Uptown, Downtown: Randy Langer’s Entertainment Complex

Does Chicago need another grand old rehabbed theater? Developer Randy Langer thinks so. But more experienced local entertainment executives think Langer’s plans are ill-advised and certain to make life difficult, if not impossible, for the Chicago Theatre and the city’s other large venues.

Langer, president of the Combined Property Management Corporation, is trying to get the Daley administration to see things his way. His company specializes in renovating buildings in marginal city neighborhoods, and his attention now is focused on the run-down area around the intersection of Lawrence and Broadway. Near there, at 4816 N. Broadway, stands the Uptown Theatre, an abandoned, decaying former movie palace that the developer wants to renovate and reopen as a 4,800-seat entertainment complex at a cost that could go as high as $14 million. Langer sees the Uptown as the center of an entertainment district that already includes the nearby Riviera and Aragon theaters; the cluster, he reasons, could revitalize the entire neighborhood.

Langer and his political allies, including 48th Ward Alderman Mary Ann Smith and former aldermanic candidate Mary Baim, have gone to the city to push for the creation of a tax-increment financing district that would generate funds for construction of a parking garage and retail facility near the Uptown. “We can’t do what we want to do without the city’s help,” says Langer. At recent meetings of the city’s planning department (which Mayor Daley announced last week was being completely restructured under newly appointed head Valerie Jarrett), Langer and his supporters have discussed the Uptown project while representatives from a number of the city’s major entertainment venues, including the Auditorium Theatre, the Civic Opera House, and the financially troubled Chicago Theatre, have listened and responded.

According to sources present at the meetings, the discussion about the Uptown has turned into a debate about whether the Chicago Theatre could survive the addition of another theater north of the Loop. For several years city officials have been searching for a way to keep the underused Chicago Theatre open and to repay more than $12 million in federal loans used to buy and restore the property. So far they have not come up with a solution.

The consensus among the anti-Uptown faction is that the Chicago Theatre would suffer even more should the Uptown Theatre be relit. They believe, and rightly so, that there is not enough big-venue entertainment available to keep both the Uptown and the 3,600-seat Chicago Theatre profitably booked year-round. “It’s a nice dream,” says Jam Productions’ Jerry Mickelson, who’s used the Chicago Theatre extensively over the past year, “but reality says you can’t do it.” Executives aligned with other theaters also think the neighborhood is too seedy to attract the genteel audiences who attend the kind of theater and dance events that would play there. Langer, without benefit of any formal marketing studies, believes suburbanites would find the Uptown a more attractive destination than existing Loop venues. But others argue that no one who fears the Loop at night is going to feel comfortable at the corner of Lawrence and Broadway.

At the moment the issues of developing audiences and finding bookings don’t appear to matter to Langer and his backers. But given Langer’s lack of entertainment expertise, perhaps he should consider them more carefully. Though he readily concedes he has no firsthand knowledge of what is required to successfully operate a theater, especially in today’s pressured economic environment, Langer says the group that operates the restored Fox Theatre in Detroit has expressed interest in investing in and managing the Uptown. Unlike the Chicago Theatre, the Fox has been a big success story since it reopened in 1988. But according to entertainment-industry observers, the Fox has little or no competition in Detroit. Fox executives could not be reached for comment, but there’s no question they would face a markedly tougher competitive environment at the Uptown. “We’re a long way from a completed deal with the Fox group,” says Langer. Fox won’t go forward, he says, unless the city gives its support too.

It remains to be seen whether the city will choose to get involved. Any decision is likely to be delayed while the planning and economic development departments are merged and restructured, and no one from those departments was available for comment. But in light of the problems that have plagued the Chicago Theatre, both the city and Langer better make sure they’ve clearheadedly considered the pros and cons before they go forward; otherwise they could wind up with nothing more than a beautifully restored white elephant on their hands.

The Impossible Price

Theatrical producer Mitch Leigh is tempting fate once again with a top single-ticket price of $55 for the upcoming Auditorium Theatre engagement of the “Impossible Dream” musical Man of La Mancha starring Raul Julia and Sheena Easton. The high price, which matches the record-setting top price for the recent SRO engagement of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s lavish Phantom of the Opera at the Auditorium, surprised some executives there. “It’s not what we had in mind,” said one source.

When Leigh brought Man of La Mancha to town in the mid-70s with its original Broadway star, Richard Kiley, the producer made waves by setting a new top ticket price for a musical at the Arie Crown Theatre: $15, up from $10. According to Betty Kearns, who managed the Arie Crown at the time and counseled Leigh against the price increase, tickets weren’t selling in large numbers until Leigh started airing a TV commercial with testimonials from satisfied customers. Man of La Mancha wound up setting a new Arie Crown weekly box-office-gross record of more than $650,000. A spokesman for the new production said no commercial currently exists; the Auditorium engagement is the first stop on a planned national tour prior to Broadway.

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