored the Poi Dog concert, began announcing about an hour before the show that the park was overcrowded. WXRT promotions manager Terri Gidwitz says Ravinia management may not have been aware of the huge following Poi Dog has collected in Chicago, where it moved five years ago from Austin, Texas. Though he received only two phone calls from Highland Park residents complaining about the concert, Mayor Ray Geraci says he’s concerned enough about what happened that night to convene the Ravinia Festival Commission, which serves as a liaison between the music festival and the city of Highland Park.

Mervon Mehta says the festival does not disclose attendance figures, but he considered the crowd “well behaved.” Carolynn “Chaka” Travis, Poi Dog’s business affairs manager, maintains that the lawn crowd had swelled to 11,000 by 5 PM, and she estimates it was at least double that figure when the concert finally began. In its contract with the band, Ravinia management estimated that the concert might draw a lawn crowd of around 5,000. Whatever the actual number of people on the lawn, Mehta says, “no one who had a ticket was turned away.” But some people never made it to the gates with their tickets. Andrew May, a city resident, first tried to reach Ravinia on a Metra commuter train, but it was packed. May then drove to Highland Park, where a policeman at one of the festival’s remote parking lots told him not to bother parking because no one else was being let in.

Amy Townes, who has traveled to Ravinia for several pop-rock shows, got into the park but maintains that there wasn’t an empty spot of grass visible on the north lawn: “Even the sidewalks were covered with people.” Getting out of the park after the concert was especially trying, says Townes. Thousands of people had to wait at the front gate while others crowded into a city-bound train. According to Dahlberg the scheduled train could not handle the crush. An additional train was brought to the park–the first time that has happened in at least 20 years, says Dahlberg. Mehta says an additional train was used for other concerts this summer.

Poi Dog’s David Prince would like to see the festival commission cap the number of people who can occupy the park, while Travis predicts, “I don’t think there will be any more of these kind of concerts.” But popular attractions like Poi Dog represent a huge revenue stream for a not-for-profit like Ravinia: lawn tickets for pop events cost $10, one-quarter more than the $8 charged for classical attractions. Mehta dismisses complaints that Ravinia doesn’t know how to do rock ‘n’ roll; he says Janis Joplin and Jackson Browne, among others, have played Ravinia over the years. Mehta also says the Poi Dog concert provided an answer to the question of whether a downtown crowd would travel to Ravinia: “The answer was a resounding yes.”

Center Theater’s Balancing Act

Following a long year in which it mounted only one show (and a short-lived one at that), the 14-year-old Center Theater Ensemble is planning to produce again after founding artistic director Dan LaMorte resigned late last month to become director of artistic programs for Tony Tomaska, the producer of Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding. Dale Calandra, another Center Theater founding member, will serve as interim artistic director while the board of directors launches a formal search for LaMorte’s successor. “I have made a commitment to serve for at least the next six months,” says Calandra, who notes that Center Theater has been trying to get its finances in order over the past year.

Beth Henley’s The Revelers, the company’s last production, was a critical bomb that closed after two weeks in the fall of 1996 and plunged the company into debt. Calandra says the theater had planned a production for the spring of 1997, but when an expected grant failed to come through, the board felt it would be prudent to wait. The company continued to workshop new plays throughout last season, and one of those, Jessica Thebus’s Building Sympathy: The Life of Richard Nickel, will debut in Center Theater’s studio space in early November. The work is a nonlinear biography of the Chicago photographer who helped salvage the Trading Room of the Chicago Stock Exchange now reconstructed at the Art Institute.

Center Theater board president Charlie Frankel says the decision not to produce again last season allowed the company to end its fiscal year on August 30 with no deficit. But without a subscription base to serve as a financial cushion for its upcoming November show, the company will have to rely on good reviews and brisk single-ticket sales to make the play a success. LaMorte had spoken of moving Center Theater from its long-standing home at 1346 W. Devon to a space in Lakeview, but Frankel says the company is committed to the Devon location for the foreseeable future. Frankel also hopes to bring in a new managing director soon. That would be the third attempt at filling the position in recent years.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Carolynn Travis and David Prince photo by J.B. Spector.