South of Cicero, West of the Planes

“We screwed up,” artistic director Jenniffer Thusing was saying earlier this week about Majestic Midway, the name her brand-new In the Works…Theatre Company slapped on the venue it’s opening tonight, June 25, at 5722 W. 63rd Street. According to the company’s hype, the brick-and-plaster structure three blocks from Midway Airport “was built approximately 100 years ago as a single screen movie theater called the Majestic.” But Richard Sklenar, executive director of the Theatre Historical Society in Elmhurst, says if that’s the case it must have been a nickelodeon. His records show that the building opened in 1920 as the 300-seat King Theatre and operated under that name until 1927. From 1929 to 1933 it was called the Clearing, and from 1934 to 1953 the Mayfair. As far as he knows, it has never been the Majestic.

But that’s not the kind of detail likely to bog down a company that plops an ellipsis in the middle of its name. Thusing, who’s worked around town for about six years as a director and stage manager–and was one of the people laid off when Noble Fool shut its Loop theater at the end of April–says she and most of the ten other people in the company had been kicking around the idea of opening a theater on the city’s southwest side for several years. “We all live down here, and almost always had to go downtown or to the north side for work,” she says. “We wanted a place where southwest-side artists could work in their own community.” They got serious about it when the theater building, which most recently had been used as an auto repair shop and a union hall, became available late last year. They negotiated a $2,700 monthly rent and took possession June 1. If things unfold majestically, they plan to buy it.

Thusing says start-up costs are $20,000, with half of that going toward improvements to the space. The original stage and seats had been torn out by previous tenants, and there never were any backstage facilities. In the Works hung lights, built a thrust stage, and installed a temporary technical booth, with equipment donated or picked up on the cheap. The seating–bench style, for 100–consists of 12 old pews acquired from Saint Gerard Majella Church in Markham, where Thusing grew up. The rest of the money is earmarked for expenses like utilities, insurance, and licenses (the last still pending when we spoke).

In the Works has set itself a lofty mission: to create theater that “speaks to and for the working class.” The company intends to carry this out through its material, its location, and through ticket prices, which it’s vowed to keep under $20. To ensure this, In the Works is offering the venue to other troupes without any minimum rent: they’ll simply split ticket revenue 50-50. It’s a no-lose deal for young companies, and the bookings are piling up. Spoken Word Theatre will do stories by Stuart Dybek June 30, TAXI will open the not-exactly-blue-collar Sylvia beginning July 8, My Cup Runneth Over Productions will present Between Hell and High Water in late July and August, and Stockyards Theatre Project will stage two shows from late August through October. There’s also a lineup of Wednesday matinees, late-night comedy, cabaret, and plans for improv and indie film nights as well as In the Works’ own stage productions.

The big question is whether there’ll be an audience. Majestic Midway’s advertising budget is zilch, and promotion so far consists of a mailing list of 6,300 people who live between Roosevelt Road and 127th Street, from the lake to Lemont–“people who’ve been known to buy theater tickets,” Thusing says. “Drury Lane in Evergreen Park didn’t close for lack of an audience,” she notes. “When we did seven performances of a community Shakespeare production in a church two blocks from here, 500 people came.” Surveying the landscape for competition, she sees only the Beverly Arts Center, Moraine Valley Community College, and, perhaps, Drury Lane Oakbrook. Of course, patrons of theater that comes with cushy seats and thick cuts of prime rib may not be eager bench sitters.

“We made a firm commitment for six months,” Thusing says. “And then we’ll reevaluate.”

The Not-So-Noble Fool

Another former Noble Fool, assistant box-office manager Dave Plomin, dropped the Reader a postscript about the downtown theater’s meltdown. The employees “were left holding the bag,” Plomin writes, with “no hope of ever receiving four weeks of back pay. We feel that we were led on and the board should have warned us a long time ago to start looking for other employment. That last Thursday, April 29, I saw a professional photographer taking pictures in front of the theater and asked my coworker to go out and ask what he was doing. The man said that he was from the Sun-Times and ‘heard that you were shutting down.’ NICE. Heard it from a stranger before the board would EVEN pay us a common courtesy of sending an emissary to tell us in person. Imagine picking up the [Sun-]Times the next morning…and reading it in the paper. Imagine [the] staff reading it on the way to work.”

Yep, that’s how Jenniffer Thusing got the news.

Show Fahrenheit 9/11 and You’re a Ghost

Michael Moore’s Web site has been running a message warning that “some people still don’t want you to see my movie.” Fahrenheit 9/11 opens in more than 850 theaters this weekend, but “there are three national/regional theater chains who, as of [June 18], have not booked the movie in their theaters. One theater owner in Illinois has reported receiving death threats.”

The death-threat target was Skip Huston, who owns the Avon Theatre in Decatur. Huston says that he got three telephone calls that went something like “You play that movie, you’re dead,” plus thousands of e-mails. The first wave of messages seemed to have been orchestrated by Move America Forward, characterized by Moore as a “fake grassroots front group.” After Huston asked Move America Forward to remove him from its list these pretty much dried up, only to be replaced by an even larger flood of pro-Fahrenheit e-mails, which were barely more welcome: “I’ve got work to do,” Huston says. “We showed Bowling for Columbine, and we didn’t have anything like this,” he adds. “This is a very scary time.” Huston, mind you, doesn’t scare easy: he’s encountered ghosts more than once in the Avon’s ornate old halls and balcony, he says, and he’s still there.

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