Raw Ambition

If the city’s history can be traced through its restaurants, the new bill of fare at 741 W. Randolph draws a clear line between Richard J. and Richard M. Daley’s Chicago. Barney’s Market Club opened at that location in 1919, serving steak to local politicos; its wait staff greeted all patrons with a hearty “Yes, sir, senator!” Now Barney’s is gone, and its successor, the latest addition to a developing restaurant district west of the Loop, will replace the red meat of the old days with fish.

On November 21 restaurateur Roger Greenfield and partner Ted Kasemir will unveil the Bluepoint Oyster Bar, their first seafood establishment and the 17th restaurant in a local chain the partners started six years ago. Greenfield says his newest creation is inspired by Shaw’s Crab House on Hubbard and the Oyster Bar in New York’s Grand Central Station, two restaurants he admires. In fact Greenfield is so enamored of the New York restaurant that he’s lured away its chef, Jerry Pisacreta, to head up the Bluepoint kitchen. In addition to a dedicated oyster bar and lobster and crab tanks, the Bluepoint will offer sushi and sashimi, a departure from most fish houses, but Greenfield thinks sophisticated diners will respond. The decor will resemble that of luxury cruise ships of the 30s and 40s.

Though the Randolph Street area west of the Loop has attracted a variety of restaurants, not all of them have thrived. Paladino’s, a large, noisy Italian restaurant, apparently lacked a concept compelling enough to draw diners; it closed in 1996, reportedly costing its investors upwards of a million dollars. Greenfield thinks that Barney’s closed because it failed to keep up with current dining habits.

But Jerry Kleiner has opened three successful places with funkier ambiences: Vivo, Marche, and Red Light, an Asian fusion restaurant. Last week Red Light celebrated its first anniversary just as Esquire’s restaurant writer John Mariani was proclaiming it one of the nation’s top 20 new restaurants of 1997. Greenfield thinks Halsted and Randolph will draw even more new eateries because the Bulls and Blackhawks fans who stop in on their way to the United Center generally finish early enough to permit a second seating. “The sports crowd is usually gone by seven, just when you start to get your regular evening dinner traffic.”

A Splinter Group of One

The Splinter Group, best known for its annual Buckets o’ Beckett festival, is going into a long hibernation with no main-stage productions, according to artistic director Matt O’Brien. The company last produced in the spring, when it mounted a slick revival of the musical The Human Comedy at the Theatre Building. The production didn’t perform at the box office as well as O’Brien or Splinter’s board of directors had hoped, but the company won’t disclose any figures. “Most of the theater companies I know of were not getting houses last season,” O’Brien notes, “and I’m not eager to get back into the market again until things settle out some more.”

The group has already announced the 20th Century project, an ambitious event budgeted between $200,000 and $250,000 that will showcase 20 plays by the most important playwrights of the century, including Beckett, Chekhov, and Arthur Miller. Splinter intended to produce all 20 plays, with stars appearing in some productions to boost box office. Now, according to O’Brien, the plays will be divvied up among several local theater companies, each of which will have to foot the bill for its own production; so far the Columbia College theater department is the only group to sign on. “Who knows,” says O’Brien, “something interesting could happen between now and then.”

If the project is going to fly, it will require a superhuman effort from O’Brien and Splinter’s board of directors, which is in a state of considerable flux. President Nan Kilkeary recently moved to Taos, New Mexico, and several other board members have resigned or have left town for professional reasons. “When we get ready to go again, we’ll put together a more aggressive fund-raising board,” says O’Brien. The company gave up its office space at 212 W. Superior last June, and at present O’Brien is conducting Splinter business from his home. What’s more, six members of the original ensemble of designers and directors have left Chicago for other markets. “I’m really the only one left,” says O’Brien.

Victory Gardens Suffers a Loss

Speaking of talent drains, Chicago theater has lost one of its most dedicated and gifted executives: Victory Gardens managing director John Walker. After seven years overseeing business affairs at the Lincoln Avenue company, Walker heads west this week to assume new duties as associate producer of the upcoming Warner Brothers animated feature The Iron Giant, based on the children’s book by Ted Hughes. Those who know Walker say he’s the kind of theater manager this city will sorely miss. “John is levelheaded, diligent, and great at putting together deals that are a win-win for everybody,” says producer and Mercury Theater owner Michael Cullen, who gave Walker his first job in Chicago as box-office manager at the defunct World Playhouse (now part of the Fine Arts movie theater complex downtown). Walker subsequently worked for the producing trio of Cullen, Sheila Henaghan, and Howard Platt, serving as a general manager on such shows as Pump Boys and Dinettes and The Good Times Are Killing Me at various off-Loop venues, before moving on to Victory Gardens. A two-decade veteran of Chicago theater, Walker has seen several once-prominent companies collapse, but he denies that he’s jumping ship because of the recent rough weather: “I think the squeeze is over, and the companies that are still here will be survivors.” He says that Victory Gardens is having its best season in recent memory. But his wife, actress Pamela Gay, wants to do more film and television work. In Hollywood Walker will earn more than he could possibly get in Chicago’s cash-strapped, not-for-profit theater arena; one source familiar with developments says his salary at Warner Brothers will jump well into six figures, more than triple what he made at Victory Gardens.

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