Round Food: Part Two

Bill Jacobs and his brothers helped add bagels to Chicago’s fast-food mix when they opened Jacobs Bros. Bagels at 50 E. Chicago in 1983, and by the time they sold out to Big Apple Bagels last year, they owned 24 shops in the Chicago area. Now Jacobs wants to break into the city’s huge pizza market with Piece, a 5,800-square-foot restaurant that will open late this summer at 1927 W. North. According to Jacobs, he and a handful of outside investors have capitalized the restaurant at about $1.35 million, and he thinks it can pull in as much as $2.1 million in its first year. Piece will be among the first pizza parlors in the Wicker Park/Bucktown area, as well as the city’s first to concentrate on New York-style pizza. “We’re responding to complaints I’ve heard voiced by many people that it’s impossible to find a good thin-crust pizza in Chicago,” says Jacobs. In contrast to deep-dish pizza, which is usually cooked with gas heat, east-coast pizza is typically baked in a brick oven fired by coal or wood and comes out with a distinctive crisp crust. “For my money, it’s the best pizza anywhere.”

Jacobs had his first slice in his hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, and to oversee the kitchen at Piece he’s hired Ray Peck, an old high school friend who’s been in the pizza business in New Haven for the past 16 years. With the help of Matt Brynildson, former head of brewing operations at Goose Island Brewery, Jacobs is installing a microbrewery whose dramatically lit equipment will be a focal point of the decor. The restaurant is being designed by Jeremiah Johnson, a protege of architect Stanley Tigerman whose resume includes the nightclub Big Wig and the Wicker Park sushi restaurant Mirai; Piece will accommodate almost 250 customers and will feature dark wood surfaces, a skylight, a lounge, and a small stage for live music. Jacobs says he’s concentrating on the Wicker Park eatery for now, though he doesn’t rule out more outlets in the future.

Ivanhoe Faces the Backhoe

Vicki Quade was surprised when Doug Bragan, owner of the Ivanhoe Theater, suggested in late March that she move her long-running play Late Nite Catechism to a new venue; the hit comedy provided the Ivanhoe with steady rental income for five years before Quade transferred it to the Royal George Theatre Center. But last week she and the rest of the city’s theater community learned that Bragan might sell the Ivanhoe to Atlas Development Company, which plans to demolish the property on Wellington near Clark and erect a high-rise condominium that could include as many as 60 units, a parking garage, and retail space on the ground floor. Bragan, who bought the Ivanhoe in 1982, says he’s been approached by developers many times before, but the amount of Atlas’s bid (which he would not disclose) makes the offer “irresistible.” If the deal goes through, he says, the theater will remain open through 2000 or possibly the first quarter of 2001.

Atlas executives refused to discuss their proposal, but they’re scheduled to meet June 5 with the South East Lake View Neighbors to seek its approval of the project, a crucial hurdle. The property would have to be rezoned for such a large development, which requires City Council approval, and according to Bob Clarke, president of the association, “Our alderman, Bernie Hansen, probably won’t green-light the project unless he hears we’re in favor of it.” Clarke says his members have become concerned about the recent glut of condos in Lakeview, and he thinks the development Atlas is proposing could aggravate the neighborhood’s already severe congestion. Bragan argues that the project would create less auto traffic than the Ivanhoe does: “We have school buses parked in front of the theater all the time.”

Seeing the Ivanhoe’s four performance spaces replaced with condos would be a bitter pill for the city’s off-Loop companies; the theater is located in an upscale neighborhood, and Bragan was often willing to give small companies a break on the rent. The legendary Organic Theater on Clark near Belmont fell to condo development in 1997, and according to producer Rob Kolson, before he stepped in to operate the Apollo Theater, at Lincoln and Wrightwood, the building’s owners “already had the condo plans drawn up.” Bragan says he was able to eke out a small profit every year he operated the Ivanhoe (from 1989 through 1994 he leased it to Michael Leavitt and Fox Theatricals) but was having trouble finding shows that could turn a profit on its 500-seat main stage. After years of operating the theater and producing his own shows, he’d rather not worry about the real estate: “If I am going to produce again, I think I would rather rent a theater.” He hasn’t decided whether his A.R.T. League Inc., a trade association that offers advertising and marketing assistance to local theater companies, will continue if the theater closes. “Some of the league’s business came from theater companies that were in residence at the Ivanhoe, so we will have to see how that plays out.”

Leavitt to Leave It

The shakeout continues in the north Loop theater district. Less than seven months after the Cadillac Palace Theatre’s long-awaited opening, producer Michael Leavitt confirms that he and Fox Theatricals hope to sell their 50 percent stake in the venue to the New York-based Nederlander Organization, which already owns the Shubert and a number of Broadway theaters. SFX Theatrical Group, a subsidiary of the giant SFX Entertainment, Inc., would retain the other 50 percent, and sources at Nederlander say it would manage both the Palace and the Oriental Theatre, another SFX property. The staff of the Palace has been let go, with the exception of general manager Randall Green and a few administrators.

Nederlander’s move into the Palace could be the beginning of the end for its other Chicago venue, the Shubert. With its cramped stage and unsalable second balcony, the theater isn’t cut out for the touring megamusicals that dominate every major market. One Nederlander attraction, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, has already jumped ship, moving its fall season to the Palace after a long association with the Shubert.

The Fox-Nederlander deal may also signal the end of Leavitt’s tenure as a major player in Chicago theater; he recently produced a low-budget film called Topa Topa Bluffs, directed by Steppenwolf’s Eric Simonson, and his pet project, a revival of Thoroughly Modern Millie, opens this fall at the La Jolla Playhouse. During the 1980s and ’90s Leavitt and Fox Theatricals were highly visible in the burgeoning off-Loop scene, producing frequently at the Apollo, Briar Street, and Royal George and often competing with local powerhouse Cullen, Henaghan & Platt Productions for popular Broadway and off-Broadway properties. By the mid-90s, frustrated with the scant financial returns of off-Loop theater, Leavitt had turned his attention to producing in New York and gaining a foothold in the developing north Loop district. Unfortunately, his Broadway production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown bombed last season, losing millions of dollars, and the major attractions he’s promised at the Palace have yet to materialize. What he and Fox landed has only added to their woes: the poorly reviewed musical The Civil War lost a bundle during its five-day run.

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