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Can the old team from Theatre Building Chicago save the Athenaeum?

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The Solari era is just about over at the struggling Athenaeum Theatre and Performing Arts Center on Southport. Dan Solari, who's run the 100-year-old white elephant/neighborhood treasure since his dad, Fred Solari, died in 2006, is making a gradual exit as a new—but familiar—team of administrators takes over.

Except for business manager Jerry Kennedy, the new team at the Athenaeum is the same one dumped in the demise of Theatre Building Chicago, which has been playing out over the last couple of years. Joan Mazzonelli, former Theatre Building executive director, is now the Athenaeum's artistic and program director, and former TBC staffers Allan Chambers and Jeff DeLong are pitching in as consultants. Athenaeum Theatre Productions, the new nonprofit corporation formed by Saint Alphonsus Church, the theater's neighbor and owner, is chaired by none other than Fred Solari's former Dance Chicago festival partner, John Schmitz, who split from the Athenaeum in 2009.

It's musical chairs, Chicago theater style.

Solari says the recession, which is starving the small theater companies that are the Athenaeum's main tenants, is to blame for the "rocky occupancy" that's made it hard for him to pay his own rent to the church on time. But the beginning of the end is probably rooted in Fred's abrupt death five years ago, at the age of 55, and the tragic death six months before that of his eldest son, Peter. Fred had begun producing summer musicals at the Athenaeum when he was only 18, and had given up a career as an attorney for a behind-the-scenes life in theater. Before signing a long-term lease on the three-story center in 1993, he'd spent a decade as manager of the Civic Opera House complex (which then included the Civic Theatre), and before that had managed the Woodstock Theater, the Apollo, and the Schubert. The whole Solari family helped out at the Athenaeum, but Peter was a constant, enthusiastic presence, and it wouldn't have been a surprise to see him someday step into Fred's shoes. When both of them were so suddenly lost, it fell to Dan to take over.

Kennedy is a CPA, MBA, and former corporate executive who retired two years ago after a decade as business manager of Saint Alphonsus. The Athenaeum, which will celebrate its centennial in October, had been built by the church for its own use and as a community center: in addition to the 985-seat main theater and meeting rooms, it had a gym in the basement and a bowling alley. It stands on a five-acre church complex that also contains a convent, rectory, and school. Kennedy says it had been run by retired priests who lived on the property, but by the 1990s, when Fred offered to take it over, it was foundering. Under his management, with the addition of three 60-to-90-seat black-box studios, reasonably priced office spaces, and marketing and management help, it became an incubator and home for companies like Lookingglass Theatre, Chicago Opera Theater, and dozens of smaller groups. Fred Solari also raised the money for a series of improvements, including a $900,000 renovation completed in 2004 that enclosed the front steps and dropped an elevator at the entrance to the building.

In 1995 Fred Solari and John Schmitz founded Dance Chicago, a multicompany, multiprogram fall festival, totally identified with the Athenaeum and one of the sparks that launched a citywide dance revival. But in 2003 Lookingglass moved to its own theater in the Water Tower pumping station. In 2004 COT began performing at Millennium Park's Harris Theater. And in 2009 the unthinkable happened: Dance Chicago divorced itself from the Athenaeum and began spreading its festival out at various locations, including Stage 773, the new entity at the former Theatre Building Chicago. The explanation Schmitz volunteers is that "the economy collapsed and I had to scale the shows back to a more cost-effective theater." Meanwhile, smaller companies—the Athenaeum's bread and butter—were bailing as well; battered by the economy and missing their customary grant money, they gave up offices and scaled back their seasons.

"It's been rough," Solari says. "People keep crying poor." He says his own late rent checks to the church "precipitated" the change in management, though there's six years remaining on his father's lease.

Kennedy, who says he knows "a lot about the building, but nothing about the theater business," is handling the office rentals (there are nine office tenants now, with room for about five more). Schmitz, who's suddenly bringing the biggest Dance Chicago events back to the Athenaeum (and says the festival will soon have its permanent home there again), is overseeing the introduction of a new source of revenue: rehearsal space that includes three dance studios with sprung floors carved out of Lookingglass's former quarters on the third floor. He'll take care of rentals for those while Mazzonelli books theater companies into the main stage (at about $2,500 per performance for a full production) and the three black boxes (at $950 per week). They're looking for a ticketing service that'll cost less than the current arrangement with Ticketmaster, and they have a new-economy staffing structure: everybody's an independent contractor or consultant. The only real Athenaeum employees, Kennedy says, are two maintenance people.

Mazzonelli says they'll be "testing stuff out," through the end of the year, but "pretty much ready to roll by October 1." After a few sleepy years, she says, "You're going to see some new activity at the Athenaeum."

Meanwhile, Chicago Muse—the organization launched by Theatre Building Chicago's board after they ousted Mazzonelli, sold the organization's longtime home on Belmont, and gave its mission a makeover—appears to have gone missing. After sinking a bunch of the proceeds from the building's sale into one flashy production of an imported-from-New York musical-theater flop last fall, its website has vanished, along with its office and staff. Word is that the Chicago Muse board is trying to arrange a merger. Meanwhile, a chair's been pulled out of the Chicago theater circle, and a question's hanging in the air: What happened to the money? 

disaacs@chicagoreader.com

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