Selling Chicago Theater

Last week radio station WPNT FM, known as FM 100, and the League of Chicago Theatres announced plans to kick off the fall theater season with a week of promotional activities, including free noontime performances at downtown locations, theater workshops for students at Navy Pier, backstage tours, and ticket giveaways. Scheduled for October 9 through 16, the promotion culminates in a special cabaret performance featuring the cast of Forever Plaid at the Royal George Theatre Center; proceeds from that show will benefit Season of Concern, the theater community’s AIDS fund-raising project.

Dubbed Theatre Week Chicago, the promotion is the brainchild of FM 100 general manager Bill Bungeroth. “We really don’t celebrate theater in Chicago the way New York does,” says Bungeroth, who mentioned this disparity several weeks ago to League of Chicago Theatres marketing director Michael Pauken. Pauken agreed with Bungeroth but noted that the league can’t afford to undertake high-visibility promotional campaigns, particularly ones that involve television advertising. Undeterred by the league’s paucity of funds, Bungeroth went to work organizing Theatre Week and even convinced FM 100 to make a 30-second television spot promoting the event. “These commercials will at least get the word ‘theater’ in front of a television audience,” says Pauken. Bungeroth intends to air the spot, which features FM 100 morning talent Steve Cochran, in slots already reserved for FM 100’s own TV commercials. Of course Bungeroth’s efforts on behalf of the city’s theater industry aren’t entirely philanthropic. FM 100 runs a considerable amount of theater advertising, much of it for high-profile touring productions, and the station stands to garner even more if it affiliates itself with theater audiences.

In addition to committing FM 100’s staff and financial resources to the cause, Bungeroth approached some 20 other potential sponsors, but only two opted to participate: Canandaigua Wines and Continental Leavitt Communications, a cellular-phone company. “The exposure to the theater audience got us excited,” says David Ferrino of Canandaigua, adding, “I had my reservations about the program, but I think we’ll get a good bang for our buck.” Mayor Richard Daley and his wife Maggie, along with Steppenwolf Theatre Company ensemble member Gary Sinise, have agreed to serve as honorary chairmen of the event, but the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau, which recently tagged the week of September 18 Convention Industry Awareness Week, has not signed on as a sponsor.

Looking ahead, Bungeroth hopes next year’s Theatre Week will include a free public event similar to New York’s recent “Broadway on Broadway” promotion, where cast members from numerous Broadway shows performed in front of more than 40,000 people on a stage erected in Times Square. He also wants to get other local radio and television executives involved in planning and promoting Theatre Week. In the past television executives in particular have turned a deaf ear when theater companies have asked their stations to devote more coverage to theater.

Cold Feet at Cityfront Center

Concerns about the viability of the proposed Chicago Music and Dance Theater have recently intensified among the dozen principal tenants scheduled to perform at the 1,500-seat proscenium theater at Cityfront Center. Two weeks ago executives from most of the organizations met for the first time without representatives from the theater’s board of directors or administrative staff present. Chief among the concerns aired at the meeting was the high cost of operating in the proposed facility.

Last Friday executives and board members from each of the 12 groups were called to a mandatory meeting with the executive committee of the theater’s board, presumably to discuss some of the issues raised at the tenants’ meeting. “We really want to try and make this thing work,” said a source present at both meetings. Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre and Chicago Opera Theater have already indicated they won’t sign a letter of commitment to the facility until they know for certain the costs involved in operating there.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.