Sneak Attack on Stagebill

Long the dominant program booklet in the Chicago area, Stagebill is facing a major threat from a young, aggressive company called Marcus Promotions. Over the past eight years, Marcus has grown into the largest supplier of theater programs in the Milwaukee market, providing them for approximately 35 different theaters under the banner Milwaukee Footlights.

Aware of the growing dissatisfaction with Stagebill within Chicago’s theater community, Marcus representatives have quietly met in recent weeks with a number of local companies to gauge their interest in switching to the Milwaukee publisher. Marcus director of marketing and sales Matt Thiele says those meetings have gone well.

“We’ve gotten a lot of positive responses,” says Thiele. But one obstacle to success in the Chicago market will be the existing contracts many companies have with Stagebill. That means Marcus will be forced to cut deals with enough theater groups to make a Chicago edition viable.

But even if Marcus finds a way around Stagebill’s contracts, some venues, such as the Theatre Building, aren’t inclined to make the break. “It’s not the way I do business,” says Ruth Higgins of the Theatre Building, which uses Stagebill and rents space to a number of small companies. Yet other major venues don’t have a formal Stagebill contract. One of these is the Ivanhoe Theater, though the three theaters in the Ivanhoe use Stagebill. Ivanhoe owner Doug Bragan says he liked what he heard when he met with the Marcus folks. But like other theater companies interested in making a switch, Bragan is concerned about breaking his ties with Stagebill before he’s convinced Marcus is committed to Chicago. “It wouldn’t be good to have to go crawling back to Stagebill,” Bragan says.

Marcus representatives say they’ll need to sign approximately 15 theater groups before opening a “satellite” office here. Thiele says Marcus must decide by mid-June whether it intends to publish a Chicago program book for the 1996-’97 season.

Encore Etiquette

Did pianist Tzimon Barto commit a faux pas during his appearance last week with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra? More than a few orchestra members were taken aback when Barto responded to the applause at the end of their performance by returning to play a Chopin nocturne as the entire orchestra sat idly by and watched. Those familiar with concert etiquette say it’s considered rude for a soloist to return for an encore when the rest of the orchestra is onstage. “It came totally out of the blue and was really kind of an insult,” says CSO player Don Koss. CSO musician Steve Lester could recall only one similar situation in the last 17 years, and that was when juvenile violinist Midori returned to play a solo encore in front of the orchestra.

None of the CSO players could say for sure whether Barto had cleared his plan beforehand with orchestra management, but a CSO spokesman believed Barto’s encore was “entirely spontaneous.” The additional time taken by the en-core helped extend the concert’s running time, resulting in 15 minutes of overtime pay for all orchestra members. But according to the CSO spokesman, overtime already had been accounted for in planning for the performances at Medinah Temple, where the orchestra has moved for the season’s final performances while construction continues on the new Symphony Center rising behind Orchestra Hall.

However lacking in proper etiquette the anxious Barto may be, he clearly is boffo at the box office. The CSO filled approximately 3,500 seats at Medinah Temple for last Thursday’s performance with Barto and conductor Christoph Eschenbach. That’s 900 more seats than are usually available at Orchestra Hall when it’s filled to capacity.

That’s Entertainment!

The New York producers of the holiday show That’s Christmas!, which is set to open at the Shubert Theatre next November, were introduced to the Chicago market last week with an event that didn’t quite exude the festive, professional air company executives no doubt hoped for.

Scott Sanders, president of the production company Mandalay Live!, wanted to stage a preview of the show with star Sandy Duncan in front of Mayor Daley. The event was initially scheduled for the relatively spacious City Council chambers, just a short walk from the mayor’s office. But at the last minute the site was changed to a tiny, poorly ventilated conference room in the city’s personnel department. The space was crammed by a tiny stage festooned with mounds of gift boxes, a small backup band, several rows of seats for invited reporters and City Hall groupies, and a couple of large tables overflowing with Christmas cookies, egg nog, and other seasonal goodies that no one seemed especially interested in at 10 AM.

Sanders apparently wanted the preview to begin precisely as the mayor arrived in the small room. The temperature was rapidly rising while the guests waited, and performers Duncan and Darlene Love cooled their heels in a makeshift dressing room behind a curtain. When an aide announced the mayor was coming, Duncan dashed out and began her big number, only to discover the announcement was premature. She stopped in mid-song and disappeared. After another 20 steamy minutes the mayor finally did show up and Duncan took the stage again.

Mandalay Live! vice-president of marketing and sales David Sass insists his company is committed to making That’s Christmas! an annual event. But some entertainment executives in the Chicago market believe Mandalay Live! is asking too much for tickets to a production no one will have seen until it debuts in November. Presumably those willing to fork over up to $60 a ticket to see the $5 million Christmas show can expect something a bit slicker and more deftly executed than last week’s preview.

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