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Still in the Dark

Walter Stearns is talking about his plans for the Mercury Theater—but not about his investors.

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Who owns the Mercury Theater? Two months after the Wrigleyville playhouse and two adjacent restaurant spaces were sold for a reported $3.3 million, that's still a mystery. Walter Stearns, the Mercury's new executive director—and outgoing artistic director of Porchlight Music Theatre—says he's just an employee; the owners are a "small group of investors" incorporated as Southport Theatre LLC. Stearns says he put the group together but isn't part of it and won't reveal the members' names.

That sounds familiar. In May 2008, Stearns announced that he'd put together an anonymous group of investors to buy the Fullerton State Bank building at 1425 W. Fullerton and would be turning it into a home for Porchlight, a 16-year-old nonprofit that specializes in scaled-down productions of Broadway musicals. The sale price was reportedly about $3 million, and architect John Morris was already at work on plans for a $4 million renovation that would turn the 1923-vintage city landmark into a 299-seat venue to be called the Lincoln Park Theatre. Then the economy tanked. Porchlight board president Jeannie Lukow says the recession, along with a less-than-enthusiastic response at neighborhood meetings, sank the project. The Fullerton State Bank went back on the market and remains there.

The Mercury purchase appears to be a done deal, but Porchlight won't be the tenant.

Whoever the new owners are, they're looking to run the 292-seat theater at 3745 N. Southport as a for-profit rental venue. Despite earlier print and blog reports that he'd be mounting his own productions, Stearns says there are no immediate plans for that and no money earmarked to support it. Last week he was awaiting the arrival of a new HVAC system and planning a trip to New York to scare up some business. So far, he's got no bookings.

Except for a sketch comedy show presented there on September 11, 2009, the Mercury has been dark since a touring production of Mark's Gospel closed more than 16 months ago. Stearns remembers thinking last winter that it shouldn't be standing unused in a town with so much great theater and so many companies that need space. When he read that it might be available, he says, he talked it up to potential investors. "I started to introduce people to each other, and began negotiating, in May."

At that time the Mercury was on the verge of tumbling into foreclosure. Veteran Chicago impresario Michael Cullen had purchased it in 1994 with a partner, restaurateur Joe Carlucci, who opened the now-defunct Strega Nona in the space immediately north; Cullen and members of his family, including sister Eloise, operated Cullen's Bar and Grill (home of Mother Cullen's superb grilled meat loaf) out of the space to the south. When his relationship with Carlucci unraveled in the mid-aughts, Cullen got a loan—with the backing of real estate developer Laurance Freed, whose own Block 37 mall was turned over to bank creditors last month—to buy Carlucci out. But by December 2009, as reported by Crain's Chicago Real Estate Daily, Cullen had fallen behind on mortgage payments, and in March the bank set foreclosure proceedings in motion.

But possible foreclosure wasn't Cullen's biggest problem. In January he suffered a severe stroke that sent him to Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and then to a long-term care center, where he's still recovering—though the word last week from Eloise was that he's walking and talking again and is expected to come home soon.

Friends in the performance community were surprised—though probably not shocked, given the hardscrabble nature of the theater business—to learn that Cullen, then 61, had neither health nor long-term care insurance. They mounted a benefit for him at the Royal George Theatre on May 3, featuring Malachy McCourt (A Couple of Blaguards), Gretchen Cryer (I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road), and other artists he'd worked with over the years. The event raised about $40,000.

In more than three decades on the Chicago theater scene, Cullen has built a lengthy list of credits. He founded Travel Light Theater—one of the city's early off-Loop companies—while still a grad student at the Goodman School of Drama in the 1970s, cofounded Theatre Building Chicago, and helped start the League of Chicago Theatres. His big successes as a producer (often in collaboration with Arnie Saks or Sheila Henaghan and Howard Platt) include Pump Boys and Dinettes, which ran for four and a half years in the 80s; Cryer's I'm Getting My Act Together; and the Chicago premieres of Steel Magnolias and Driving Miss Daisy. Over the years he's worked with everyone from Austin Pendleton to Charles Nelson Reilly.

Originally called the Blaine Theatre, the Mercury opened in 1912 as a nickelodeon and then ran silent films until 1920. After that, until Cullen and Carlucci took over, it housed a rug-cleaning company and a series of retail outlets. The 3,800-square-foot Strega Nona space has been empty since Carlucci's lease ran out in 2008. Stearns says it's available for any kind of use, but he'd like to see another restaurant there.

Stearns held his Porchlight job for a dozen years, during which the annual budget rose from about $29,500 to $500,000 and it became an Equity-contract house. He says he'll step down when the season ends in May, but hints at a continuing connection. "At some time in the future, Porchlight might be producing at the Mercury, or I might continue to direct for Porchlight," he says. "But that's up in the air right now."

Stearns says he'd love to see the Mercury function as a transfer house for extended runs of successful local shows. Personal experience tells him there's a niche there. In 2004, he recalls, Porchlight staged Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd at Theatre Building Chicago, where it was "a big success. We were turning people away at the door and we had to close the show. You should never have to close a hit show. If, at that point, someone from the Mercury had knocked on my door and said, 'Hey, come on over here,' it would've transformed the whole trajectory of Porchlight Music Theatre. I want to be able to offer that to companies."

Under Cullen, the Mercury largely functioned as a rental venue for out-of-town and/or commercial producers. But Stearns says the new owners have worked out special prices for Chicago's nonprofit arts organizations. The rate ranges from $3,000 to $20,000 per week, and nonprofits qualify for the lower end.

Stearns says he's been catching up on maintenance for the last couple months, and the Mercury will be ready for business as soon as a new furnace is installed December 17. But as of last week there was no ticketing system in place ("It's been a Ticketmaster house, but we have new owners, which means a new agreement with Ticketmaster," says Stearns), and the website was still under construction. Stearns thinks there should be demand for a space of the Mercury's size, which is "unique" among theatrical rental spaces in the city. None of the three theaters at Stage 773 (the venue formerly known as Theatre Building Chicago) on Belmont seats more than 148, he points out, "and then you go to the Apollo," where the main-stage theater seats 461. He doesn't mention the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts, whose cabaret and studio spaces are kept booked with comics and sketch shows but whose 340-seat main stage has been mostly dark for the last couple years.

Porchlight posted its opening for a new artistic director last week.   

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