Polishing a Tarnished Image

Ted Gross has a dream. For several years the Roosevelt University president has been quietly formulating a plan to transform the school’s music and theater departments into a new center for the performing arts. He says his model is New York’s prestigious Juilliard School, and he’d also like to offer an MBA in arts administration. Gross says the center would house an arts-related think tank called the Institute for Policy and the Performing Arts.

Observers see Gross’s plan as a gutsy move because the performing arts–particularly classical music and theater–face an uncertain future due to declining interest among young adults and a sharp drop-off in arts funding. Applications to the DePaul Theatre School have been rising at a slight 2 to 3 percent a year, and the school’s admissions director Melissa Meltzer says parents of would-be students are increasingly reluctant to shell out $15,000 a year for training that may not pay off in the long run.

Still, Gross appears driven to realize his dream for at least a couple of reasons. The new con-servatory would polish the school’s image. Once home to the celebrated Chicago Musical College, the university has lately been operating in the shadow of other local institutions of higher learning, such as DePaul and Northwestern, which have both garnered attention for their arts programs. Roosevelt’s downtown neighbor, Columbia College, has also attracted considerable notice in recent years for the strength of its theater and dance departments.

But Gross is inter-ested in the project for more personal reasons as well. If he succeeded in establishing a major training center, it would stand as a testament to his love of the arts. He’s still stinging from an ugly battle with the not-for-profit Auditorium Theatre Council over control of the landmark theater and the substantial profits generated by a string of popular musicals there, including Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, and now Show Boat. So far the courts have sided with Gross, who insists the university has the right to theater profits. The Auditorium Theatre Council, however, is appealing the court rulings and waging a vigorous public relations campaign to paint Gross as an enemy of the arts and landmarks. Gross’s performing arts conservatory may go a long way toward neutralizing the unflattering publicity.

He expresses an interest in returning to purely academic pursuits, complaining that the pressures of running a university and raising money are great. But before stepping down he’d like to make his dream of a performing arts center a reality. He needs at least $1.2 million in start-up funds. He has a portion of that already in hand from fund-raising concerts given by such classical music luminaries as Kiri Te Kanawa, Marilyn Horne, and Itzhak Perlman. Gross says he’d like to attract them back as teachers of master classes. He’s ideally looking for a major donor or foundation to step forward, but so far there’s been no sign of a benefactor. At least one high-powered foundation executive believes it will be difficult for Gross to come up with the cash: “I am not convinced there is a need for a conservatory at this particular time.”

If he can raise the dough, Gross says he’d like to purchase the Fine Arts Building on South Michigan Avenue and restore the old Studebaker Theatre, which is currently part of the Sony Fine Arts movie complex. Gross already has talked to Shakespeare Repertory artistic director Barbara Gaines about bringing the company on board as the conservatory’s resident professional theater. Such a move would allow Shakespeare Rep to leave the cramped Ruth Page Auditorium, and Gaines has long had an interest in working with students. But it’s all speculation for now. Gross estimates he’ll need an additional $5 million to purchase the Fine Arts Building, restore the Studebaker, and bring in Shakespeare Rep.

Theater League Still Headless

The search for a new executive director at the League of Chicago Theatres may be winding down. A source familiar with the search says the league is now looking at local theater veteran Sheila Henaghan. She was a member of the former commercial producing trio of Cullen, Henaghan, and Platt. When the group disbanded in the early 1990s, Henaghan moved to the west coast to do graduate work in Spanish. But she recently returned to Chicago and has been assisting her former partner Michael Cullen in getting his new Mercury Theatre up and running. A former member of the league’s board of directors, Henaghan was often cited for her business savvy.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Roosevelt University president Ted Gross, by Jon Randolph.