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Coffee Clash/Is the Vic for Rent?

Scenes cafe owners Tom and Jamie Ash couldn't match Starbuck's java jive.

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Coffee Clash

Ten years ago Tom and Jamie Asch saw their future in coffee. Long before Lakeview had a Starbucks on every corner, the brothers started Scenes, a popular cafe and dramatists' bookstore at 3168 N. Clark. "We just wanted to be the best coffeehouse we could be," says Jamie, a part-time actor. He admits that back then he didn't know beans about the business, but he knew plenty of actors and writers who liked to hang out in bookstores. Tom, an attorney, later joined forces with writer Martin Northway and Third Coast cafe owner James Eichling to found Strong Coffee, a monthly periodical dedicated to fiction, poetry, and the pursuit of java.

But now the Asches feel burned. They've just learned that Scenes has lost its lease and will have to close its doors for good in late December. They suspect the reason for their ouster is linked to last Friday's opening of a Starbucks just a few doors down on the southwest corner of Clark and Belmont. The storefront, which had long been empty, is also owned by their landlord Gerry Gedroic, who did not return repeated calls to her office. "I guess you can't blame the landlord for wanting a more lucrative lease," says Tom Asch. "There may have been a perception Starbucks would class up the building."

Long before they got the bad news, the Asches had tried on two separate occasions to strike a deal to allow their coffeehouse to peacefully coexist with Starbucks. The Scenes lease had specified that no competitor could open in any of the adjoining stores owned by Gedroic. But about two years ago, according to Jamie Asch, Gedroic offered the Scenes owners a payout of sev-eral thousand dollars to allow a Starbucks to open. When the Asches rejected that offer, a Starbucks real estate operative in the Chicago regional office tried to directly negotiate a separate deal. The Asches suggested a cash settlement and a provision that would bar Starbucks from insisting its vendors sign exclusivity agreements. "We didn't want to be muscled out of any of our suppliers," explains Jamie Asch. But executives at Starbucks headquarters in Seattle refused to make any promises and the deal collapsed.

In retrospect, Tom Asch admits he may have made a tactical error by pushing too hard for the exclusivity agreement. "I'm willing to take some blame for bad judgement in the negotiations," he says. A Starbucks spokeswoman would only say, "It is never our intention to put anyone out of business." Chicago is Starbucks's third largest market, with 78 stores in the greater metropolitan area. The chain opened its first store here in 1987. Jamie Asch doubts he will open another coffeehouse. "I don't have the resources or the energy to open a new place."

Is the Vic for Rent?

The musical that's supposedly breathing new life into Broadway is close to finding a home in Chicago. No, we're not talking about Disney's Beauty and the Beast, which has finally announced it will begin performances at the Chicago Theater on October 19, 1997. The show is Rent, the rock musical by composer Jonathan Larson, who died the day before the show's first preview last winter at the New York Theatre Work-shop. Rave reviews for Rent, which tells the stories of a motley group of East Village bohemians, instantly made it the hottest ticket in town. It quickly moved to Broadway, where it continues to do sellout business after winning the Pulitzer Prize for drama and a Tony for best musical.

Now Rent is going on the road. Sources indicate the show's producers are in negotiations to put the musical in the 1,200-seat Vic Theatre, a popular concert venue that doubles on off nights as the Brew & View, a combination beer hall and movie theater. When it opened in 1912, the Vic was a vaudeville house. The last time the theater housed a musical was the late 1980s, when producer Michael Butler mounted his 20th anniversary production of Hair.

A source close to the negotiations says a deal could be sealed "within 30 to 60 days" to move a Chicago edition of Rent into the Vic by the fall of 1997. If there's a drawback, it's the shortage of parking. In preparation for Rent's arrival, the Vic reportedly would have to undergo extensive renovations, including the installation of new seats on the theater's main floor. With a 35-foot-deep stage and 45-foot-wide proscenium, the Vic is large enough to comfortably house Rent, which has a relatively simple set compared to the megamusicals that are the norm today.

A new staging of Rent is already set to start an open run in Boston in a couple of weeks. A spokesperson for the Boston production says advance ticket sales there currently exceed $4.3 million, with individual tickets priced from $25 to $67.50. As in New York, a small number of $20 tickets will be available each day at the box office. Look for the same approach in Chicago. A second road production is expected to open in Toronto in early 1997, and a third company is slated to debut July 1, 1997, at the La Jolla Playhouse, in La Jolla, California, where Rent's director Michael Greif is the resident artistic director. But because La Jolla is a repertory company on a strict schedule, Rent will only play there through the end of next summer, when it could end up moving to Chicago.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): David V. Kamba.

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