The Six Million Dollar Birdcage

Chicago luv luv luvs its glitzy new tot lot on Michigan Avenue with the billboard hydrants and big bean of a fun-house mirror. Never mind that Millennium Park, which began with a modest plan to cover a railroad yard and replace Grant Park’s Petrillo band shell, grew into a patchwork quilt of naming opportunities: the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, BP Pedestrian Bridge, SBC Plaza, Crown Fountain, Lurie Garden, Wrigley Square, McCormick Tribune Plaza, Bank One Promenade, and Harris Theater for Music and Dance. At a cost of at least $475 million, $270 million of which came from the city, it’s transformed what had been a view of tracks and weeds into a 24-acre outdoor showcase for brand-name design. Chicago now has its own Frank Gehry, Anish Kapoor, and Jaume Plensa–but it hasn’t replaced the Petrillo band shell, at least not completely. With 4,000 seats in the pavilion and room for another 7,000 people on the lawn, the Pritzker can’t be used for the musical events the city throngs to. The annual jazz festival, for example, which packs the lawn with 30,000 or more, will continue at the Petrillo.

A week after 350,000 of us tromped across Millennium Park’s tender sod during a three-day public opening, the park was closed for a much more private inaugural geared to big-money donors and the out-of-town press. It began with a day of briefings and symposia with the park’s rock-star artists and architects and ended with a $1,000-a-plate benefit dinner, a concert that had the Chicago Symphony Orchestra playing backup for Broadway belter Kristin Chenoweth, and fireworks blasting off the tops of a half-dozen surrounding buildings, including the Aon and Prudential towers. The press was handled by the New York office of Ruder Finn, the party was planned by Jam Productions, and the rain–threatening all evening–held off, though money couldn’t buy a warm seat for the show.

At Friday’s symposia, held at the Art Institute, landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson explained that the Lurie Garden–where hedges are trapped in metal cages–recapitulates the history of Chicago, once dark and marshy, now bright and dry. Kapoor confessed that he’s “always detested public sculpture,” which he says lost its purpose after the 19th century, and Plensa said he created his $17 million twin towers so we could all walk on an eighth of an inch of water, though there won’t be any in the winter. The architects’ panel was put on hold when, like the park itself, moderator Charlie Rose was delayed. Eventually Millennium Park design director Ed Uhlir was pressed into service, introducing architect Thomas Beeby, who explained that his stripped-down, concrete-and-neon theater is an exercise in democratic design (no frills for the masses, and not many elevators either).

Frank Gehry said he was first asked to design fish sculptures to flank another architect’s proscenium and only signed on when he was told he could design the whole thing, plus a bridge. Gehry said he thought about how small the Hollywood Bowl looks to people sitting in its far reaches and decided he wanted the Pritzker to give the audience on the lawn a feeling of inclusion. To do that, he created a pavilion that takes up much more space than the stage requires and flung a $6 million rooflike “trellis” of metal tubes across the lawn–which also eliminated the need for vertical supports for speakers. Now that it’s done, he says, his one regret is that Beeby wouldn’t “bring his building out of the ground,” where it would have “played off mine.” He also wants to scrap the big box of a sound booth that sprang up like a weed in the center of the pavilion’s seating.

Another $3 million would have bought a retractable “schmatte” for the trellis, to be used in case of rain, Gehry said. It could still be added–and maybe that would justify the klutzy structure. Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin, last up at the symposium, noted that the Pritzker’s pavilion and lawn are a contrast to Ravinia, where the audience in the pavilion and the audience on the lawn are “in two different worlds.” But the Ravinia lawn, with its unobstructed views of treetops and stars, is Ravinia’s glory. And the Petrillo band shell does it one better: from the seats there’s a majestic clear sweep of Chicago skyline, capped by moon and sky. Accompanied by the right music, it’s an experience of breathtaking expansiveness.

Gehry said he’s never heard the Grant Park Orchestra, so maybe he didn’t know about that. But seated in the Pritzker, which has a less advantageous site than the Petrillo to begin with, you see mostly the big, bat-winged pavilion and the grid of metal tubes, more cage than trellis.

Quade v. Donovan, Continued

Knock my head against the blackboard: after last week’s story about Late Nite Catechism and its sequel, I got a call from Maripat Donovan, who wanted to straighten me out on a few matters. Donovan was a contractor when she met cocreator Vicki Quade–but she was also an established Chicago actor with two Jeff citations under her belt. Donovan said she never asked Quade for $40,000 as I reported (Quade still insists she did), and then brought up a few things she hadn’t mentioned when we talked a week earlier. This isn’t the first legal hassle the play’s spawned: a few years back Quade and Donovan were sued by three former partners who claimed what Quade’s claiming now–that they’d been shut out. Pamela Gecan, Nancy Burkholder, and David Lee Csicsko say they began working with Donovan on the concept of a play about a nun in 1993, before Donovan brought Quade into the project. When it became clear the play would be a success, they say, it was suddenly copyrighted in Quade’s and Donovan’s names only. Gecan, Burkholder, and Csicsko stayed involved as part of the original production team, but the trio sued in 1996, and the dispute was eventually resolved with a six-figure settlement. The settlement stipulates that they’re to be acknowledged in the program, but Gecan and Burkholder complain that while Donovan and the New York producer honor it, Quade does not. Says Burkholder, “If you see [the show] in my hometown, Chicago, you won’t know that I had anything to do with it.”

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