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It was a dark and stormy night when the first public meeting to discuss the possibility of a Chicago performing arts museum convened at the Mercury Theater last week. A torrent of water poured from the thundering sky and lightning bolts—90,000 of them over four hours—strafed the ground like so much machine-gun fire. Besides that, the Cubs had a home game and parking was impossible.

These were not auspicious circumstances.

Still, 40 or so theater professionals gathered, ready to do their part for a dream as likely, given the current economic climate, as that night’s weather. What they have in mind is a new institution—not for million-dollar paintings or dinosaur bones, but for the ephemeral art that’s played out on the city’s stages over 150 years and become as much a part of its identity as the prairie architecture and the trading pits. It’s the dream of Tribune drama critic emeritus Richard Christiansen, as he revealed in an essay in the Sunday magazine last March.

“It’s not enough to acknowledge that the performing arts are a vital part of city life; that has become a civic mantra,” Christiansen wrote. “We need to formally celebrate them, as other cities have, as a major part of our history and a source of Chicago’s worldwide acclaim.... We need something to honor the past, enrich the present and inspire the future.”

Three months later, Christiansen told the Reader‘s Albert Williams that he “got excellent reader ‘great idea’ response by phone and e-mails, but not a word from anyone to say, ‘Let’s do it.'” On June 6 Williams posed the question “Why doesn’t Chicago have a theater and dance museum?” on the Reader‘s performing arts blog and declared, “I hereby join Christiansen’s call for the creation of a Chicago Museum of the Performing Arts in the Randolph Street Theatre District.” Williams fingered a possible home for the institution: the Cultural Center.

Jason Epperson, the production coordinator of Columbia College’s theater department, where Williams is a faculty member, says he’d been thinking about a performing arts museum off and on for a while. Weirdly, he adds, the night before Williams’s blog post appeared, he couldn’t stop mulling it over. When he read the post and saw the heavy response it was getting, things crystallized: “I thought we need to start an organization right now because people were talking about it as if it was something already in the works.” Epperson formed the nonprofit Chicagoland Theater and Dance Foundation with himself as president. He recruited an advisory board that, in addition to Christiansen and Williams, includes the likes of Kelly Leonard, vice president of Second City, and Sheldon Patinkin, chair of Columbia College’s theater department. Then with the help of publicist Cathy Taylor, another board member, he got word out about the August 4 meeting, calling for ideas.

It’s not like Chicago’s devoid of theater history repositories. Both Christiansen and Williams have noted the archives in existing institutions. The Newberry Library, for instance, has 64 dance collections and 50 boxes of theater programs, as well as the personal papers of theater supporter Hope Abelson (who’ll be honored with an exhibit this fall) and critics Claudia Cassidy and Ashton Stevens, among others. The DePaul University Library holdings include the collections of actor Lois Nettleton and designers Theoni V. Aldredge and William Hargate. And the Chicago Public Library has a Chicago Theater Collection (housed on the Washington library’s top floor) that includes playbills from long-gone theaters like McVicker’s and the Rice, a large collection of early-20th-century scrapbooks, the Steppenwolf and Goodman archives, and records from groups like the Organic and St. Nicholas.

But these collections are scattered throughout the city and are largely limited to items on paper or film. They don’t include materials from many of the smaller companies (much of which may already be lost), and they’re not widely known. A couple of databases in development are expected to address the scattered-site problem but won’t solve the low public profile. Still, the shepherds of existing collections are protective. They all said they’d be willing to loan materials for exhibits but, as one of them put it, “You don’t want to be competing or re-creating the wheel.” With representatives from the major libraries and from the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs in attendance at the Mercury Theater meeting, Epperson led off with the assurance that “we’re not looking to take what everyone has and put it in one place.” On the other hand, he noted, “Most libraries don’t want to be museums.”

The ideas came pouring out—everything from a series of small traveling exhibits for theater lobbies to a full-fledged, freestanding institution. There were questions about audience (tourists? families? college students?) and about location (the Fine Arts Building? Chicago History Museum? one of those city-owned places acquired for a dollar?). And there was concern about how wide a net should be cast: music, prominent in Christiansen’s vision, isn’t on the current agenda. New York City’s Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts, which has exhibit and performance space along with archives, was mentioned more than once as a model. Anatomically Correct executive director Debra Hatchett, who’s been doing exhibits in lobbies for years, suggested raising money by adding a dollar to the price of every theater ticket, and Sun-Times critic Hedy Weiss wondered if a theater museum could benefit from the city’s hefty amusement tax. (That prompted someone in the audience to respond that all they’d have to do is “wrest it from the paws of McCormick Place.”) Weiss noted that changes at Navy Pier might open space there and suggested that the museum could be part of the city’s cultural Olympics. But, she said, “I think you have to decide whether you want to think small and struggling or you want to think institution.”

Epperson, a big-picture thinker, firmly believes that any plan must eventually include a brick-and-mortar facility with a performance space and lots of interactive programming. He told the meeting that the group’s next step is to hold some small fund-raisers and develop a plan to present to foundations that might underwrite a feasibility study. Then word came from the back of the house that there was a tornado in the Roscoe Village area and everyone bolted from their seats faster than critics at the final curtain. It’s a night they’re likely to remember years from now because they exited to an exploding sky. If this dream survives to fruition, they can also say they were there when a new Chicago institution was born.

Hall of Fame Fallout

Readers aggravated by my coverage in this column of James Dobson’s upcoming induction into the Radio Hall of Fame have been flogging me on the Reader Web site—either for giving Hall of Fame head Bruce DuMont “a pass” or for treating him unfairly. Usually in this business that means you’re doing your job. As I reported in a follow-up on our Chicagoland blog last week (“Should the Senate celebrate James Dobson?,” August 6), Truth Wins Out, the gay advocacy group spearheading the Dobson protest, has now taken aim at the effort by Kansas Republican Sam Brownback to get the U.S. Senate to congratulate Dobson on the honor.v

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on the performing arts, see our blog Onstage.