There's been as much drama in the Victory Gardens Theater boardroom in the past month as there has on its main stage. While a hit play, Four Places, was filling seats at Victory Gardens's new location in the Biograph Theatre at 2433 N. Lincoln, artistic director Dennis Zacek was waging a desperate behind-the-scenes battle to hold on to the Victory Gardens Greenhouse building down the street at 2257 N. Lincoln. The struggle culminated in a May 2 announcement that the Greenhouse property—an early outpost of Chicago's off-Loop movement and home to Victory Gardens since 1981—is being sold to an officer of the theater's board for $2.25 million.
The buyer happens to be a real estate developer, but not to worry: the contract includes a promise to preserve the 16,500-square-foot building's theatrical function for 25 years—barring "casualty, condemnation, or causes beyond the reasonable control of the then owner."
The deal—cooked up in the company's executive committee and whisked to approval on April 21, after a single, emotional board meeting—left dissenters, including Zacek, in shock. The new owners are board vice president Wendy Spatz and her husband, William, whose Spatz Development puts up office buildings, housing tracts, and shopping centers. William says they love theater, wanted to take a more active role in it, and saw this as a way to "give back" to Victory Gardens and the city. He says the building, which will continue to be called the Greenhouse (without the "Victory Gardens" prefix), will be owned by their private nonprofit organization, the Wendy and Bill Spatz Charitable Foundation, and a new nonprofit will be formed to run it.
He says Victory Gardens initially had "no intent to sell." The idea arose after his wife was asked to get a financial analysis of the Greenhouse property—which includes a 2,000-square-foot storefront rented to a sports bar—for the executive committee. William himself did the work and wound up recommending not only that the bar be sold but that the company assess the value of the building as a whole.
"I said, 'If you are ever interested in selling the theater building, Wendy and I would love to buy it from you and run it similar to the way you're running it,'" he recalls. Argianas & Associates did an appraisal in January, and the Spatzes agreed to pay the appraised price. The property was never put on the market.
The Greenhouse has accommodated Victory Gardens's classes and offices since the company moved its shows to the Biograph in 2006. A number of smaller companies rent the four theaters there, too, including Remy Bumppo, Eclipse, Shattered Globe, MPAACT, and Teatro Vista. Remy Bumppo associate artistic director Shawn Douglass says the new owners met recently with the resident groups and asked them to prioritize a wish list of improvements. Douglass says they were told the improvements "would not mean a significant difference in our rent." Current Greenhouse manager Jennifer Kincaid has agreed to stay on.
Keeping the Greenhouse was an important premise of Victory Gardens's 2004 drive to purchase and renovate the Biograph. The plan won $4 million in contributions from the city and state, packaged as a net increase in theater space for the city and an opportunity to expand the company's mission of nurturing new work (which helped earn it a regional Tony in 2001). But the capital campaign that underwrote the move came up $800,000 short after its target of $9 million escalated to $11.8 million, and plans to build a studio theater on the Biograph's second floor had to be put on hold. Incoming board president Jeffrey Rappin says selling the Greenhouse will allow Victory Gardens to fill that financial gap, build the studio, and start an endowment.
But dissenters argue that with its income from the theaters and the sports bar space (which Spatz says he'll sell immediately) the Greenhouse contributed to the bottom line. Zacek says that it brought in $150,000 annually and provided Victory Gardens with free office and class space. And although the building's condition was used as a rationale for the sale—Rappin says it "needs a tremendous amount of work"—William Spatz himself calls it "physically sound." He'll upgrade, but says the only pressing need is for more soundproofing.
The Spatzes plan to add more classrooms, hire more teachers, and, according to a press release, pursue "an affiliation with a major higher-education theater program" capable of offering college credit. It's a leap from their current enterprises, which include a day care center called Learning World, but, says William, "We do crazy things. It's a labor of love."
"I like Wendy and her husband. They're very nice people," says longtime board member Joyce Sloane, producer emeritus of Second City, "but what do they know about running a theater? How are they going to do it without Victory Gardens? When you've been at it as long as I have, you know what the difficulties are."
Sloane claims the sale was sprung on the general board as a "fait accompli"—that she heard nothing about it before the April 14 meeting at which they were asked to approve it. A push for a vote on the spot was staved off by board member Stanley Horn, who made a motion for a few extra days to think about it, with votes to come in by phone or e-mail. In the end, William Spatz says, 70 percent of the board voted in favor. That included Horn, who says he'd been thinking all along, "We're not in the real estate business."
It did not, however, include Zacek, who says he "fought vigorously" to stop it in the short time between the executive committee's decision and the April 14 presentation to the board. "I attempted to raise money to prevent the sale. I said, 'If I raise a million dollars will you guys shift?' I had several weeks, but I was one man. I didn't raise enough. I kept it in-house, and I did not succeed. Now it's public."
Gutweiler Not Guilty
In June 2006, Michael Gutweiler, a Columbia College student who'd worked briefly as an assistant at the studio and gallery of artist Francine Turk, was charged with burglarizing the gallery and making off with ten paintings. Turk's work was enjoying a flash of fame at the time, having just been featured in the Vince Vaughn-Jennifer Aniston vehicle The Break-Up, and Gutweiler's arrest drew a fair amount of attention. An eyewitness who told police he'd seen two men in ski masks making the heist somehow picked him out of a lineup.
Gutweiler maintained his innocence.
Last month, the case finally made its way to a bench trial before Judge Bertina Lampkin. Gutweiler's attorney, Patrick Reardon, says the eyewitness (who'd shown up for an earlier appearance wearing a Department of Corrections jumpsuit) declared that he couldn't remember a thing about what happened that day. The judge granted a motion for a directed verdict of not guilty. Gutweiler's back at Columbia, finishing up.v