Wisdom Bridge Bound for Skokie?

The long and exhausting attempt to build a new performing arts center in Skokie took a sudden and potentially problematic turn last week with the announcement that the financially troubled Wisdom Bridge Theatre would become one of two principal tenants in the center. Now envisioned as a 750-seat proscenium theater and 600-seat banquet facility, the center is scheduled to open in early 1995 on Skokie Boulevard next to the North Shore Hilton. Anchoring the theater space along with Wisdom Bridge would be Centre East, the 13-year-old not-for-profit presenting organization headed by Dorothy Litwin.

The arts facility is to be built with $10.2 million state funds and $3.4 million from the village of Skokie. The village has also agreed to provide up to $250,000 a year for the first five years to cover expected operating deficits. The Hilton would kick in $100,000 a year from revenue it generates as the contract caterer for banquets and other events in the new space.

Apparently this drastically revised plan for the performing arts center was hastily formulated over the last month; on April 20, Skokie rejected a standing proposal for a 1,200-seat theater and gave the Centre East Authority (the quasi-governmental body overseeing development of the performing arts center) until June 1 to come up with a different plan.

Dorothy Litwin has tried to keep the project moving forward for more than eight years as plans have been repeatedly scaled back. She initially had hoped to move into a 2,000-seat state-of-the-art theater that could accommodate a range of events. But as Skokie Officials looked at the cost of building and operating such a facility, Litwin was forced to lower her sights.

Curiously, the village of Skokie, the Centre East, and Wisdom Bridge announced the latest change in plans while Litwin was out of town. When she returned last week, she conceded that the small size of the proposed facility would make it tough, if not impossible, to continue booking the acts she has presented in Centre East’s current 1,300-seat space, the auditorium of the former Niles East High School at 7701 N. Lincoln. “I don’t think we could possibly do the big Broadway musicals or the Vegas acts like Billy Crystal or Alan King,” says Litwin.

Harold Hansen, the project coordinator for the village of Skokie, says Litwin will have to think more innovatively about how she books the new facility “I think there are alternative ways to go,” says Hansen. But with Wisdom Bridge scheduled to use the facility for approximately 24 weeks a year. Litwin may be left trying to attract whatever acts she can during some of the less desirable weeks on the calendar.

Whatever problems Litwin and Centre East face in moving may be nothing compared to the challenge facing Wisdom Bridge and its producing director, Jeffrey Ortmann. Last January Wisdom Bridge appeared to be on the brink of collapse when the board of directors suspended pay to the entire administrative staff. Last week Ortmann said the staff was being paid again, though at least one staff member said she’s continuing to work without pay.

Wisdom Bridge is burdened with an accrued operating deficit of around $300,000. Ortmann said the company may try to sell its 196-seat theater at 1559 W. Howard to pay off existing debts. But even a theater company with a healthy balance sheet would experience a significant leap in operating costs moving into a 750-seat theater. Steppenwolf Theatre’s annual budget in its new 500-seat facility at 1650 N. Halsted approaches $4 million, though that sum also includes the cost of maintenance, since it owns the space.

Wisdom Bridge’s current operating budget is around $900,000. Ortmann said he had not yet determined what it would cost Wisdom Bridge to lease the Skokie facility and present four plays a year or exactly where he would find all the necessary funding; he said he’s counting on sizable increases in audience. Wisdom Bridge board chairman John Conlon was unavailable to discuss the the theater company’s proposed move.

Village of Skokie trustees gave the green light to the new performing arts center proposal Monday, June 1. If Wisdom Bridge goes under or finds it can’t afford to make the leap, Skokie officials are prepared to deal with such an eventuality. “We’d look for another repertory company,” says Skokie mayor Jacqueline Gorell.

Break Time for Bob Falls?

Several sources close to Goodman Theatre management confirmed last week that Robert Falls is preparing to take a sabbatical from his post as artistic director, which he has held since 1986, and that associate director Michael Maggio will handle Falls’s administrative chores. Irving Markin, chairman of the Goodman board of directors, would neither confirm nor deny the sabbatical. Goodman spokeswoman Cindy Bandle, speaking on behalf of Falls, said: “It’s a rumor; Bob is not taking a sabbatical.”

Rumors of Falls’s plans came on the eve of the Tony Awards telecast from New York, where Falls and Roche Schulfer, the Goodman’s producing director, appeared to accept a special award for outstanding regional theater. Falls is currently in rehearsal for John Logan’s Riverview: A Melodrama With Music, a massive new work about the dark underbelly of life in post-World War II Chicago. The Goodman’s 1991-’92 season has been lackluster thus far, with two poorly received productions staged back-to-back–Twelfth Night, directed by Neil Bartlett, and Steve Tesich’s On the Open Road, directed by Falls. Riverview, perhaps the most expensive show in Goodman’s history (it has a cast of close to 40 and a budget reportedly approaching $750,000), opens June 22.

Night Comes to the Edge

Club man Russ Brunelli is back. A new club called Night, a joint venture between Brunelli, formerly of the China Club, and Neil Slater, who runs a ticket and tour service called NPS, is scheduled to open July 9 at 223 W. Chicago, the 15,000-square-foot space that previously housed the Edge. Slater said Night would cater to a slightly older crowd, clubgoers in their late 20s to early 50s. He and Brunelli are carving the space into five rooms: an artists’ gallery featuring live entertainment every night, a dance room, a VIP room, a pool room, and a space featuring 3D effects.

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