Will It Play in Skokie?

A dream of arts professionals for more than a decade, the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie will finally open its doors on November 7 with a modest gala featuring composer Marvin Hamlisch and a couple of singers. The new facility includes a main-stage theater with a 55-foot-deep proscenium stage, which could easily accommodate such large touring spectacles as The Phantom of the Opera or Les Miserables.

But a gargantuan stage may not be enough to make the $19.2 million facility a success. The main auditorium has a seating capacity of only 850, slightly more than half the size originally planned. The 1,500-seat house initially on the drawing boards was repeatedly scaled back as it became apparent that it couldn’t be built with the money raised from the state and the village of Skokie. Even with a sharply smaller theater, the facility will cost approximately $5.4 million more than first budgeted. The village has had to cough up most of the additional cash, and facility executives concede that the smallish size of the main auditorium may mean producers of major touring shows will quickly dismiss the center as a viable option. “A lot of promoters won’t look at anything less than 1,200 seats for a show,” says Kirk Wahamaki, recently named general manager of the center.

If the new facility’s unable to attract the big touring shows, it will have to settle for local productions, possibly transferring musicals from suburban dinner theaters like Marriott’s Lincolnshire and Candlelight Dinner Playhouse. Centre East, a not-for-profit presenter of concerts and children’s shows, will help fill some dates, but most of its offerings are booked for only one or two nights. Centre East director Dorothy Litwin will also have a tough time booking new acts because of the theater’s smaller size. Northlight Theatre, the North Shore Center’s new resident theater company, plans to use the main stage for only one show per season. Instead, Northlight is trying to raise more than a million dollars to help convert the center’s banquet facility into an occasional 350-seat theater. “We have already raised about 40 percent of the money we need,” says Northlight managing director Richard Friedman. Last-minute negotiations with the North Shore Hilton, the banquet hall’s principal user, may allow Northlight to make the theater permanent rather than convertible. The hotel is now up for sale, and it may be bowing out of the project altogether. “We’ll know which way we are going in about a month,” Friedman says.

The pitfalls of running a smaller facility may explain why the village of Skokie’s national search only yielded three proposals from management companies. Harold Hansen, a consultant brought in from Peoria several years ago to oversee planning and construction of the center, apparently was never considered for the general manager’s job, though sources say he had expected to get the nod. His chances may have been hurt early on by his cutting a deal with Wisdom Bridge Theatre to become the center’s resident theater. That deal fell through, and Hansen has since left to take a post running a similar facility in Topeka.

Of the three management groups that submitted proposals, one withdrew, and another was deemed unqualified. So in essence, PFM–a management company based in Providence, Rhode Island–got the job by default. PFM has signed a three-year contract with the possibility of two one-year extensions. PFM also manages a performing arts center in Providence and two other facilities in Florida. Wahamaki, who most recently managed a 1,700-seat theater on the campus of Indiana State University in Terre Haute, says PFM took on the North Shore Center because the company “had a great desire to move into the midwest, and Chicago is a very desirable market.” But at least one observer believes the new facility would be more likely to succeed if Skokie officials sought out a manager more familiar with the area. “PFM doesn’t know the city and doesn’t have the contacts,” says the source.

Wahamaki says the North Shore Center initially will have a $600,000 annual operating budget and a seven-person full-time staff to handle maintenance, box office, ushering, security, parking, and booking. For the first several years, the village is committed to providing about half of the operating budget. Wahamaki will have to come up with the rest from theater rentals, sponsorships, and food and beverage concessions.

Merging Theaters Ahead

Northlight Theatre is in the final stages of a plan to merge with National Jewish Theater–but this may amount to a partnership in name only, with Northlight picking up NJT’s subscriber lists and adding a few dedicated members to its board. National Jewish Theater artistic directors Susan Padveen and Jeff Ginsberg abruptly resigned last month after the company failed to bring in enough money to cover last season’s operating budget. Ginsberg said the theater had been operating for several months without a managing director. “Susan and I were trying to do everything,” he says. NJT’s 2,800 subscribers will be offered Northlight tickets for next season, which coincidentally includes several plays with Jewish themes. Northlight also will help manage NJT’s debt of “well under $100,000,” according to Northlight’s Richard Friedman.

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