The Rise of the House of Ushers

Last year Jack Meyer saw more than 150 live performances. Sharon McLean saw nearly 100. And Ailika Taylor spends three or four nights a week at the theater. They belong to the Saints, the volunteer organization whose 1,400 members serve as ushers or greeters at three dozen local theater and music venues. The Saints tear tickets, show people to their seats, and straighten up the house after performances; in return they’re usually given a seat during the show or a ticket for a later one. Their beneficiaries range from Symphony Center and the Athenaeum to the American Theater Company and Bailiwick Repertory, from the Court all the way north to the Apple Tree Theatre. For 20 years now the Saints have been a godsend to the city’s performing community–not to mention a theater junkie’s dream.

The organization was founded in 1980 to assist the St. Nicholas theater company, which operated out of the space at 2851 N. Halsted that would later house Steppenwolf and the Organic. At that time St. Nicholas was one of the city’s premier venues for new work and a natural magnet for theater lovers; Penny Schaefer, a former president of the Saints, thinks the original group totaled about 125. When St. Nicholas folded in the early 80s, the Saints interviewed several companies before adopting the Organic, then under the artistic leadership of Stuart Gordon. “They were doing fun and very good work that we liked,” says Schaefer. During the transition the membership dwindled to an all-time low of 32, but the group flourished again at the Organic. “We would bring food to our monthly meetings and arrange special outings to places like the Pullman community, or have dinners with actors after the shows.”

The Saints faced another turning point in 1983, when the Organic’s zany comedy E/R became a long-running hit. Denied the incentive of seeing new shows, the Saints decided to extend their services to fledgling companies around the city as Chicago built a reputation as one of the nation’s hottest theater centers. Not surprisingly, the group was welcome wherever it knocked, and as the number of companies grew, so did the membership. Taylor, a veteran Saint, says the biggest jump in membership came when Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera made its Chicago premiere at the Auditorium Theatre in 1990.

Today the Saints are a well-oiled machine. Each theater or musical group is assigned a coordinator to deliver the required number of ushers–and because the members are generally hip to what’s playing around town, the coordinator sometimes has to coax them into working a less popular show by giving them dibs on the good stuff later. Theaters specify one of three strictly enforced dress codes: “nice,” “black and white” (slacks and shirt, respectively), or “penguin” (dark jacket, white shirt, and bow tie). With its annual membership dues of $30, the organization distributes a monthly newsletter, holds monthly meetings with guest speakers, maintains a Web site (, and awards grants: in the past two years it’s given a total of $12,000 to local theater companies, and every year three high school graduates receive $500 scholarships to study the performing arts.

Later this month the organization will provide ushers for A Raisin in the Sun, its first engagement with the Goodman Theatre. If the arrangement works out, says current president Meyer, the Saints might sign on this fall at the company’s new north Loop theater. Seats at the Goodman’s shows would be another well-deserved plum for the venerable organization. Some hard-core Saints have been with the group for 10 or 15 years, yet their commitment shows no sign of waning. Says Meyer: “My calendar is already filled through mid-June.”

Ballyhoo’d Opening

During the mid-80s, Michael Cullen and Sheila Henaghan were among the city’s most successful producers of commercial theater: with partner Howard Platt they mounted hits like Pump Boys and Dinettes. Now, after a ten-year hiatus, Cullen and Henaghan have revived their partnership with the Chicago premiere of The Last Night of Ballyhoo, which opens April 30 at the Mercury Theater. Alfred Uhry’s beautiful play about the Jewish community in Atlanta on the eve of World War II won the 1997 Tony award for best play, but the commercial climate has changed dramatically since Cullen and Henaghan’s glory days; companies are finding it more difficult to turn a profit on dramatic plays unless they have star talent or broad-based appeal. Cullen and Henaghan aren’t giving interviews and apparently have decided to make Uhry the publicity hook for The Last Night of Ballyhoo: on Tuesday the playwright held court for journalists in a lounge at the Athenaeum, where the cast is rehearsing.

That’s Shakespeare!

As first tipped here, Marriott Theatre’s revival of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat will be staged this summer at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, as the centerpiece of a nine-week program, “Summer on Stage at Navy Pier,” that begins June 21. Jointly organized by the CST and the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, the program will also include a revival of Chicago Shakespeare’s Short Shakespeare! Romeo and Juliet and Second City’s Hamlet! The Musical. The pier authority will cover running costs for the Marriott and Second City shows. Criss Henderson, executive director for Chicago Shakespeare, thinks both companies will benefit from the exposure but doubts that they’ll show a large profit unless they do extraordinarily well at the box office.

League Log

Kelly Leonard, board president of the League of Chicago Theatres, faxed a letter to members on March 22 updating them on the alleged embezzlement scandal that’s cost the league at least $200,000. He noted that several member theaters had prepaid their annual dues to improve the league’s cash flow and that some had also offered to donate their Hot Tix reimbursements, though the league declined. The letter reported that the state’s attorney had contacted the FBI regarding “potential federal implications resulting from the embezzlement” and promised more details later. On June 5 the league will hold a benefit at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, to include a theater revue and a screening of Re-Animator, the cult horror film written and directed by Organic Theater cofounder Stuart Gordon.

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