The Cultural Affairs Affair

It’s every man for himself at the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs. Joan Harris’s abrupt ouster from the post of commissioner and Lois Weisberg’s swift appointment as her successor have most staffers in a quandary. Though the politically well-connected Weisberg headed the special events office under the late Mayor Harold Washington, she has had little or no direct involvement with matters pertaining to cultural affairs. Many executives of local arts organizations have had only fleeting contact, if any, with her in the past. One thing is certain, though: Weisberg could do no worse than Harris in terms of raising the visibility of the arts in this city. Appointed by Washington, Harris wasted much of her tenure in a time-consuming departmental reorganization that was quickly done in when Daley took office. She never came up with any galvanizing ideas to focus attention on the arts; while other cities, such as Los Angeles and New York, have mounted major international arts festivals in recent years, Chicago has done nothing of the sort. There’s no reason–yet–to presume Weisberg will usher in a welcome new era, given that Daley seems in many ways already to have written off the arts as a major item on his agenda. We’ll just have to wait and hope.

No One Ever Went Broke…

Edge Productions’ premiere presentation, Charles Busch’s campy Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, is on hold while producer Doug Hartzell scrambles to come up with new financing for the show, capitalized at $95,000. Hartzell was left in the lurch when Vampire’s principal backer pulled out and headed for New York to put his money into the upcoming sequel Annie 2, Miss Hannigan’s Revenge. Hartzell, however, is confident he can come up with new bucks.

…Underestimating the Adventurousness of the American Public

If you’re looking for Chicago premieres of major new plays, you’ll find them as often as not on our small, non-Equity stages these days. The year-old Interplay Theater Company just snared the rights to Les Liaisons Dangereuses, a major hit for the Royal Shakespeare Company in London and New York. Interplay also has the rights to Howard Brenton and David Hare’s Pravda and Hugh Whitmore’s Breaking the Code, two more London hits. “I just put in the request for the rights for these shows,” says David Perkovich, Interplay’s gutsy artistic director, “and suddenly they tell me I can do them.”

The city’s major Equity companies don’t seem overly concerned about the apparent lack of interest or initiative on their end of things. Goodman artistic director Bob Falls directed Pravda earlier this year for the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, and according to a Goodman spokesperson he had been discussing a Chicago production for some time; it’s just that nothing definite has materialized. But it took Falls only a brief meeting over cocktails last week with Brian Dennehy to firm up a major revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh to open the 1990-91 Goodman season. Meanwhile over at the Steppenwolf, interest in a production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses apparently evaporated after the release of the movie version starring Steppenwolf ensemble member John Malkovich.

Can Melman’s Minions Pump New Life Into an Old Room?

The venerable Pump Room seems to be searching for a viable identity in this era of casual, toned-down dining. Long one of the city’s premier exponents of elegance, the Pump Room, under the ownership of the omnipresent Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE), has been trying to find a way to sustain its high-toned image without driving away customers unwilling to adhere to its jacket and no jeans dress code. Behind the scenes there has been a flurry of meetings lately looking at ways to reposition the restaurant. “It’s tough,” says Pump Room manager and partner David Wolfgram. “The Pump Room has always been a kind of special occasion restaurant.” It’s also been obsessed with its glorious past. Both lunch and dinner menus are plastered with paragraph after paragraph of historical footnotes. Last summer LEYE brought in bandleader Stu Hirsh and members of his society orchestra to provide weekday music for dining and dancing. “For people who still like to dance,” says Hirsh, “the Pump Room could be a place for them to go.” And the restaurant has introduced live entertainment on Mondays as another inducement. Jan Hobson and Her Bad Hat Review are slated to appear on November 13. It’s certainly premature to kiss the Pump Room good-bye, but should it turn into a major money drain for LEYE, you know what will happen.

Stage vs. Screen

It’s going to take a supreme effort by the theater producers Cullen, Henaghan, and Platt to focus the public’s attention on the first anniversary of Robert Harling’s touching comedy Steel Magnolias at the Apollo Theatre. The celebration, slated for November 15, comes only two days before the Chicago premiere of director Herbert Ross’s film version of Steel Magnolias, shot on location in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Ross’s overblown movie is packed with the kind of female star power only Hollywood could amass: Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Dolly Parton, Daryl Hannah, and Olympia Dukakis share top billing. But Cullen, Henaghan, and Platt say they expect their production to continue into the new year. They’ve even managed to get playwright Harling to show up for the birthday party on November 15th. He’s also recorded a radio spot that mentions the movie but asks listeners to come see the live production as well.

Signs of Contention

Perhaps unintentionally, the Chicago Theatre is aiding and abetting the battle of the ballet companies in Chicago. Last week the theater’s marquee boldly advertised Fort Worth Ballet’s Thanksgiving presentation of Cinderella on its front, while Ballet Chicago’s abbreviated engagement was relegated to the side panels. Cinderella, as you may remember, is connected with former Chicago City Ballet co-artistic directors Paul Mejia and Maria Tallchief, while their nemesis, Daniel Duell, is Ballet Chicago’s artistic director.

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