Welcome to the Big City

Everything is bigger in Texas–except, perhaps, the challenge of staging a play. About a year ago, Empire Theatre Company moved here from San Antonio, and its first major production in Chicago, Hard Scrambled, was scheduled to open July 2 in the basement performance space of O Bar & Cafe, just north of Clark and Belmont. Even before Voltaire closed its doors in May 1998, O Bar was drawing itinerant theater companies that needed a cheap, well-located venue. But the day before Hard Scrambled was to open, city building inspec-tors paid an unannounced visit to O Bar and shut down its performance space. Ac-cording to John Beckman, managing director of Empire, the inspectors found that the basement theater lacked a proper second egress, contained substandard electrical wiring, and displayed no license for a place of public amusement. “It was really bad,” says Robbie Hayes, Empire’s artistic director. “We had to call the critics and the Joseph Jefferson Awards committee at the last minute and tell them the opening night had been canceled.”

Beckman says Empire made a verbal agreement with O Bar to rent the theater for $180 a week but put nothing in writing. After the space was shut down, he says, an O Bar staffer went to City Hall, presumably to obtain a copy of its license, but as of late last week Beckman hadn’t seen it. (O Bar management did not return repeated phone calls; however, a staffer who answered the phone Tuesday night claimed the performance space would be open this weekend.) After a frantic weeklong search, Empire relocated Hard Scrambled to the Factory Theater at 5230 N. Clark, where it will open this Saturday.

If the show succeeds, the company hopes to mount two or three new plays a season. But it may find Chicago much more competitive than San Antonio, where it was the only theater company devoted exclusively to producing new works. Most of its plays, including Hard Scrambled, were written by literary director David Scott Hay, a novelist turned playwright who also managed a comic-book store in San Antonio. According to artistic director Hayes, Empire had a tough time in San Antonio too: the company’s theater suffered from a weak air-conditioning system, and theatergoers seemed more interested in touring musicals. After visiting Chicago, a couple of ensemble members convinced the others that they’d stand a better chance of survival here, so a core group pulled up stakes, moved north, and began planning its debut. Even after the fiasco at O Bar, Hayes is convinced that the company can serve a useful purpose: “We can give anyone with a good new script a chance to get their work produced.”

No Big Deal

The Lion King, arguably the most commercially successful Broadway musical to open in the past decade, will probably roar right past Chicago. Walt Disney Theatricals, which created the show, has signed a licensing agreement with Toronto-based Mirvish Productions giving it exclusive rights to the show in the eastern half of North America from April 2000 (when it opens in Toronto) until the spring of 2007. John Karastamatis, a spokesperson for Mirvish, said the agreement was designed to promote Toronto as a key theater destination for tourists from Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Cleveland. Though Toronto is as starved for profitable shows as Chicago, many theater observers think it surpassed this city as a major commercial theater center several years ago after it launched a theater construction and renovation boom similar to Mayor Daley’s plan for the north Loop. Karastamatis indicated that Mirvish will probably keep The Lion King in Toronto for at least two years before moving the production to ano-ther city or cities for the remaining five years. If the production moves to the U.S., it will probably land west of the Mississippi, in a city like Dallas or Houston, where it would attract a different audience base.

With the stream of successful new musicals in London and New York slowing to a trickle, the Mirvish coup could leave the north Loop’s major theatrical venues–the Oriental Theatre, Palace Theatre, Chicago Theatre, and Shubert Theatre–scrambling for a show big enough to last more than a few weeks. The Lion King has sold out the New Amsterdam Theater on Broadway for 21 months and is selling tickets well into the year 2000, but other Broadway shows with impressive pedigrees have fared less well on Broadway and in Chicago. Titanic won the 1997 Tony Award for best musical but lasted barely two years in New York and did underwhelming business during its seven-week engagement last spring at the Civic Opera House. Ragtime played to half-empty houses throughout its recent engagement at the Oriental, as did Beauty and the Beast at the Chicago. Asked what will play at the Palace next January, after Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida ends its two-month run, Michael Leavitt of Fox Theatricals says only that the theater will present a mix of revivals, touring productions, and new shows.

Bovine Intervention, Part Two

Cattle rustling is making a comeback, courtesy of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs. Earlier this year the Park District commissioned local artist Charles Fambro to paint a cow for the “Cows on Parade” exhibit, but after he altered his original design to incorporate swirls of spray paint resembling street graffiti, the Park District refused to display it. Mike Lash, director of the public art program at Cultural Affairs, asked Fambro to repaint the cow, but the artist decided to stick to his spray guns. Recently the spurned cow was adopted by Flo, a restaurant at 1434 W. Chicago; owner Renee Carswell and her husband, painter and UIC art professor Rodney Carswell, are fans of Fambro, who lives in an apartment above the restaurant. But after Lash was contacted for comment and learned that the cow was being displayed in Flo’s front window, he and an assistant showed up with a truck, claimed Fambro’s cow as city property, and took it away. Lash said the cow would be sold to another sponsor and repainted.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.