Wisdom Bridge Unmoored Again

After surviving two seasons without a home, Wisdom Bridge Theatre was expected to settle down later this year at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, a $16 million entertainment complex now under construction in Skokie. But the theater’s precarious existence has now prompted the arts center to look elsewhere for a new tenant.

Referring to Wisdom Bridge producing director Jeffrey Ortmann, the center’s Harold Hansen says, “Jeff needs to figure out where Wisdom Bridge is going and what the theater wants to be.” Ortmann was unavailable for comment.

Once a premier off-Loop company, Wisdom Bridge has been an itinerant troupe since shutting down its Howard Street location more than 18 months ago. Following a difficult season at the Ivanhoe Theater, Wisdom Bridge has increasingly staged catch-as-catch-can shows, running for short periods at irregular intervals. Ortmann cut a deal with the Harold Washington Library Center to host the 1995-’96 season, and he strengthened the theater’s ties to Roosevelt University, where he also teaches. But mounting a full season has proved difficult. The theater’s last production, the well-received Louisa May Alcott in Little Women, ran for only two weeks and featured student performers.

Wisdom Bridge was slated to move into the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, expected to open in November, as the resident theater company, occupying its 839-seat proscenium main stage for 24 weeks a year. But last fall Skokie officials evidently discovered that Wisdom Bridge couldn’t muster the financing necessary to make a go of it in the new facility. “Wisdom Bridge’s finances became a concern for us,” says Hansen.

While village officials had originally planned to have only one theater company in its performing arts center, Hansen says he now hopes “there will be several.” Centre East, a not-for-profit presenter of live entertainment, is the other principal tenant, scheduled to mount at least 114 performances a year on the main stage. Last week Centre East executive director Dorothy Litwin said her arrangement had not changed, though she indicated her group is flexible and could add more dates if needed.

Hansen says Northlight Theatre, the Evanston-based company that’s been searching for a new home, appears on the verge of signing on as another tenant. Northlight managing director Richard Friedman says his theater’s discussions with Hansen began heating up about three months ago when the Wisdom Bridge deal started to fall apart. He says Northlight wouldn’t want to use the center’s main stage exclusively. “It’s too big for us,” he says. Instead, Northlight wants to stage several shows each season in a multipurpose banquet hall adjacent to the main stage. Friedman says it might cost upward of “seven figures” to remodel the banquet hall into a black box theater. If Northlight cuts a deal with the village, the theater company would probably have to raise most or all of the money required. And the room would still be a banquet facility part-time. The North Shore Hilton reportedly has a contract to use the hall between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve each year.

Friedman concedes that it won’t be easy for Northlight to pull up stakes in Evanston, where the company has been based since it was founded in 1974. But he’s convinced a move to Skokie would be less expensive than any of the dwindling options available to them in Evanston.

The Book Battle of Lakeview

The city’s three major book chains have started to do battle in Lakeview. A new Borders Books & Music opened in late November on Clark, just around the corner from a Barnes & Noble on Diversey and a few hundred yards away from a Crown Books on Halsted. So far no one is admitting–publicly at least–to feeling the effects of having three superstores in such close proximity.

Initially, Borders attempted to lure Christmas shoppers by opening at the unusually early hour of 7 AM and not closing until 11 PM. “We wanted to find out when people would come in to do their shopping,” explains Borders manager Amy Sample. Earlier this week, the Lakeview Borders switched to a 9 AM to 11 PM schedule Sunday through Thursday, but it’ll stay open until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. “We found that there were still a lot of people in the store shopping at 11 PM,” Sample says.

Both Barnes & Noble and Crown open at 9 AM and close at 11 PM, and managers at both stores say they have no plans to stay open later. But some other changes may be attributed to the arrival of Borders. Barnes & Noble says it’s added about 10,000 new titles in recent months, and it has temporarily shut down its cafe in order to expand it. Borders has a spacious cafe with a window facing the Century Mall across the street. When the Barnes & Noble cafe reopens in late January, it will still be situated in the center of the store, but it will seat more customers and be stocked with a wider selection of snacks.

Crown has no plans to put a cafe in its Lakeview store. One Crown employee maintains that stores with cafes have had to return thousands of dollars worth of books damaged by people drinking and eating. Frowning on the cafes, music departments, and other frills that some superstores have added to the mix, he sniffs, “The next thing they will be doing is setting up a Slurpee machine and selling lottery tickets.”

By Lewis Lazare

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Amy Sample photo by Alexander Newberry.