The Ballet Giant’s Midget Ticket Sales

American Ballet Theatre, that goliath of the dance world, isn’t doing so well at the box office. About a week before starting its two-week engagement at the Civic Opera House, ABT had sold slightly more than $700,000 worth of tickets, about $80,000 behind last years comparable, figures. And in the words of one source familiar with ABT’s annual ticket sales figures, “Last year was no record breaker.”

Unless ticket sales take off quickly, ABT could face a significant revenue shortfall for its Chicago appearance March 17 through 29. The huge dance company needs to take in around $1.4 million just to cover its expenses for this engagement. Most dance companies that tour have presenters who cover losses, but ABT doesn’t, which means it has to make up any difference between expenses and ticket sales itself.

ABT spokesman Bob Pontarelli insists the company is pleased with the pace of ticket sales: “We never go into Chicago expecting to cover all of our expenses,” he says. “That’s what we have fund-raising for.” But the ballet company can’t afford to take much of a loss; its director, Jane Hermann, is still trying to retire a $2 million deficit built up during Mikhail Baryshnikov’s years as artistic director, a debt even her huge cuts in the operating budget haven’t gotten rid of.

Sources Point to several possible reasons for ABT’s uninspired ticket sales. In years past, ABT led off the long spring season of dance Programming at the Civic’s stages in early February, but this year its Chicago engagement is wedged in the middle of the season. Also, at a time when recession-stricken dance-ticket buyers might not be in a mood to splurge, ABT was pushing two-performance “subscription packages” long before putting single tickets–which range from $20 to $60–on sale. ABT didn’t even allow single tickets to be sold in the brochure for the Spring Festival of Dance, mailed out to drum up business for all the dance companies in the series.

There’s also the fact that ABT is no longer the star-driven dance machine it once was. When ticket sales languished in years past, Baryshnikov would step into the lineup and performances would sell out within hours. Other ABT luminaries, including Fernando Bujones and Cynthia Gregory, have retired or perform only occasionally with the troupe. Now ABT is Promoting repertoire instead of stars, but this year’s tight budget means there isnt a new full-length ballet on the schedule. Instead Chicagoans will see a newly staged Peter and the Wolf choreographed by Michael Smuin and another short modern piece called Serious Pleasures choreographed by Ulysses Dove.

ABT’s sluggish ticket sales are the worst of the bunch at the Civic this year. Pilobolus did extremely well, while Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane and Company, and Hubbard Street are posting good results, sources say. Even Ballet Chicago, plagued by financial difficulties in years past, pulled in approximately $50,000 for its three-night engagement at the 870-seat Civic Theatre, more than it managed to gross in previous engagements in the much-larger opera house.

The Money Men Behind Othello

New York Times film critic Vincent Canby called the restored version of Orson Welles’s Othello a “great, scrappy, pugnacious entertainment” when it premiered in New York last week. That’s good news for the money men responsible for the restoration: Chicago attorneys-turned-film-financiers Edward Stone and Donald Leibsker, along with Los Angeles-based film producer Sandy Howard, who together form the group World Entertainment and Business Network Inc. Stone and Leibsker made money putting together investment deals in the oil and gas business; but after raising $5 million to invest in prints and advertising for the 1987 picture The Big Easy, they found they liked the movie business. When Chicago entrepreneur James Trainor approached Stone and Leibsker about backing the Othello project, they quickly put together $500,000 from an investor consortium composed primarily of attorneys and commodities traders. The cost of the restoration eventually swelled to around $1 million. Julian Schlossberg, head of the New York-based Castle Hill Productions, saw the restored Othello and immediately signed to distribute it. Castle Hill already has paid back WEB and its investors a substantial part of their original investment as an advance on its portion of the anticipated distribution income. Of course, with the positive reviews the restored Othello has earned, Castle Hill and WEB are poised to earn considerably more money as the film moves into wider national and international distribution. Down the road Othello could earn even more from cable, free-TV, and videocassette sales. Meanwhile, Leibsker and Stone are moving forward with plans to become major producers of lowbudget films. They expect to shoot 15 feature films with American actors (Carol Kane and Judge Reinhold, to name two) and budgets of around $2 million over the next 18 months in locations around the world.

Rose Records Tries Selling Live Music

Rose Records is getting into the concert-producing business. The Chicago-based record chain will present cabaret singer Andrea Marcovicci April 7 through 11 at the Park West. Rose Records co-owner Jim Rose, a big Marcovicci fan, had seen her perform at the Gold Star Sardine Bar and later helped arrange her appearance this winter in a benefit at the Goodman Theatre. Rose must sell about two-thirds of the seats at the Park West to break even. If all goes well, Rose said the record chain may present other cabaret performers.

Less Coffee, More Music

The music room at Espial, the Italian bistro at 948 W. Armitage, has a new look and a new name–the 13th Floor. Owners John Zaharakis and Christopher Bukrey have replaced the couches and overstuffed chairs with more functional tables and bar chairs, upping seating capacity from 32 to 56. They’ve also repainted the room in scarlet and added new paintings and other artwork. Zaharakis said the changes were necessary because customers were treating the space more like a coffeehouse than a music venue. “We needed to do something drastic to change that Perception,” he said. The 13th Floor will present a mix of jazz, blues, and folk music three or four nights a week.

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