Tribune’s Vision for Arts Coverage: Internal Restructuring!

It took 21 meetings over the course of 12 weeks, but the panel of ten Tribune writers and editors headed by associate managing editor John Twohey have come up with a plan to improve the paper’s undernourished arts and entertainment coverage. From this vantage point, unfortunately, the plan looks like little more than internal restructuring.

Not surprisingly, Twohey has emerged as head honcho in the new scheme. No one will have the title of entertainment editor, which until last September belonged to Richard Christiansen, who now goes by the title senior writer and chief critic. Instead, a group of editors will report to Twohey, whose principal expertise is newspaper and magazine design, not the arts. Each editor will be responsible for one area of coverage, such as books, pop music, radio and television, and performing arts (which will probably include dance, theater, and classical music), and each will work with a group of writers, creating what Twohey calls a “team” approach to arts coverage. The editors will meet daily with Twohey to assess what stories are available for all sections of the paper, from the news pages to the Overnight page to Tempo. The Friday pullout and the Sunday Arts section will stay the same.

Twohey says he is also negotiating to bring a reporter over from the paper’s metro news staff, and he hopes to enlist a free-lance writer to provide entertainment stories from the west coast. Throw in some design and referencing enhancements and you have the gist of what the Tribune review panel came up with in their three months of deliberations.

What’s missing in the plan is any indication that the Tribune recognizes the new directions cultural coverage has taken at the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, where arts matters are taken seriously. Those papers have discovered that arts and entertainment are good for more than boosterism and reviews–they can also generate news in the same way that business and politics can. Twohey’s attempt to get a metro reporter–if it succeeds–may help to toughen the Tribune’s cultural coverage, but one inexperienced reporter with no established sources in the arts world isn’t going to change things single-handedly, and there’s reason to wonder whether Twohey has a vision that will inspire or redirect staffers now under his command. He unabashedly defends one of the Tribune’s worst arts-news gaffes of recent vintage, Christiansen’s rehash of the endlessly publicized story behind the creation of the musical Les Miserables, which was shamelessly run on the front page. Twohey’s reasoning: the story deserved significant placement because some 750,000 people saw the musical in Chicago. Does that mean some asinine, overhyped television show could get front-page treatment if enough people watched it? We’ll see.

Twohey argues that the Tribune shouldn’t be expected to provide the same breadth and depth of cultural coverage one finds in New York or Los Angeles because Chicago is not a major entertainment capital. That’s precisely the kind of Second City thinking that will keep the Tribune and Chicago trailing behind.

Pipers Alley Blues

Loews’ new Pipers Alley Cinemas have not exactly taken the Near North neighborhood by storm. Since the four-screen complex opened last May at the comer of North and Wells, it’s had alarmingly low grosses. Paramount’s The Butcher’s Wife took in a measly $900 over three days last weekend in Pipers Alley; Shattered and Paradise did no better. Local exhibitors blame the complex’s problems in large part on its proximity to the Esquire (six screens) and Webster Place (eight), both of which also are operated by New Jersey-based Loews. The Esquire and Webster Place have been getting most of the few good movies released over the past five months. “The studios don’t want their films in Pipers Alley,” said one exhibitor. A Loews spokeswoman did not return phone calls.

Though business is a little better at other movie houses around town, exhibitors say most of the fall’s major releases, including Frankie & Johnny and Little Man Tate, have performed disappointingly in Chicago. Only House Party 2 and The People Under the Stairs have pulled in good business. Exhibitors are blaming high ticket prices and the absence of movies with broad-based appeal.

Ballet Chicago: Dance or Bust

Ballet Chicago finally is making visibility a priority. The two-week engagement that ended last weekend at the Dance Center of Columbia College was the troupe’s longest local run to date. Board member Tony Vanderwarker said the ballet company’s short-term goal is to give at least one performance a month somewhere in the Chicago area. “There seems to be a consensus, said Vanderwarker, “that if you’re not dancing you’re not a dance company.” Plans call for Ballet Chicago to return to the 1,000-seat Civic Theatre downtown in early February, though no contracts had been signed as of last week. The company canceled last spring’s engagement at the larger Civic Opera House at the last minute because of a cash crunch.

Theater for Sale

The First Chicago Bank of Ravenswood is actively peddling the Royal-George Theatre complex at 1641 N. Halsted, for an asking price of $4.8 million. Producer Bob Perkins, who currently leases the property, has put in a bid but hasn’t had any response yet. Among other groups that have looked at the property is Victory Gardens, which co-owns with the Body Politic a building at 2257 N. Lincoln that could be worth between $600,000 and $800,000. Victory Gardens managing director John Walker said his theater’s investigation still is preliminary. “We’re just looking at this point,” said Walker, “but we need a bigger stage, and the Royal-George would be a great space.”

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