Stage Fight

At this point the Auditorium Theatre’s longest-running melodrama isn’t Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, or Phantom of the Opera–it’s the three-and-a-half-year battle between Roosevelt University and its renegade Auditorium Theatre Council. Roosevelt bought the Louis Sullivan-designed Auditorium Building in 1946 and created the council as a fund-raising and administrative body; now the ATC, incorporated as a nonprofit, argues that it has a public responsibility to control the revenues and operation of the historic theater. Four weeks ago attorneys began presenting evidence before Judge Aaron Jaffe of the Cook County Circuit Court in a suit filed against Roosevelt by ATC members Fred Eychaner and Betty Lou Weiss. The final gavel has yet to fall, but so far the evidence seems to undercut council members’ claims that they were blindsided by Roosevelt president and ATC chairman Theodore Gross when he came to the council in December 1994 demanding $1.5 million from the theater’s $3 million reserve fund to help bankroll a new campus in Schaumburg. In fact, the struggle behind the scenes began long before that meeting.

Attorneys for the ATC argue that Roosevelt established the council as a public trust to operate the theater when it wrote the original charter in 1960. But apparently the council was worried; more than six months before the showdown with Gross, it was trying to negotiate a binding agreement that would solidify its control of the theater. On May 26, 1994, ATC executive committee member Gordon Newman wrote a letter of intent to Gross, proposing a 99-year license that would allow the council to rent the theater from the university for $100,000 a year. Negotiations broke down, but such a document would have gone a long way toward buttressing the ATC’s argument that it should control the theater independent of the university. Susan Stone, attorney for Roosevelt, used her opening statement to characterize the plaintiffs as “a group of individuals who when they couldn’t buy the theater or lease the theater on the terms they wanted have now come into this courtroom under the guise of the public interest in an effort to have the court system give them what the marketplace would not.”

But a confidential memo, introduced as evidence by the defendants, reveals the siege mentality then gripping the ATC. On November 1, 1994, executive director Dulcie Gilmore wrote to Eychaner, Newman, and two other ATC members, Ed Weil and Tom Kallen, to denounce Gross’s “duplicitous, vulgar” plan to restructure the governance of the theater. “Time is running out,” wrote Gilmore. “Ted’s presentation at Friday’s meeting convinced me, finally, that the operation of the Auditorium Theatre as we know it today will end if his plan succeeds. . . . When the theater bookings have moved on to other venues, when the university has shuttered its downtown campus and taken the theater’s endowment funds, when some developer is about to gut the interior of the Auditorium Building because only the facade is landmarked . . . nobody will remember why they should care.” Gilmore also suggested that the ATC “prepare a lawsuit . . . meet with [Gross] . . . and let him pick between legal action or the previously submitted license agreement.”

When Gilmore took the witness stand last week, attorneys for Roosevelt made much of the fact that her paychecks and bonuses were drawn from the university payroll and that her various employment contracts and bonuses were negotiated with Roosevelt, not the ATC. But the November 1994 memo leaves little doubt where her loyalties lay: “I want you to know that I am prepared to do anything within my power to support you in defending the Auditorium Theatre from this vicious attack.” Six weeks later Gross attended a meeting of the ATC’s executive committee. According to the minutes of that meeting, he asked the committee to join him in a resolution to transfer the funds; if it balked, he said, “we will just have to transfer the funds, period.” When Gross asked Gilmore if she thought the transfer would affect the spring 1996 opening of Show Boat, Gilmore hedged: “It’s an old building, but we have operated on $1 million before.” She then added that she hadn’t done a cash flow analysis yet. Eychaner asked for the meeting to be adjourned so the ATC could seek a legal ruling on the transaction, and within days he and Weiss had filed suit against Roosevelt to block the transfer of funds.

Roosevelt and the ATC have been in and out of court ever since. In February ’95 the university countersued, seeking an injunction to wrest the theater away from the council–it lost. Five months later Jaffe dismissed the ATC suit, ruling that the theater’s reserve fund belonged to Roosevelt–Weiss and Eychaner appealed. Now that the case has come to trial, counsel for both sides say that combined legal costs have reached the $2 million mark, more than Roosevelt and the ATC were squabbling over in the first place. Meanwhile the theater seems to be losing ground as the city’s preferred venue for big musicals: the renovated Arie Crown, the Bismarck Hotel’s Palace Theater (set to open next spring), and the Ford Center for the Performing Arts (managed by Gilmore, who left her job at the Auditorium last December) will soon be competing for the same shows, and since Show Boat closed, the Auditorium hasn’t seen much activity. By the time the smoke clears, the combatants may have destroyed the theater in order to save it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Carl Kock.