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Free Speeches/Bank One Grabs the Lion's Share

Northwestern student Conor O'Neil taps his love of ideas--as well as his own deep pockets--to bring an array of provocateurs to campus.



Free Speeches

Northwestern University history major Conor O'Neil, who grew up in the heady company of his stepfather's colleagues at the New School for Social Research and the University of Chicago and loves nothing more than the thrill of intellectual discourse, had a brainstorm over Christmas break. He'd create his own, ongoing version of the Chicago Humanities Festival, bringing great speakers to the Northwestern campus every week to engage the public--students or not--in the major issues of our time. And it would all be free! Since O'Neil is a man of action--plus heir to a family fortune he'd rather not identify and stepson to D. Carroll Joynes, who heads up the Cultural Policy Center at the U. of C.--this turned out to be more than wishful thinking. By January, he and a few friends had the Clio Society's Web site up and running and a venue lined up for most of its events: the auditorium of Northwestern's new McCormick Tribune Center. An appearance last week by New Republic senior editor John Judis, ostensibly to talk about the "Bush Push" for war (what he actually talked about was his new book, The Emerging Democratic Majority), was the third in a series that O'Neil has booked through the end of the school year. Besides the Clio crew of a half dozen, it attracted an audience of eight.

"That was a little embarrassing," says O'Neil, in a voice too world-weary for his 22 years. "Our first two events were better attended." With Clio footing the bill at about $5,000 per speaker for travel, accommodations, and lecture fees, O'Neil has been able to snag the likes of former 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (speaking April 3); copyright foe Lawrence Lessig (April 24); and Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class (May 15). Every lecture will be recorded on DVD and made available without cost to public libraries in Evanston and Chicago and to anyone else who asks for them. O'Neil says he's put $70,000 into Clio so far, plus a donation to the Chicago Humanities Festival in the society's name (Clio will make DVDs of festival programs this year). He wants the organization, which is also screening documentary films (schedule at www.cliosociety. com), to be thought of as an "open mike" and invites program suggestions. The group is applying for nonprofit status, after which O'Neil says foundation money should start coming in. In any case, he says, he'll keep it going: these thinkers and writers "are my heroes."

Bank One Grabs the Lion's Share

Quick--think of a lion and think of a bank. What comes to mind? Harris? That's what decades of focused marking will do. But it didn't stop Bank One from signing on as sponsor for the Chicago run of Disney's The Lion King, plastering billboards with a drawing of a lion's head all over town and offering tickets to new customers. The show won't open till April 23, but tickets have been scarce ever since they went on sale in October in spite of their high price. Seats in the lower balcony--the outlands, about 30 rows back--are $64 plus about $10 in fees. Front half of the main floor? $127 plus fees. That's because 150 seats have been set aside as "VIP" and can only be purchased as part of a package that includes parking and souvenirs. For another $30--making for a total that's roughly the cost of a round-trip airline ticket to Disneyland--the kids can also check their coats, munch on snacks, and use an exclusive potty. Total cost for a family of five could come to a surreal $835.

So that's where Bank One can help, right? Open a little savings account, get a discount on tickets? Guess again, Simba--all Bank One has to offer is access, and they're not much interested in little savings accounts. Open a new checking account with either direct deposit or Internet bill paying and they'll give you the privilege of paying full price for a maximum of four tickets they've got a corner on. Go the savings account route and the minimum you'll have to deposit is--I'm not making this up--$25,000. An option they don't mention? Go to the public library, borrow the Lion King video, pop some corn at home, and consider it done.

Bank One spokesman Tom Kelly says Disney approached the bank about sponsorship for this production, which is transferring from Los Angeles and will include about 15 Chicago actors. It seemed like a nice tie-in, since Bank One (whose major credit card relationship is with bankrupt United Airlines) was about to launch a new Disney Visa card. The bank made the deal, apparently monopolized enough tickets to affect availability, and announced the promotion after the scarcity had become apparent. Kelly says the bank has "good availability in all price ranges" but won't say how much the sponsorship cost, how many tickets the bank took, or what will happen if bank patrons don't claim them.

Word on the street is that the bank has tickets for most shows, and that Lion King will run through at least January 18 instead of closing as billed on November 23, with all tickets from November 25 on held by the bank. (Kelly wouldn't confirm any of this.) Since the top Lion King ticket price on Broadway, where there's no corporate sponsor, is $100, it's hard to see how this sponsorship benefits anyone but Disney and Bank One. For the kids, though, one lesson is perfectly clear: in this part of the pridelands, money rules.

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

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