Who’s Going to Butch Camp?

Like so many who toil in independent film, Tim Sabo, Steven Gellman, and Alessandro de Gaetano have struggled every step of the way to produce and distribute their first feature. Written and directed by Gaetano and produced by Sabo and Gellman, Butch Camp is a comedy about a gawky young gay man who eventually finds happiness with a formerly straight jock. The film opens next Friday at Pipers Alley, where another gay-themed film, Love! Valour! Compassion!, is also playing.

Gaetano wrote Butch Camp in 1991, but he and his partners didn’t get serious about producing the film until 1995. Without any well-known stars the trio struggled to find funding for the project, but cult comedian and former Chicagoan Judy Tenuta signed on to do the film after the script was rewritten to enlarge her role as the commandant of a camp where the hero learns to stand up for himself in a homophobic world. In the spring of 1996 the producers staged a reading of scenes from the movie; that, coupled with Tenuta’s name, brought a handful of major investors on board with about $300,000, barely enough to get the film made.

Shooting around Chicago took only about a month, but the Butch Camp team had to overcome numerous obstacles, including bad weather and a camera breakdown, to complete the film on schedule and on budget. A rough cut shown last fall at Chicago’s gay and lesbian film festival was well received; at a gay and lesbian film fest in Sydney in February, the reception was even more rousing, and more screenings had to be added.

But without the backing of a major Hollywood studio, Sabo and Gellman had to deal directly with theater chains to get U.S. distribution. The giant Sony and Cineplex Odeon organizations both expressed interest, but the producers opted to go with Sony to debut the film in Chicago. Sabo and Gellman have yet to line up theaters in the all-important New York and Los Angeles markets. Gellman says that obtaining satisfactory exhibition deals in those cities may depend on how well Butch Camp performs at Pipers Alley.

Cabaret Catches On

The opening of two new venues this year suggests that cabaret entertainment might be finding a larger audience in Chicago. Restaurateur Bob Djahanguiri has presented cabaret acts at his local eateries, most notably Toulouse on the Park, since 1979, but until now others have been slow to embrace the concept of live cabaret entertainment as part of the dining experience. According to Djahanguiri, “There are a lot of people who like to go out to one place and make a night of it.”

Some say the increased interest in cabaret simply reveals a demand for more satisfying entertainment options. “People are starving for good entertainment in a good atmosphere,” says Eric Weber, manager of Cucina Bella, a small Italian restaurant at 543 W. Diversey that will open a cabaret space in August with singer Ann Hampton Callaway (John’s daughter). But properly marketing a cabaret act requires time as well as money. At Toulouse, for example, cabaret artists seldom appear for more than a week or two, and Djahanguiri rarely has time to get the word out if a performer is favorably reviewed.

Nor do cabarets by themselves generate large sums of money. The space at Toulouse seats only 50, and Djahanguiri charges a $10 cover on weekdays, $15 on weekends, with a two-drink minimum. Yet it’s proved rewarding enough for Djahanguiri to attach a 400-seat cabaret venue to the restaurant he opened recently in Dallas. The key in any cabaret, he says, is fostering intimacy between the performer and the audience.

Russell Rehberg, manager of Cite, a fine-dining restaurant atop Lake Point Tower, at 505 N. Lake Shore Drive, unveiled the adjacent Le Cabaret at Cite in April with a critically acclaimed appearance by Karen Mason, the Arlington Heights native turned Broadway actress. Amanda McBroom, the songwriter, actress, and cabaret artist (best known for composing “The Rose”), arrives on June 11 for a two-week run. Encouraged by Mason’s engagement, which sold out during the second week, Rehberg wants to book an act every other month through the end of the year and then reassess his options. His 70-seat room on the 70th floor, with its sweeping vistas, is easily the city’s most dramatic cabaret venue. But like Djahanguiri, Rehberg is interested in dining-cabaret packages that will bring people to the restaurant as well. Formerly a private dining club for Lake Point Tower residents, Cite went public only five years ago and since then has maintained a fairly low profile. Rehberg expects the cabaret to boost the restaurant’s visibility.

Weber expects Cucina Bella to take possession of an adjacent shoe repair shop on July 1 and will transform it into a 40-seat cabaret that Ann Hampton Callaway will open on August 22. Thereafter, Weber plans to bring in a different artist each month.

Art 1997 Chicago’s Rebound

The news was mostly good for Thomas Blackman, producer of last month’s Art 1997 Chicago, the annual international art fair at Navy Pier. Attendance rose approximately 10 percent over last year, to 32,000. Blackman was pleased not only by the larger attendance figure but by the kind of people who came. “The quality of the crowd is what was really up,” he says. In other words, more visitors were in a buying mood. “There was a real urgency in the crowd, with a lot of people seriously looking for art,” says Chicago art dealer Charles Belloc Lowndes. But some dealers who brought numerous pricey works had trouble finding buyers. Paul Gray of Richard Gray Gallery sold fewer pieces this year than last.

Aggressive marketing may have affected the buying atmosphere; Blackman boosted the fair’s visibility with several full-page ads in the New York Times. He plans more changes for next year’s fair, chief among them a return to the five-day schedule after this year’s experimental four-day run. Blackman shortened the fair after being petitioned by a number of U.S. dealers, but now he believes that international dealers, having traveled much farther than most American dealers, can benefit from the extra day.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Steven Gellman, Alessandro de Gaetano and Tim Sabo photo by J.B. Spector.