Trib Cracks Its Last Nut

This season will be the last for Tribune Charities’ venerable holiday production of The Nutcracker. After more than three decades the Tribune Company is pulling the plug. Jeff Bierig, media relations manager for the company, says the show is turning only a slim profit, having lost much of its family audience to a proliferation of other holiday attractions. In addition to a Joffrey Ballet of Chicago production of The Nutcracker, which debuted at the Rosemont Theatre last year, this season’s show will have to compete with Rent, Beauty and the Beast, and the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.

But some people think the Tribune’s passive marketing plan doomed the show. “The Nutcracker died of criminal neglect,” says Larry Long, the Ruth Page Foundation School of Dance choreographer who staged the show for Tribune Charities. According to Long, the Tribune Company seemed content to run display ads in its newspaper, seldom promoting guest dancers or devising new marketing tactics for the heightened competition. “The Tribune was really only interested in the ballet as a cash cow,” adds Long, who says last year’s production netted approximately $400,000 for charity despite dwindling attendance. Bierig disputed Long’s figure, however, claiming the profit was much lower.

Whatever the reasons for The Nutcracker’s demise, the news surprised and saddened many in the local dance community, which has struggled to position dance as a popular art form in Chicago. “It’s terrible that a cherished tradition will no longer be around,” says Dan Duell, artistic director of Ballet Chicago. Duell could have used a family favorite like The Nutcracker to grow his fledgling organization in the early 90s; Ballet Chicago dissolved its dance company three years ago so Duell could focus on teaching.

But the end of the Tribune’s Nutcracker could be a blessing for the Joffrey Ballet. Joffrey executive director Robert Alpaugh says that early next year he’ll confer with artistic director Gerald Arpino and the board on the feasibility of moving their 1998 production to the Auditorium Theatre or the Civic Opera House for a two- or three-week engagement. The audience for the production at the Rosemont hasn’t grown much; its 16 performances in 1996 were halved to 8 in 1997, yet according to sources at the Joffrey and the Rosemont, box office revenue per show has increased only slightly.

In addition the Rosemont has signed a 20-year contract with Radio City Music Hall to present its Christmas show every year; sources at the theater say that its principal commitment is to Radio City. If the show’s debut season is a success, Rosemont and Radio City execs might expand its performance schedule for 1998, which could crowd out The Nutcracker. Alpaugh says the Joffrey might be better served by presenting its show at a large downtown theater than by jostling the Rockettes: “If we could do $1.5 million at the box office for two weeks of performances, we could make some money.”

Alpaugh thinks that Tchaikovsky’s ballet remains a popular attraction. The New York City Ballet still sells out six weeks of performances annually, and the Joffrey production continues to pack them in for two weeks every year at the Kennedy Center in Washington. Neither city is lacking in other forms of holiday entertainment. But Alpaugh says that moving The Nutcracker downtown for an expanded Chicago run would have to be coordinated with the Joffrey’s existing commitment to Washington and a possible engagement in Los Angeles.

I Found My Art in San Francisco

For six years Thomas Blackman has successfully mounted a spring international art fair in Chicago, and now he hopes to expand westward. Next fall Blackman will open the International Art Exposition at San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center, a renovated freight terminal with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin County. Scheduled for October 1 through 4, the show will be San Francisco’s first major international art fair, and Blackman thinks the city’s scenic beauty and lovely autumn weather will make it the perfect locale. “Everyone has been eyeing Los Angeles, but I think San Francisco might be the right place.”

Blackman expects the fair to be somewhat smaller than Art 1997 Chicago, which brought just over 200 exhibitors to Navy Pier last May, but the exhibitor overlap could be as much as 50 percent. The San Francisco fair will cover approximately 70,000 square feet, compared to 165,000 in Chicago. Blackman hopes to sign up between 85 and 100 dealers, about 30 percent of them from California, another 30 percent from the rest of the country, and most of the remainder from Europe and Asia. Because of the west-coast location he’s hoping to attract a particularly large contingent of Asian dealers.

Everything Old Is New Again

Two years ago a severe cash crunch tested the Newberry Consort’s will to survive, but this season significant adjustments in the early music ensemble’s programming, marketing, and venue selection have brought substantial increases in attendance and box office revenue, according to manager Fred Leise. After moving one of its fall concerts from Lake Forest to Evanston, the group drew a crowd of 247, an increase of over 100 percent from previous concerts. The company has also begun keying its performances to the seasons: this fall the consort celebrated Halloween with a program called “Saints and Sinners: Cosmology and the Occult in the Middle Ages.” Leise says the group has tried harder to pitch itself to potential subscribers; brochures now describe in greater detail the music and the experience of hearing the Newberry Consort. Says Leise: “We’re trying to make the organization and its music more accessible to an audience that doesn’t have a strong music background.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Nutcracker photo by Migdoll.