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
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
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
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
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]
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.