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A Man of the Theater

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If you're putting on a play in Chicago, Richard Eisenhardt would love to receive your press release. Understand he can't guarantee he'll attend your production--his schedule allows him to see only 125 to 200 plays a year--but he'll certainly publicize it for you and wish you a most successful run.

Eisenhardt is Chicago theater's most devoted fan. He's also the publisher of Theater '93, a thick weekly newsletter he puts out at his own expense during his extremely limited free time. He began publishing the newsletter 17 years ago; it was then a six-page pamphlet called Theater '76. But as he attended more and more shows, he got on every theater's mailing list. Soon his mailbox filled with press releases, and his publication grew. He still edits Theater '93 by himself but says he receives moral support from those he boosts.

"Most of the theater community knows who I am and knows about my publication," he says. "And I can honestly say that I'm very gratefully supported, because when I ask for interviews they're more than willing. They help me out by sending me invitations to the press openings, because I could not afford to put this publication out and pay for season tickets or pay for theater tickets to all the productions I see--and I still don't get to see them all."

Eisenhardt manages to churn out between 50 and 150 copies a week of Theater '93. He does all the work for his newsletter in the wood-paneled basement of the modest Lakeview home he shares with his 83-year-old mother, Eunice Nesselroth, and Shari, his loyal boxer. He works on the publication on nights when he isn't attending theater. During the day he's an accountant for the Chicago & North Western railroad, a job he's held for 39 years.

He drops off Theater '93 at different theaters every week--the Goodman one week, the Candlelight the next, or maybe Marriott's Lincolnshire. "Usually I'll take as many as I can carry, because I don't have a car--I don't drive. That's one reason I'm able to afford it, because I don't have the expenses of insurance and a car and that. The house here I own with my mother, and it's all paid for. I don't smoke, that's another thing. I'm not married--not that I wouldn't want to get married, but right now I just feel that I don't have the time to have any serious type of relationship like that because I'm hardly ever home. The whole month of September, out of 30 days I think I was out of the house 28 days--at the theater mostly."

This level of personal revelation is common for Eisenhardt, who believes his readers should know him as intimately as possible. In every issue of Theater '93 he includes dozens of press releases announcing current shows. He also prints Stagebill pictures of his favorite actors and scenes, lists of Jeff nominees, letters of support from various theaters, and occasional correspondence from his readers. Sprinkled throughout the publication are various church hymns, like "This Touch of Love," and inspirational poetry.

But the centerpiece of every issue is a personal essay he updates whenever he gets the chance. It runs at least eight single-spaced pages in very small type and includes Eisenhardt's opinions on a number of topics related to theater in Chicago. He took writing courses while finishing up his accounting degree at DePaul University, but says he's never considered writing as a career. "I think if I had the choice, I would like to have taught. But my love has always been the theater. And I don't think I would ever care to be a critic, but I would always want to promote theater, and support theater, and go see theater."

In a recent issue of Theater '93 he has a profile of himself, including the details of his mother's recent hospital stay because of a blood clot in her leg. He says his readers have a lot of questions about him. In the profile readers learn everything they need to know: his age and birthday (58, April 7), his height (five foot two inches), and several "highlights" of his life (meeting Lyndon Johnson, appearing in a semiprofessional production of Guys and Dolls, and having Patsy Lee sing "All My Love" to him on Don McNeill's Breakfast Club radio show).

He tells readers about his days at James G. Blaine grammar school and Lake View High School and about his two years of nonwartime military service. He also details his experience as a presenter at the Jeff awards a few years ago and his current volunteer work as an occasional lector at his church. He writes as though the reader were going to become a longtime pen pal.

"I'm easy-going but I have a temper," he writes. "I'm very introverted and shy around people until I get to know them. It's hard for people to sometimes tell this about me. I don't like phonies or people who are constantly negative 98% of the time. I feel these people lack something in life and are this way to be controversial and for attention. I try to be open and honest with people as long as they want to communicate, which many people don't know how to do."

Eisenhardt first attended the theater at age five, when his parents took him to see a production of Hellzapoppin. He was hooked. While he was in high school his parents took him to see South Pacific at the Shubert. The production so impressed him that he started trying out for plays. "I used to be always very shy and very bashful," he says. "I liked people, but I didn't know how to approach them, how to fit in with them. I sang for my high school graduation, I sang with the a cappella choir, and I started doing semiprofessional productions."

In October 1976 Eisenhardt attended a play at Victory Gardens, which was then in the space on Clark Street now occupied by the Metro nightclub. "I went there for a production I thought was excellent. I don't know how many the theater sat, maybe 125, and there were only about 30 people in the audience. I just felt that a lot of people weren't aware, and I felt that theaters needed to have something."

He says Theater '93 has two purposes--to encourage young people to see more theater and to educate existing theatergoers about options. He realizes that, given its small circulation, any gains will be modest. "If I get 1 percent more people to attend the theater, I'll feel that I've accomplished something."

Eisenhardt gets a little starry-eyed when he talks about his favorite actors. "I will admit that I do know quite a few of the performers from opening nights and from cast parties, but I try not to let that influence me in my writing. If I'm impressed with someone's performance, I'll so state it in the thing. But again too, if I find that they're in a role that doesn't suit them, I'll also be more than glad to say, well, I was very disappointed with so-and-so because I didn't feel the role was suited for them."

The fall is especially busy for Eisenhardt, a time when he indulges in his other spectator passion--professional hockey. A Blackhawks season-ticket holder for 35 years, he occasionally skips a premiere or a preview to attend a game.

"I was in high school and I went to a game, and I just found the game so fascinating. I don't care for the fighting--the fighting does absolutely nothing for me. And I do think the press has overwritten the fighting to the point where it's turned a lot of people off--the violence in hockey. I like the excitement of the sport, of seeing one try to score. It's like a soccer game--setting up the plays, throwing clean checks into people, just the action and that."

Eisenhardt says he's never considered putting out a hockey newsletter. "[William] Wirtz gets plenty of people to pack the stadium. I want to see the theaters packed. I want to see a theater that seats 125 people have at least 100 people in the audience and not a paltry 18 or 5."

He would like to do even more for Chicago theater, such as serve on the Jeff committee or write a comprehensive guide. But he says it isn't going to happen given his job, his church activities, his theatergoing and hockey schedule.

"I have to be careful what I pick, only because of the limitations of the days of the week and what time I have," he says. "I would hate to get so bogged down--because I get up at 5 o'clock every morning and walk the dog to be at my job by 7:30--that I would have to just conk out at the theater or at work. That wouldn't set too well at work. It certainly wouldn't set too well at the theater if I'm there to see the show and I fall asleep."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.

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