By John Owens

When the lavishly restored New Regal Theater–formerly the Avalon–opened on the south side back in 1987, the nonprofit foundation running the venue had magnificent plans for its future. In addition to presenting the top African-American performers in the country, the theater would also function as a performing arts center for the community. Plans were drawn up for a jazz museum adjacent to the theater and facilities for artists in residence.

Now, almost 11 years after the theater opened, many of those plans have long been scrapped. And while the theater occasionally presents well-known national performers and touring shows, promoters are not overly enthusiastic about booking their acts into medium-size venues like the New Regal, which seats 2,277 people. “If it’s not cost-effective for a promoter to put his act in here, then he won’t do it,” says Wilma Washington, manager of the New Regal since 1996. “A promoter may say that his show can do 30,000 people in one week. Well, then his show probably won’t come to the Regal, because I only have 2,200 seats, and in one week that would only be 18,000 people. So they’ll go somewhere else. That’s when you develop your own programming.”

Which is just what the New Regal has done. In the last three years it’s introduced an extensive program of children’s theater, culminating in the May performance of Duke Ellington’s musical My People. Also in May the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and the Lakota Sioux Indian Dance Theatre presented daytime programs, and the Lyric Opera gave three abridged performances for children of the Anthony Davis opera Amistad.

“The main emphasis is bringing the light to our children’s eyes,” says Bettiann Gardner, chairman of the board for the New Regal Theater Foundation, which owns and manages the theater. “Our presentations teach children how to deal with self-esteem, conflict resolution, and goal setting.” Since 1995 the New Regal has been presenting shows specifically for children, many of them students from the south side and northwest Indiana. Last season it offered more than 50 children’s shows.

“It’s good for the kids to come into the black community to a theater like the Regal and see good, quality programming,” Washington says. “It gives them a good example of the positive things that can happen in their own neighborhoods.”

Located near 79th and Stony Island, the New Regal is still one of the more attractive venues in the city. Noted theater architect John Eberson designed it in the late 20s, and like other movie palaces of the era, the old Avalon was a show in itself, a colorful collage of exotic Middle Eastern elements. The stage was flanked by towering quasi-Islamic temples, and the ceiling replicated a rich blue Arabian sky, speckled with stars and clouds that were projected by the theater’s stagehands. Much of this pseudo-Persian motif has been retained by the theater’s present owners.

The original Regal Theater opened in 1928 at 47th and South Parkway (now Martin Luther King Drive). It was the most important entertainment venue for black performers in the midwest, but after being sold three times it finally closed in 1968 and was demolished in 1973. Edward Gardner, then the CEO of Soft Sheen Products, Inc., formed the New Regal Theater Foundation with his wife Bettiann in 1985. The group provided $3.5 million to restore the theater, while the city obtained a $1 million Illinois Development Action Grant and presented it to the foundation as a low-interest loan.

From 1987 to 1992 the New Regal produced many of its own shows, including the popular amateur talent show where R. Kelly was discovered, but by the early 90s black artists on the concert circuit began to look for larger venues. Charles Gueno, manager of the New Regal at the time, recalls that children’s programming was part of the theater’s mission from the beginning. But the current management relies more heavily on children’s theater because of competition from huge venues like the New World Music Theatre.

“The promoters have to go to the larger venues because that’s where they’ll get their profit margin,” says Gueno, now tour manager for comedian Bernie Mac. “A lot of artists like the smaller venues because they’re more intimate. But in order to play in a 2,300 seat venue, you have to have a $100 ticket with multiple shows. So, many times, we had to create special deals or even give promoters the building rent free in order to have them come to the New Regal. You’ve got to keep the building occupied so the community can see the theater remain vibrant.”

Increased competition from similar-size theaters didn’t help: the New Regal had to compete for acts with the Chicago, the Arie Crown, and the Star Plaza Theatre in Merrillville, Indiana. By the mid-90s the Rosemont Theatre provided another venue for the African-American acts that might once have been booked at the New Regal. “There’s so much competition,” Gueno says. “We would fight the [Star Plaza Theatre] for acts. I used to run ads saying, Why go across the border for the same acts when you could go here?” In May a nonprofit group headed by Alderman Dorothy Tillman and entertainer Lou Rawls broke ground for the Lou Rawls Theater and Cultural Center, a 750-seat auditorium to be located at 47th Street and King Drive, the site of the old Regal.

The New Regal tried to rebound with black plays, including traveling shows of the South African musical Sarafina! and numerous comedies. But the theater was in need of money. “We need close to $500,000 on an annual basis,” says Washington. “We’d like to expand upon our children’s programming, and we’d like to start a capital improvements program within the next few years so we can be more competitive.”

The theater has actually been fairly busy this spring: during the past three months, it’s hosted two plays (Know How to Treat a Black Woman and the gospel musical Somebody Ought to Tell God Thank You, starring Vickie Winans), three concerts (including an April 16 performance by Mary J. Blige and Usher), and actor Avery Brooks performing in a one-man show as Paul Robeson. Yet the plays had limited runs and the concerts were booked on Thursday nights, which are off-nights for promoters.

“Mary J. Blige played the Arie Crown Theatre on a weekend when she was in Chicago earlier this year,” Washington says. “This time she’s playing the New Regal, but she’s coming on a weekday as opposed to a premium day. There’s still a demand to see her in this market, but her promoter has another market so he can stay in the area, so he can afford to play a smaller house on a weekday. It all depends on economics.”

Washington and other New Regal officials say they understand the reasons that promoters choose not to book the theater, although they think some performers will be back. “A lot of performers had their start here but outgrew the Regal in their mind,” Washington says. “But when they fail and they need to get back on their feet, then they’ll go back to the Regal. Once they’re back on their feet, then they’ll go back downtown.”

The fickle nature of the music business has strengthened the New Regal’s commitment to children’s theater, a stand that wins them praise from local promoters. “There isn’t a lot of children’s programming that targets the African-American community, and they should be congratulated for that,” says Tiiu McGuire, a talent buyer for Jam Productions. “And the Regal is an important institution in Chicago. It’s culturally significant.”

The theater has yet to see a profit from its children’s programming, Washington says, but it plans to increase the number of presentations for schools by the end of the year. “Right now we’re not in the red, but we’re operating on a tight budget,” she says. “In the next six months I definitely see us in the black.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Bettiann Gardner, Wilma Washington photo by Nathan Mandell.