News & Politics » Deanna Isaacs on Culture

Theatre Historical Society plans move to Pittsburgh, members say it’s been hijacked

The museum has been housed above Elmhurst's York Theatre since 1991.


Elmhurst's Theatre Historical Society in 2010 - SUN-TIMES MEDIA
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  • Elmhurst's Theatre Historical Society in 2010


hile we've been stewing over the fate of the Lucas Museum, a venerable institution at the other end of the museum spectrum has made its own plans to exit the Chicago area.

Allowing for the smaller scale, its plans are equally contentious.

The Theatre Historical Society of America, housed since 1991 above the vintage York Theatre in Elmhurst, announced earlier this year that it's getting ready to pack up its museum and archives and move to what it says is a more suitable and more urban location—in Pittsburgh.

After considering 38 cities, including Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C., the society settled on the former home of its current executive director, Rick Fosbrink, where it plans to rent space in the Smithsonian-affiliated Heinz History Center while gearing up to eventually build its own museum, the National Center for Theatre History.

At the society's annual meeting at the Palmer House last week, that decision topped a list of complaints by members who say the organization has been hijacked by its staff, while dedicated volunteers, historically integral to its operation, have been "thrown under the bus," as one member put it.

The problems all started after the society, with a largely old-white-guy membership and a hardscrabble budget, came into a plummy inheritance.

The heated two-and-a-half-hour session has been posted on YouTube, where it ought to have a good run as a nonprofit-management case study on the perils of—take your pick—a runaway administration or a rebellious membership.

The Theatre Historical Society of America was founded in 1969 by New York journalist Ben Hall. He used his own 1960 book about American movie palaces, The Best Remaining Seats, as a springboard for an organization that would be an archive and publisher of theater history. After he was found murdered in his Christopher Street apartment in 1970, another theater aficionado, Brother Andrew Corsini Fowler, took charge. The archive was then housed with his order, the Congregation of Holy Cross, first in Washington, D.C., then at Notre Dame University. It then went to the basement of Saint Paul's Lutheran Church in Wicker Park before landing above the York, where both its archive, with more than 100,000 pieces, and a small museum (with displays that have included a scale model of the auditorium of the south side's old Avalon Regal Theater) were available to the public. About 1,000 people a year make their way up the steep staircase, according to the historical society.

For decades, the society got along with a single staff member—executive director Richard Sklenar—a minuscule budget, and a lot of volunteer help from its members. But Sklenar retired four years ago, not long after several members died and left the historical society some substantial money (including nearly $1 million alone from a member named Ken Lufkin). Fosbrink was hired, and, members say, expenses began to rise. (Fosbrink, whisking through the 2015 finances at the meeting without the benefit of PowerPoint or slides, reported a deficit of more than $200,000.)

—Theatre Historical Society board president Craig Morrison

At the same time, the limitations of the Elmhurst location became an issue. In a statement announcing the move, the board noted that the current space is not large enough for the growing collections, not optimal for preservation or accessibility, and not fireproof.

But members say they weren't consulted about the move or involved in the selection process, and haven't approved it. Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago and a former historical society board member, says he reached out to several Chicago institutions with the hope of brokering a move to the city, but that those efforts weren't fruitful. He left the board last year "after it became clear to me that decisions had already been made." That was a disappointment, Miller says: "This is a great Chicago asset that should remain in Chicago."

Irate speakers at the members' meeting included former Music Box Theatre co-owner Chris Carlo, who said that Fosbrink "was hired to come to Elmhurst to work . . . not to take THS to Pittsburgh, where he came from and where he has already purchased a home." No one refuted that claim.

"We've always been a volunteer organization," Carlo said at the meeting. "Now that we inherited money, you're paying for an unknowledgeable staff, an inept editor"—of the group's quarterly journal—and organizers for its annual four-day theater tour—which, Carlo argued, volunteers had always handled better.

The board was also presented with a petition calling for the historical society to be transparent and "volunteer-led" on everything from assessment of staff to any decision on moving.

But board president Craig Morrison said the move would take the society from "a hobbyist man cave" to "a serious museum," and is part of a strategic plan made because "we don't want the society to die out with us."

Speakers who took the floor to defend the board included Morrison's wife, Deborah Kinzer. She suggested that all this dissent is merely the result of "hurt feelings" fomented by a previous board president who was not at the meeting.

That claim got another former board president, Lowell Angell, on his feet. "I wasn't planning to talk," Angell said, adding that he's trying to keep an open mind, but "this has been a layman-member-led situation."

Neither Fosbrink nor Morrison was available to comment for this story. A historical society spokesman dismissed the petition, claiming that at least half the 150 people who had signed it as of Tuesday "were never members," but says the planned move to Pittsburgh isn't final yet.  v

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