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So Long, Ivanhoe/ Sweet Charity/ Back to Basics

From theater to liquor store--what will the neighbors think?

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So Long, Ivanhoe

The Ivanhoe Theater is history. Last week Doug Bragan finalized a deal to sell the theater, on Wellington between Clark and Halsted, to Gold Standard Enterprises Inc., which will gut the interior and use the square footage to turn its adjoining Binny's Beverage Depot into a "wine and food superstore." Bragan says that Gold Standard first expressed interest in the property last year but

its offer wasn't substantial enough for him to consider seriously. Earlier this year he entertained a seven-figure bid from Atlas Development Company, which planned to erect a high-rise condominium building on the site, but the local neighborhood organization, South East Lake View Neighbors, opposed the required rezoning and the deal fell apart. Because of the neighborhood's severe congestion, the theater's days were numbered: its place-of-public-amusement license mandated a certain amount of dedicated parking, and its lease on the adjoining parking area--owned by Binny's--expired in 2003.

"What civilized person would be happy to see a treasure like a theater replaced with a liquor store?" asks Bob Clarke, president of South East Lake View Neighbors. Because the Binny's expansion requires no rezoning, Clarke says it's unclear at this point whether SELVN could mount a successful campaign against the project, though he points out that in a similar situation the group convinced developers to abandon a planned 20-screen multiplex at Surf and Broadway several years ago. Bragan says he will keep the Ivanhoe open until the second or third week of January to honor existing booking commitments. He also plans to carry on with his theater trade association, A.R.T. League, and may continue to produce shows.

The Ivanhoe has been a significant landmark in Chicago theater. Out Cry, a late play by Tennessee Williams, made its world premiere there in 1971 and occasioned a knock-down, drag-out argument between Williams and his longtime agent, Audrey Wood, that spilled out onto Wellington and ended a professional relationship of more than three decades. Jessica Tandy, Joan Fontaine, Piper Laurie, Christopher Walken, Sandy Dennis, Rita Moreno, Luther Adler, James Broderick, and Bruce Boxleitner all appeared at the Ivanhoe when it was a theater-in-the-round. Bragan bought the theater in 1982, though from 1990 to 1994 it was operated by local producer Michael Leavitt as the Wellington Theater. After taking over from Leavitt, Bragan constructed three more performance spaces in the building and rented them out to groups like the Free Associates comedy troupe and long-running cult shows like Hellcab and Late Nite Catechism. He had trouble keeping the main stage occupied, but he was canny enough to make a living from off-Loop theater--no small achievement in the 1990s--and he provided itinerant companies with inexpensive rental space in a prime neighborhood. Unfortunately, the neighborhood turned out to be a little too prime.

Sweet Charity

Most nightclubs shake down their patrons with a hefty cover and a two-drink minimum, but Voltaire is no ordinary club. The 90-seat cabaret, located on Halsted near Roscoe in the heart of the city's gay nightlife district, offers a 40-minute floor show followed by a vocalist--nearly two hours of entertainment--for no charge. Voltaire opened only two months ago, yet a recent Thursday evening found the place packed, with the bar and kitchen humming. The floor show was funny, fast paced, and crisply choreographed, the work of entertainment director Freddy Allen and artistic director/choreographer Alberto Arias, a former member of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. Singer Valerie James had her audience howling with laughter and quite literally dancing in the aisles.

The club's owner is even more unusual. "My main motivation was to generate income for charities," says Jeffrey Woods. A physician, he moved to Chicago from the west coast about six years ago and started the Helix Group, Inc., a consulting firm that provides management services to hospitals, nursing homes, and private practices. The business took off, and with some of the money he earned, Woods bought the building that houses Voltaire. He and his investors present special headliners like Phyllis Diller and Judy Tenuta for $50, but all ticket revenue from these shows--$50,000 so far--goes to organizations like the NAMES Project, Howard Brown Health Center, and Equality Illinois. Woods expects to stage at least one benefit a month, and with the help of contacts in Los Angeles he's negotiating for names like Lily Tomlin, Nell Carter, Shirley Bassey, and Margaret Cho.

"We've been very lucky," he says. "Word of mouth and the traffic on the street have brought people in." The club clearly has a large gay clientele, though Woods describes the mix as 60 percent gay and 40 percent straight. Despite the no-cover, no-minimum policy, he wants to keep up the quality of the food and entertainment. The large menu, also served in a quieter 40-seat dining room adjoining the cabaret, was designed by Daniel Blejski, who Woods lured away from the posh Union League Club downtown. Two floor shows alternate weekly--one a country-western revue, the other a mock USO show--and Woods plans to introduce new shows every six weeks.

Back to Basics

After years cooking fancy dishes for Coco Pazzo, Green Dolphin Street, and the recently shuttered Okno, Bruce Kalman wants to get back to "real food"--soups, sandwiches, salads, and baked goods. His New York-style delicatessen, 5 Boroughs Deli, opens this week at 738 N. Wells (a site last occupied by the restaurant Earth). Kalman will serve Boar's Head cold cuts, a well-known name in New York, and fresh bagels, using dough flown in from H & H Bagels on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The 5 Boroughs was scheduled to open three months ago as a small take-out restaurant, but Kalman shifted gears when he heard about the River North location, which will seat 18.

New York delicatessens haven't had much luck with the downtown lunch crowd; about ten years ago the Carnegie, one of Manhattan's most famous delis, opened an outpost in the 900 N. Michigan building that quickly flopped. But Danny Wolf, whose Lakeview restaurant the Bagel is celebrating its 50th anniversary, thinks Kalman can succeed with a good menu: "If people really like the food, they'll come back."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Binny's storefront photo by Jim Newberry.

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