Wiggle Room

When longtime guitar teacher Jim Hirsch took over as executive director of the Old Town School of Folk Music in 1982, the Chicago institution was on the verge of bankruptcy. Founded in 1957, the school had given folk and rock heroes like Steve Goodman, John Prine, and Roger McGuinn their start, but by the end of the 70s it was suffering from severe stodginess and a lack of business savvy. Last year, thanks in large part to Hirsch, the nonprofit operated on a budget of $3.4 million–three quarters of which was generated income–and in September, when it moves from its current Lincoln Park digs to the old Hild Library in Lincoln Square, it’ll open what Hirsch claims will be the largest, best-equipped folk-music facility in the world.

The four-story, 43,000-square-foot art deco building at 4544 N. Lincoln has been vacant since 1987, when the Hild was supplanted by the Conrad Sulzer Regional Library, just down the street. When the city’s Cultural Affairs Department offered it to the Old Town School, in early 1994, the school had already been searching for a new home for more than a year. Under Hirsch course enrollment had exploded, from 175 in ’82 to about 2,000, and he’d expanded course offerings to include ethnic music and started successful community outreach programs that have boosted minority attendance at the school’s concerts from less than 2 percent to 24 percent. Suddenly the building the school had occupied since 1968, at 909 W. Armitage, was downright cramped. So after nine months of feasibility studies, the Old Town School accepted the city’s offer, buying the Hild building for the nominal sum of ten bucks.

The school will hang on to the Lincoln Park space, which it plans to transform into a children’s center–about a third of its current 3,600 students are 13 or younger. The Hild building, which will be called the Chicago Folk Center, will accommodate twice as many teaching spaces, most of which will get some natural light and all of which will be acoustically insulated; even the heating system has been designed to keep sound from traveling between rooms. The space allotted to the in-house music store, A Different Strummer, will quadruple, and the previously inaccessible resource center–a rich archive of recordings, photos, books, and videos–will be properly housed and open to the public.

Most impressive is the new, curvy concert hall, which will seat 425 people. That’s 150 more seats than the space on Armitage–and none of them, on the main floor or in the balcony, will be more than 38 feet from the lip of the stage. The hall also will be equipped with new lights, a $150,000 sound system, and acoustically designed windows, ceilings, and supports; it will even be prewired for radio and television broadcasts.

All in all, the renovations will cost upwards of $9 million. The city has coughed up about $3 million, mostly for external repairs to the landmark structure, but Hirsch has had to coax most of the loot from the coffers of foundations and the pockets of philanthropists. And he says the campaign isn’t over: the sheer size of the new building will make the school more expensive than ever to operate, and though projections indicate that the Old Town School should be able to afford it, Hirsch is still concerned about raising more capital–which means he isn’t above practices that could rankle purists.

“Our jobs as managers of this institution are to make sure that we balance the feel of the place and our goals and objectives with what it takes to operate the place properly,” Hirsch says. “Could you ever see a Miller beer sign here? Sure–why not, if it was done properly and supported a program that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to present? The real magic of this place is when a student sits down with a teacher and musical sparks begin to fly, and I don’t think that’s changed in the last 41 years, much less the last 5 or 10.”

The new Old Town School officially opens September 18 with a performance by Joni Mitchell and Peter Yarrow, but unless you’re a budding philanthropist, don’t get your hopes up–tickets cost $2,500. For the rest of us, this weekend the school hosts its first Chicago Folk & Roots Festival in Welles Park, between Wilson and Montrose on North Lincoln. “Hopefully people can check out our new neighborhood, and people that already live here can get a sampling of what we’re going to be doing,” says organizer Colleen Miller, who also books the Old Town School’s ambitious concert series. Saturday’s bill features LA’s great Mexican-American roots rockers the Blazers and the local Middle Eastern band Albert Baba & the Eastern Stars. Sunday’s highlights are bluegrass heavies the Del McCoury Band and country rocker Robbie Fulks. School staffers will be offering free dance and music lessons, and there’s a tent dedicated to activities for children. The festival starts at 10 each morning and runs till 9; admission is $3 for adults, $2 for senior citizens, and $1 for kids. Check this section’s listings under Fairs & Festivals for the full schedule; for more information call 773-525-7793.


The Creative and Improvised Music series at Unity Temple is officially history–but now so are a couple of superb concerts from last year’s program. Wobbly Rail, a new imprint run by Superchunk front man Mac McCaughan in Chapel Hill, has just released Steve Lacy’s Solo: Live at Unity Temple and Stumble, a set by the AALY Trio with Ken Vandermark.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Colleen Miller and Jim Hirsch photo by Doroty Perry.