Theater-Industry Retreat: A Hot Time at Alpine Valley

A week of rapid change in the local theater community culminated last weekend in an unusually heated industry-wide get-together, the annual retreat held by the League of Chicago Theatres at Alpine Valley in East Troy, Wisconsin. Earlier in the week the industry’s commercial arm had won three new seats on the League’s board of directors, which was previously dominated by the city’s larger (in sheer number of companies anyway) not-for-profit sector. A hue and cry immediately arose, especially from Roche Schulfer, producing director of the not-for-profit Goodman Theatre, who announced his resignation from the League board and publicly proclaimed that commercial theater interests had pulled a power play he could not condone.

Two days later, on the eve of the retreat, the League’s beleaguered executive director, Diane Olmen, resigned effective October 31, acting, she said, “in the interest of unity and growth.”

Then the fireworks began. At the first retreat session, the past week’s events were put up for discussion. Eileen LaCario, marketing director of the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse and one of the new board members elected, calmly rose to explain what the commercial producers hoped to help accomplish as part of the board–goals that included better management of League affairs and increased attention to industry-wide marketing initiatives.

At the mention of better management, Jeff Ortmann, producing director of Wisdom Bridge Theatre–and a close personal friend of Diane Olmen–lashed out at LaCario: “What you’ve done is split us apart. Don’t sit there and make charges of mismanagement without specifics. That’s irresponsible.” This was a statement that Ortmann may soon have regretted, for the specifics he asked for quickly materialized. Last spring, retreaters were told, problems surfaced in the operation of one of the League’s Hot Tix booths–specifically, unauthorized IOUs in the cash drawer and in the booth’s Illinois Lottery bank, both written out by a booth manager, and $2,500 worth of concert tickets pulled by a manager allegedly for sale to “friends.” Upon discovery of the irregularities, the employee was immediately dismissed. Ultimately, of course, the booth’s activities were the responsibility of the League board of directors (as they conceded at the retreat), but Olmen was more directly responsible for management of the booth.

Beyond that, it was revealed that after the Hot Tix irregularities were discovered, independent spot audits were conducted of both the Hot Tix operation and the Illinois Russian Theatre Association (IRTA), the organization formed to facilitate and fund exchange programs with Russian theater groups, for which efforts Olmen has been receiving increasing criticism of late. Preliminary summaries of those audits, dated June 13, 1990, had been delivered to the board of the League, chaired by Ballet Chicago managing director Randall Green (who was nowhere to be found at the retreat), and to the board of the Chicago Theatre Foundation (the League’s funding arm), chaired by American Express executive Nancy Haggerty.

Excerpts from the final audit documents–more than accusations of power plays and divisiveness–cut to the core of what should really concern the city’s theater industry in light of recent events. The Hot Tix audit details numerous suggestions for improving accounting procedures at the Hot Tix booths, a key source of League revenue. The IRTA report, however, is more troubling in what it suggests. Three accountants who reviewed the preliminary document over the weekend agreed that at the very least it raises serious questions about the IRTA’s accounting procedures or significant lack thereof, especially as regards the reporting of expenses. Those who feared that Diane Olmen was wasting the League’s money with her Russian exploits found little in the report to persuade them otherwise.

The draft of the IRTA report includes an exhibit that breaks down the expenditure of $104,391.38 in cash over an 11-month period ending May 31, 1990. If nothing else, that breakdown should spark questions in the minds of each and every theater person in this city. Questions such as: With theaters struggling to come up with the bare necessities every day, did this industry need to spend $7,336.02 on gifts for Russians? (IRTA eliminated gift-giving earlier this spring, according to League treasurer Marv Badger.) With money so desperately hard to come by, should the League have dropped $6,450 in per diems into Olmen’s pocket to squire Russian delegates around Chicago? Simple questions, really, yet tough in what they suggest about priorities gone terribly askew.

Bailiwick Expanding?

Bailiwick Repertory is eyeing a second stage in the basement of its home at the Jane Addams Hull House, 3212 N. Broadway. The 75-seat theater would be carved out of a former swimming pool. Bailiwick executive director David Zak says the project would cost about $125,000 and would house Bailiwick’s expanding satellite theater programs, including its increasingly popular series of gay and lesbian plays. The plan to add more revenue-generating programs to the Bailiwick lineup grew out of a study of the company’s operating strategy by alumni of Northwestern University’s business school.

A Dazzling New Restaurant Experience

Heartthrob Enterprises, which gave us the short-lived Tijuana Yacht Club as well as North Pier’s more successful Baja Beach Club, is an organization that worships high concept. So it’s not surprising that Dave Olen and Dan Rosenberg, graduates of the Heartthrob school of restauranting, insist their new avant-garde eatery, Prime Time at 311 W. Chicago, is not just “another restaurant.” Chief among Prime Time’s unusual touches, says Rosenberg, is its “unprecedented table presentation,” inspired by the work of artist Roy Lichtenstein. Diners will find themselves seated at tables covered with black tablecloths, their food served on plates in a range of bright primary colors. (The plate colors will be coordinated with the entrees, which range from salads and sandwiches to salmon, trout, and pasta dishes.) Sugar caddies are red; salt and peppers yellow. Yes, it might be wise to bring sunglasses.

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