Theater Virgin Plans a Big Wedding

In what is easily the most ambitious non-Equity commercial production in Chicago theater history, first-time producer Anthony J. Tomaska is stepping up to present the audience-participation comedy-cum-dinner called Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding. At a cost of around $750,000, some 15,000 square feet of space atop Pipers Alley is being transformed into a giant set (bar, wedding chapel, and banquet hall) for the Italian-style wedding. Approximately 35 actors will be employed to portray Tony, Tina, their friends and families, waiters, a caterer, bridesmaids, and groomsmen in the emotionally overwrought story of the wedding and related events.

When the production opens on May 13, Tomaska hopes to attract as many as 225 people per performance, at a hefty $45 to $55 a ticket, to witness the staged nuptials and join in the subsequent dancing and dinner of lasagna, salad, and wedding cake. He is mounting the show with the help of 20 investors, mostly from New York and Chicago, who could get back their investment in as few as ten weeks if the show plays to capacity early in its open-ended run. Investors in the original production, which has been running in New York for more than five years, have made a 900 percent profit on their ante. A Los Angeles production ran for two and a half years, and a Philadelphia production lasted three.

Sitting in his makeshift office last week while waiting for his permanent headquarters at Pipers Alley to be completed, Tomaska was all enthusiastic smiles, a sure sign he has not really been forced to grapple yet with the tricky business of coming up with a hit show in Chicago. The 30-year-old Tomaska has traded stocks and options and produced three low-budget movies, but until now he has never tried the theater business.

Tomaska has seen Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding scores of times in other cities, he says, because he relates to events in the show and finds them funny. But of course his own love for the show won’t necessarily bring huge crowds to see it in Chicago. Unlike most productions that enjoy profitable runs here, Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding has neither a well-publicized Broadway pedigree nor well-known Hollywood stars to attract the occasional theatergoer. Tomaska is counting on “the experience” of the show to hook local audiences. “Sixty percent of the people who see the show are repeat customers,” he explains, “and many like to come in groups.” Tomaska’s marketing department initially intends to target conventioneers and weekend visitors to the city. As an example of a show whose success he would like to match, Tomaska points to Shear Madness, which has been running in Chicago for more than a decade. But its producers, Bruce Jordan and Marilyn Abrams, readily admit their production’s huge success here was due in large measure to a subtle combination of luck, unrelenting marketing, good word of mouth, and reasonable ticket prices. Abrams and Jordan also benefited from having produced the show in Boston first.

Tomaska has opted to do Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding with nonunion actors, which will substantially lower his weekly operating costs. Though not obligated to pay top union salaries, he says he isn’t out to deprive his actors (who will earn upwards of $300 a week) of a decent living. “In the restaurant business my family always treated people with respect,” notes Tomaska, whose great-grandfather founded the original Papa Milano restaurant and whose relatives still operate it along with another one in Lincoln Park. Now it only remains to be seen whether the dicey theater business will treat Tomaska the same way.

Ivanhoe’s Return

On August 1 next year Wellington Theater owner Doug Bragan plans to regain control of the 499-seat house from its present long-term tenant, Michael Leavitt. One of the first actions Bragan will take is to resurrect the theater’s original name: the Ivanhoe. He also intends to turn the adjacent courtyard into a 200-seat theater and a basement space into another 50-seat house, both of which he hopes to rent to resident theater companies. Bragan, who has been producing theater for high school audiences at the Halsted Theatre Centre for the past four years, also hopes to keep the Ivanhoe fully booked by charging some of the lowest theater-rental fees in the city. Leavitt has not staged a show at the theater since Theda Bara and the Frontier Rabbi, produced by Leavitt and Fox Theatricals, closed there in May of 1992.

The League’s New Hire

Karen Barger quietly left the position of marketing director of the League of Chicago Theatres last month as part of its ongoing restructuring. Kim Swinton, a former marketing and public-relations staffer at the Theatre Building, has been hired to fill the position. According to executive director Tony Sertich, Swinton will be directly involved in the nuts-and-bolts daily marketing chores at the lean league office, which now operates with just five full-time staffers. Sertich says, “Among other things Kim will be responsible for handling $800,000 a year worth of theater advertising placed through the league.” For the second year in a row the league has opted against holding their annual retreat; instead they will jointly organize a daylong seminar with local music and dance trade organizations.

Art Expo’s Revolving Door

Last week the Lakeside Group, which annually presents the troubled Chicago International Art Exposition, underwent another major administrative shake-up. Judith Racht, director of the upcoming Art Expo, abruptly left the organization. Mark Lyman also relinquished his position as executive director of Lakeside, though he will continue to oversee its annual New Art Forms Exposition. Lyman said he made his move because of disagreements with Lakeside founder John Wilson about several issues, including control of Art Expo. He had assumed the executive director position just last September, when Thomas Blackman left Lakeside to start his own competing art fair. Wilson’s daughter Laurie has been appointed Art Expo’s new director.

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