Rescuing the Chicago Theatre, Again.

The fate of the Chicago Theatre may be set in the next few weeks: the Daley administration is seriously considering the establishment of a not-for-profit corporation that would oversee and operate the debt-ridden landmark theater. A plan put together by the two founders of Jam Productions and a number of other civic leaders asks that the city turn over the theater and the adjacent Page Brothers Building–free of all debts–to a not-for-profit corporation that would be called the Chicago Theatre Community Partnership. In a draft of the proposal given to the city, the group describes itself as a “coalition of leaders in Chicago’s corporate, civic, entertainment, sports, and cultural communities who have joined forces to ensure that the fruits of the Chicago Theatre preservation and restoration efforts will be enjoyed by future generations of Chicagoans.”

The partnership’s goals, according to the proposal, would include improving the theater’s programming and management and strengthening its competitive position in the Chicago market. Among the board members named in the proposal are Amy Granat and Jerry Mickelson of Jam, Levy Organization cofounder Larry Levy, Marshall Field’s president Gary Witkin, Nick Pritzker of the Hyatt Corporation, Joseph Gonzales of the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and Richard Brown of Illinois Bell.

Mickelson confirmed that he and his organization have “a great interest” in the future of the Chicago Theatre. “We need the theater for our concerts,” said Mickelson, who declined to comment further on the status of any talks he has had with the city. But a high-level Daley staffer privately conceded that putting a not-for-profit entity in control of the theater is appealing to the Daley regime. “Something like that is not new in the entertainment field,” said the source, “and the Chicago Theatre is a prime candidate for something like that.”

Such a plan would mean the end of the theater’s troubled ownership by Chicago Theatre Restoration Associates, an investor consortium headed by Margery al-Chalibi and Marshall Holleb that oversaw the acquisition and restoration of the theater in 1985. Though the theater ended 1990 with a balance of nearly $200,000, the owners haven’t been bringing in enough money to make payments on the $14 million loan used to buy and restore the theater. Over the past six years at least two promoters have backed out on the long-term management contracts with the theater because they weren’t seeing the profits they expected. Most recently, sources confirm, the group had attempted to cut a deal with Milwaukee-based promoter Joe Balestrieri to manage and book the theater. Last week, Balestrieri, who operates the Alpine Valley Music Theatre and Milwaukee’s Riverside Theatre, was rumored to be in financial difficulty, though he claims his company, Joseph Entertainment, is financially stable.

If the city chooses to hand the Chicago Theatre over to a not-for-profit corporation, it’ll have to take on the $14 million debt. Most of that money was loaned by the federal government to the city, which in turn loaned it to Chicago Theatre Restoration Associates. Several sources speculated that the city might opt to pay off the loan from its own coffers, which could create political fallout. Daley’s other options would be refinancing the loan or cutting a deal with the federal government to forgive it. The Daley administration source said the city also wants to be certain the theater is available for use by a wide range of for-profit and not-for-profit groups.

The Chicago Theatre Community Partnership proposal maps out expenses and profits for the next four years, and its projections–based on 1990 figures–indicate that the theater could be profitable if the restoration debt were wiped out. According to the proposal, the theater could generate profits of around $136,000 in 1992, rising to $157,444 in 1995. But these estimates could be adversely affected by the Nederlander Organization’s recently announced buyout of the lease on the Shubert Theatre, which may put the Shubert in direct competition with the Chicago Theatre.

The proposal suggests that any income from the theater go to the city in partial compensation for its previous financial support of the theater, while income from the adjacent office space would go into an endowment fund to support future theater operations.

The Body Politic Starts a File

Over the past few weeks, members of the Body Politic Theatre and its board president, Bernie Miller, have been compiling a file of documents that raise questions about the company’s management since the arrival of Nan Charbonneau as producing director in October 1989. The 35-page file includes bank statements, health insurance memos, copies of payroll checks, letters from Illinois Bell, staffers’ resignation letters, and last season’s budgets. One ensemble member said it was hoped Miller would bring the file to the attention of the board, but apparently he didn’t mention it at last week’s regular board meeting. Miller didn’t return phone calls.

Shake-up at the Organic

The theater industry suffered another blow last week when Richard Friedman, executive director of the not-for-profit Organic Theater Company for the past four years, abruptly resigned. Artistic director Richard Fire said there were no plans to fill the position; for now, general manager Jeff Neal will assume Friedman’s responsibilities, which are mainly focused on development and marketing. Fire indicated that money was a factor in Friedman’s departure.

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