Projections of Growth

When they were high school sweethearts, Donzell and Alisa Starks did what millions of other teenagers do on Saturday nights–they went to the movies. Now, 20 years later, the married couple are becoming major players in Chicago’s movie exhibition business. Realizing that the south and west sides were underserved, the Starkses teamed up with Toronto-based Cineplex Odeon Corporation in 1997 to open three large multiplexes: Chatham 14, Lawndale, and 62nd & Western. Now the Starkses and their principal backer, a Saint Louis venture capital company called Civic Ventures, have closed a deal to buy eight theaters from the Loews Cineplex Entertainment Corporation, which has been ordered to unload the properties in a federal antitrust action. The Starkses’ new chain, Meridian Theatres, includes the Old Orchard Theatres in Skokie, the Broadway and Biograph on the north side, Water Tower and Burnham Plaza downtown, the Hyde Park on the south side, and Bricktown Square on the west side–a total of 30 screens. Altogether the Starkses’ holdings number an impressive 64 screens, about 20 percent of the Chicago metropolitan market.

“We always knew we wanted to be entrepreneurs,” says Alisa. She and Donzell grew up on the south side; Alisa graduated from Northwestern University with a journalism degree, and Donzell earned his MBA in finance from Illinois Institute of Technology. In 1993 Donzell gave up a lucrative career in investment banking to pursue their movie theater idea while Alisa worked as an advertising executive at Burrell Communications Group, and after approaching Cineplex Odeon with their plan for a trio of new multiplexes, the Starkses won backing from South Shore Bank, First National Bank of Chicago, and GE Capital Corporation in Connecticut. The theaters, which opened Thanksgiving weekend of 1997, were widely hailed as a triumph of community-based entrepreneurship, and the Starkses voiced their commitment to screening independent African-American films that might otherwise get locked out of the city’s multiplexes.

Last year Cineplex Odeon merged with the New York-based Sony Loews Theaters, and because the new company controlled three quarters of the city’s first-run market, the U.S. Justice Department ordered it to divest itself of the seven properties as well as the theaters at 600 N. Michigan and 900 N. Michigan. With ten theaters in the city and suburbs, the Starkses have suddenly grown from a neighborhood presence to a regional one. Now that they have a substantial stake in the Chicago market, the Starkses want the public to know they’re ready for the big time, but they face some daunting challenges: according to Alisa, morale at the newly acquired theaters has suffered from the merger and divestiture as well as from last year’s heated projectionists’ strike. The Starkses have hired Pat Burns, a respected veteran of Cineplex Odeon, as vice president of operations for Meridian, and Burns is optimistic about the chain’s potential. “We can do a lot of things the big boys can’t,” he says, “like tailor our movie programming to the neighborhoods where the theaters are located.” That claim might seem fanciful, given that the Starkses’ three original multiplexes show a nearly identical roster of films, but Alisa speaks hopefully of special events and continued participation in the city’s film festivals (she sits on the board of the Chicago International Film Festival).

Some observers wonder whether the Starkses’ acquisitions will ultimately turn a profit, and even Burns considers it curious that the so-called big boys weren’t interested in them. Neither General Cinema nor AMC Theatres, both significant presences in the Chicago area, chose to pursue the properties aggressively; both companies operate mostly in the suburbs, and General Cinema has a policy of building its own theaters from the ground up. But one might argue that some of Meridian’s theaters are in less attractive locations, need renovation, or lack sufficient parking. Neither Burnham Plaza nor the Hyde Park has ever been a high-grossing operation, and the aging Old Orchard Theatres have been eclipsed by newer, state-of-the-art multiplexes nearby. Sources say the Starkses could lose one of their best new properties, the Water Tower Theaters, when the lease expires in the next two years; the building management for Water Tower Place did not return a call seeking comment on whether the theaters might be converted into retail shops. Donzell claims Meridian might also buy the prestigious multiplexes at 600 and 900 N. Michigan, but the Justice Department will decide who gets Loews Cineplex’s remaining screens.

Spooning and Crooning

The Plaza Tavern, a lavish restaurant and oyster bar in the basement space at 70 W. Monroe, offers something that few Chicago eateries have dared to attempt in recent years: a mix of fine dining and topflight cabaret entertainment. Bill Pritts, president of Downtown Restaurants, Inc., opened the Plaza in February, taking over the space formerly occupied by Nick’s Fishmarket. Pritts wants to reintroduce the supper club concept so popular in the 1930s and ’40s, but according to others in the business they’re a tough sell. “People who want to dine out don’t necessarily want to hear music,” says Al Capitanini, owner of the Italian Village, “and some people who want to hear music don’t want to dine.” Bob Djahanguiri, owner of Yvette Wintergarden and Toulouse on the Park, has had some luck mixing food and live music, but his small circuit of restaurant-cabarets in Chicago, Dallas, and Minneapolis allows him to spread out the cost of booking high-profile talent like Eartha Kitt and Bobby Short. Pritts hasn’t landed many of the big cabaret acts, but he’s brought in Susan Anderson, part of the team that used to run the venerated Gold Star Sardine Bar, to help program the Plaza. He says that so far about 80 percent of his dinner guests are staying for the entertainment, and his healthy lunch crowd is generating enough revenue to sustain the experiment for the time being.

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