Jury's still out on Chicago Theatre owners


May 15, 2005


When the Chicago Park District chose Clear Channel as the winning bidder to run the new Lakefront Pavilion on Northerly Island, the motivating factor was the promoter's promise that the venue would raise $800,000 a year to fund improvements for city parks.

Clear Channel's ability to deliver on that pledge will be judged at the end of the summer concert season. But the last city-owned venue that was contracted to an independent promoter seems to be falling short of the goals that the city set.

In late 2003, city officials sold the 3,605-seat Chicago Theatre -- an ornate landmark and the best-sounding pop music venue in the city, if not the entire United States -- to Philadelphia-based TheatreDreams. Ownership of the troubled venue had reverted to the city after the previous operators defaulted on a $21 million loan, and TheatreDreams secured the theater for the bargain price of $3 million.

The city's goal was to make the Chicago Theatre "active and contributing to the burgeoning theater district, whether it's programmed through music or theater," according to Peter Scales, who was then spokesman for the Department of Planning and Development.

The only other bidder was the Chicago Theatre Alliance, an unlikely coalition of fierce competitors Jam Productions, the theater division of Jam's archrivals, Clear Channel Entertainment, and the Chicago Association for the Performing Arts.

TheatreDreams bid $1.8 million more than the Chicago Theatre Alliance. But the Chicago Theatre Alliance claimed that TheatreDreams' projections were unrealistic, and that the company wouldn't meet the city's expectations.

A joint committee of officials from the departments of Planning and Development and Cultural Affairs awarded the contract to TheatreDreams. Cultural Affairs Commissioner Lois Weisberg recused herself from the vote because her sister worked for TheatreDreams as its publicist. Company executives said that connection had no bearing on their decision to bid for the contract, or the city's selection of TheatreDreams as the winner.

The contract that TheatreDreams signed with the city stipulates it must annually present "not less than 222 'required events'" -- a term the contract defines as "live music and theatrical events, jazz, dance and ballet presentations, ethnic dance, chamber opera, concerts, lectures, speeches, film, multimedia events, musicals and comedy, educational functions ... holiday season events [and] civic events."

Acknowledging that the company needed time to make repairs at the venue, the city required TheatreDreams to present only 155 "required events" during its first year of ownership. In fact, between April 2004 and April 2005, the company presented 87 events for which tickets were sold to the public, including music (Van Morrison, Dido, Clay Aiken), dance (Pilobolus, DanceAfrica, the St. Petersburg Ballet) and theater (five nights of "Grease," three nights of "Smokey Joe's Cafe").

The contract states that the sale could be nullified if TheatreDreams does not meet its obligations.

Last week, the company was required to make an official accounting of first-year activity at the theater. In the report, company officials claimed they presented 190 "required events" -- almost double the number of ticketed shows. It counted load-in and set-up days for concerts and plays; four days of photo shoots in the lobby; 23 tours of the theater, and 28 "private events" when the venue was rented for parties or weddings.

"We would take a bar mitzvah if we could get one," company principal Larry Wilker said Monday.

Wilker maintains that all of these "private, non-ticketed events" qualify under the contract as "civic events," though the definition of "civic" is the exact opposite of "private." Nevertheless, city officials accepted TheatreDreams' accounting.

"These were events that did bring people into the theater," said current Department of Planning and Development spokeswoman Constance Buscemi. "You're not going to have a big-name performance every single night."

"TheatreDreams has met their commitment to program the building as a performing arts center by presenting a variety of music, theater, comedy, dance and special events," said Department of Cultural Affairs Commissioner Lois Weisberg. "They've done an exemplary job."

Because of its superior acoustics, the Chicago Theatre is particularly well-suited for concerts, while theater and dance performances are often ruled out because the venue has an unusually small backstage that can't accommodate major stage sets and props. But under TheatreDreams, the theater hosted seven fewer concerts than it did the previous year.

TheatreDreams is not a significant player in the concert world. Recently, it lost its bid to promote Bruce Springsteen at the Chicago Theatre to Clear Channel, which brought the Boss to the Rosemont Theatre. And while Jam Productions continues to book some shows at the Chicago Theatre, including a recent sold-out three-night stand by Widespread Panic, it has taken many more of similar size to the rival Auditorium Theatre.

Wilker granted that TheatreDreams would like to promote many more concert, theater and dance events at the Chicago Theatre. "If we had our way, we'd love to have 365 performances a year," he said. "The problem is that Chicago is a very, very rough, competitive market."

In this case, consumers are losing, because no matter how good a concert is at another venue, the Chicago Theatre is in a class of its own.