Theater League Turning Back the Clock?

Two months ago the League of Chicago Theatres appeared to be in disarray following the ouster of executive director Tony Sertich, who was dismissed after he fired two key administrators–marketing director Michael Pauken and Hot Tix manager Phil Lombard. The organization’s board had originally supported Sertich, but then turned against him when several staffers resigned in a show of solidarity with the fired employees. Now in another strange twist, the board agreed late last month to rehire Pauken and Lombard effective this week. Board president John Walker says Pauken will also be acting as the league’s director, without be-nefit of the title, while a national search is undertaken to find Sertich’s successor. “Michael will be in charge and make the day-to-day decisions involved in running the office,” Walker says. The move seems to make Pauken a prime candidate for Sertich’s job, though earlier this week Pauken would only say, “It’s a possibility.”

But the league is still planning to shell out $25,000 for an executive search firm to conduct a nationwide hunt for a new director. Some observers fear the expenditure could plunge the league back into the red, where it hasn’t been since 1990, making any new director’s job more difficult. A source familiar with the league’s budget for the current fiscal year says it originally called for a $10,000 surplus. But that budget didn’t account for the group’s recent buyout of Sertich’s contract and severance payments for both Pauken and Lombard when they were fired last November. Some reports have put those severance payments as high as $3,000 apiece, though Walker says he isn’t sure what the amounts were.

Court Theatre managing director Sandra Karuschak, who’s heading up the committee to find Sertich’s replacement, thinks that an executive search firm is worth the cost to find “the highest quality” candidate for the job. To help defray the expense, the league has applied for a grant from the Chicago Community Trust, but Karuschak says the grant would cover “less than half” of the total price tag. She believes the league can afford it, yet also indicates that the group may rethink its decision if the grant doesn’t come through.

Karuschak downplays the idea that the return of Pauken and Lombard–who were at loggerheads with Sertich over the league’s mission–will make the executive director’s job less appealing to potential candidates. Some observers have argued that the board’s decision to bring back the pair might be construed as a strong vote of confidence in their ideas and will make it tougher for any new executive director who wants to hire his own team. “Why would the league want to make it more difficult for someone who would want to take the job?” asks one local theater executive who asked not to be identified. But Karuschak says bringing back Pauken and Lombard provides stability. “Any new executive director, if they are a strong manager, should be able to walk in and work with existing staff,” she says.

Karuschak adds that the search for a new director may last into June, which makes some league members apprehensive. Sertich’s supporters say he often prevented the league from undertaking projects it couldn’t afford; they believe a long delay could allow board members to undertake projects a strong director might veto. One item that’s been under discussion for nearly two years is a $30,000 campaign to fight the city’s amuse-ment tax.

Plugging Into TV

Most of the city’s theater compa-nies only dream of tapping into the vast audience of television viewers, but the Black Ensemble Theater has found a way to do it. Artistic director Jackie Taylor says she can produce a 30-second television spot and run it during late-late-night hours for around the same price as a large newspaper display ad. Yet, she says, the results have been mixed.

Taylor works with Part Time Editing, a local company that’s created several modest television commercials for the Black Ensemble at a cost of $100 to $300 apiece. For Doo Wop Shoo Bop, its current production at the Ivanhoe Theater, as well as for its earlier stagings of The Other Cinderella and A Streetcar Named Desire, the company ran commercials on channels Five and Nine, primarily between 1 and 5 AM, at a cost of $75 to $100 per spot, depending on the show and its ratings (the commercials didn’t run if a higher-paying advertiser wanted the spot instead).

Taylor says that the additional ticket sales seemed to justify the minimal cost of running the commercials late at night. But for Doo Wop Shoo Bop she decided to try a spot earlier in the evening. For $1,000 she bought a slot during an 11 PM rerun of the Oprah Winfrey Show on Channel Seven, hoping to draw on its substantially larger audience. But the results were disappointing. “I wasn’t excited over it,” she says. Taylor says she’s concluded that TV spots have to run with great frequency to generate ticket sales. “To get the best response, you have to have saturation,” she says, concluding that TV is an expensive way to go for most theater companies.

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