Theater People Wonder: Where Have All the Profits Gone?

Hal “Corky” Kessler and Don Scatena, leaders of an investor pool that has helped most of the recent theatrical ventures of producers Michael Cullen, Sheila Henaghan, and Howard Platt, have had enough of money-losing projects. For the time being, Ressler and Scatena say, they don’t expect to invest in any CH&P Chicago productions. “We’re taking a pass on shows licensed to Chicago where we have no ownership rights in the project,” explains Kessler. “I’m not sure it’s possible to make money on shows in Chicago, and I don’t think I’m going to do anything until I see a change in the economy.” Kessler and Scatena’s new mood could portend a significant falloff in commercial activity as producers and investors alike wrangle with the question of whether the profits have vanished from the local theater industry. Though they remain the city’s most experienced producers, CH&P have searched in vain lately for a monster hit to match the success of the original Pump Boys and Dinettes, which ran for years at the Apollo Center, and Driving Miss Daisy, a quick and lucrative success a while back at the Briar Street Theatre. CH&P have had no such luck with recent projects such as Frankie & Johnny in the Clair de Lune, The Nerd, I’m Not Rappaport, Steel Magnolias, and The Good Times Are Killing Me, all funded in part by Kessler and Scatena’s investor pool. “Steel Magnolias might have made some money,” says Kessler, “if the Royal George Theatre hadn’t gone bankrupt while the show was playing there.” CH&P’s most recent venture, Shirley Valentine–also funded in part by Scatena and Kessler’s investors–has run into problems as well. CH&P posted a closing notice for Shirley Valentine at the Wellington Theater in July and then had to move the show to the much smaller Wisdom Bridge to continue the run. Weekly grosses for the show have been building painfully slowly in its new home. Kessler says he doesn’t know yet whether Shirley Valentine will return any profit to his investors. In any case it is apparent that the rush of commercial production has slowed markedly this fall, as more plays that might have been commercial ventures are delayed or wind up in the hands of not-for-profit theaters. A spokesman for CH&P says the organization has no timetable yet for mounting Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles, a Broadway hit that was to have been CH&P’s next production. Kessler says his investors won’t go in on the show if and when it is produced. Cullen and partner John Walker waived the commercial rights to T Bone n Weasel to allow the not-for-profit Victory Gardens Theater to open its season with the play last week. Robert Perkins and Richard Freydberg, the team that mounted Other People’s Money at the Royal George, had expressed interest in producing the off-Broadway musical revue Closer Than Ever, but their interest has apparently cooled, and the show will be produced later this fall by the Apple Tree Theatre Company, a not-for-profit in north suburban Highland Park. Meanwhile, Kessler and Scatena are busy with development of a new musical called Hoops in conjunction with their Los Angeles partners Gail Stayden and Martin Stayden. The musical will be based on the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team and its founder Abe Saperstein. Kessler says he hopes to nab Smokey Robinson to write the score. “We want to mount the first regional production of Hoops in Chicago,” he adds.

Latino Film Fest Grows Up

Pepe Vargas, the attorney who founded the Chicago Latino Film Festival, will open his sixth annual gathering tonight with a reception and showing of Last Images of the Shipwreck by Argentine writer-director Eliseo Subiela at the First Chicago Center Theater. Vargas has watched his dream grow larger and more successful each year. The first festival’s attendance totaled 500; last year’s attracted an audience of 10,000. The first festival comprised films from nine Latin countries, while this year’s event, which runs through October 7 at the Three Penny Cinema, Facets Multimedia, and the Roberto Clemente High School auditorium includes more than 60 films and videos from 18 Central and South American countries, plus Spain. Vargas will run this years festival on a budget of $100,000–half of it earned through ticket sales and the remainder from foundations and sponsors ranging from the Polk Brothers and Joyce foundations to American Airlines, now a major carrier to Latin American destinations.

The End of Eurasia

Eurasia, Levy Restaurants’ experiment in Oriental/European/American cuisine, has become another victim of Chicago’s highly uncertain restaurant market. The East Chestnut Street restaurant will serve its last meals Saturday. A source familiar with Eurasia’s problems says it has been doing decent business on weekends, but hasn’t been able to attract sufficient crowds on weekday evenings despite its location just off Michigan Avenue in the heart of the affluent Streeterville community. Early in its life Eurasia was open for lunches, but wound up serving dinner only. A tricky idea to begin with, it had gone through several menu revisions in an attempt to find a workable mesh of concept with customer tastes. The last revision was designed by restaurateur Arun Sampanthavivat (owner of Arun’s on Kedzie), whom the Levys brought in earlier this year as a managing partner. Eurasia won’t disappear entirely. The Levys intend to offer items from its menu through their delivery service, Chef’s Express.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.