Screen Jams

In April 1998 a New York district court permitted a merger of Loews Theatres and Cineplex Odeon after the two companies agreed to divest themselves of ten Chicago multiplexes. But nearly two years later, two of the choicest properties–the theaters at 600 and 900 N. Michigan–still belong to the merged Loews Cineplex chain. Potential buyers may be worried that the area will soon have too many screens: AMC Theatres is building a 21-screen multiplex at Illinois and Columbus to open in summer 2001, and Century Theatres plans to open a 14-screen facility across the street from it.

Last summer the local Meridian Theatres chain bought most of the theaters that Loews Cineplex was unloading, but it was unable to obtain the theater leases at 600 and 900 N. Michigan. A spokesperson for Clarion Partners, the New York firm that manages the 600 N. Michigan Avenue building, confirmed that Meridian’s initial bid was rejected. As part of the lease, Clarion receives a percentage of the box office, and sources familiar with the situation say the firm was concerned that Meridian might not be able to match Loews’s ticket sales. Meridian’s financing for the theater lease at 900 N. Michigan was reportedly linked to its getting the 600 N. Michigan property. Alisa Starks, who manages Meridian Entertainment Group with her husband, Donzell, says they recently initiated a second bid on the leases but pulled out because of the probable competition from AMC.

According to the Clarion spokesperson, the firm might ask the court to let Loews Cine-plex keep the theaters if no other exhibitors express interest in the next few months: “I don’t think the courts in New York State, where the antitrust ruling was made, understand the competitive situation here in Chicago.”

California Schemin’

The new Cadillac Palace Theatre has plenty of open space on its calendar, but president, co-owner, and operator Michael Leavitt is taking his new show to the west coast instead. Thoroughly Modern Millie, Leavitt and Fox Theatricals’ adaptation of the old Julie Andrews movie, will premiere September 19 at the prestigious La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, California. The show’s director, Michael Mayer, and its composer, Jeanine Tesori, have close personal and professional ties to Anne Hamburger, the new artistic director of the La Jolla, from their days working together in New York. Josh Ellis, a spokesperson for the La Jolla, says the show will be billed as the theater’s own production but concedes that Fox is supplying “enhancement money.” Leavitt did not return phone calls seeking comment, but after his last collaboration with Mayer, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, flopped on Broadway, he may have decided to let La Jolla put its name on this regional dry run. Leavitt recently severed his ties to Dennis DeYoung’s musical adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and DeYoung is looking for another producer.

Admissions of Weakness

Attendance figures for the nine museums on Park District land suggest that blockbuster programming may be the only way to keep visitors coming. According to the annual survey of the Museums in the Park consortium, only the Field Museum and the Chicago Historical Society reported greater attendance in 1999, each posting a modest increase of 3 percent over the previous year. The DuSable Museum of African American History was the biggest loser, with a 14 percent drop–partly caused by construction at the facility. Less easy to explain is the 11 percent drop at the Art Institute. Eileen Harakal, a spokesperson for the museum, blames low attendance figures on “Land of the Winged Horsemen: Art in Poland, 1572-1764,” which museum officials thought would be a big attraction. The exhibition drew only 132,000 visitors, compared to 342,000 for the previous year’s Mary Cassat show and 965,000 for the blockbuster Monet show in 1995. A spokesperson for the Field says its recent exhibitions of Cartier jewelry and Chicago Bears football memorabilia helped contribute to its attendance last year; this year it’s banking on an exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the May 17 unveiling of the dinosaur Sue.

Big League Spin

Members of the League of Chicago Theatres met on Monday night to learn more about its alleged embezzlement scandal and how the league hopes to make up a deficit of at least $200,000. According to several sources present at the meeting, the dramatic high point came when Sharon Evans, artistic director for Live Bait Theater, called the scandal a blow to her organization and said it would take some time to forgive and regain trust in the league. Roche Schulfer, producing director at the Goodman Theatre, reportedly chastised Evans for “moralizing” and left the room. Kelly Leonard, president of the league’s board of directors, says that Schulfer “felt bad about losing his temper” and that otherwise the climate of the meeting was “supportive.” The league is trying to make up some of the shortfall by asking members to pony up discounted membership dues several years in advance and urging some benefactors, including the Chicago Community Trust and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, to increase and/or accelerate their financial commitments to the league. The league also expects to organize a benefit in May.

Dustbin of History

Dorothy Coyle, the city’s tourism director, doesn’t know where the millennium went. Last year she orchestrated the city’s well-publicized New Year’s celebration, with “Dance ’til the Dawn of the New Millennium” events taking place across the city. The celebration was supposed to continue throughout 2000, and Coyle was promised $2.2 million from the hotel and motel tax fund to underwrite a monthly series of activities relating to themes like architecture, sports, transportation, and neighborhoods. Coyle hired a four-person staff to plan the events. But the contribution was abruptly cut to $1.5 million, then $1.2 million, before being yanked altogether early last month. “I was never told why the money was pulled or what was being done with it,” says Coyle. None of the tourism office’s other activities will be affected, though all four staffers have been let go. Coyle doesn’t expect any more funding for millennial activities later this year: “I think everyone is a little tired of the whole idea by now.”

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