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Tricked Out/ Meanwhile, Back at the MCA...

Where was the magic? Not at the Mercury Theater.



Three weeks ago illusionist Pete Jensen arrived in Chicago with an evocative ad campaign and a truckful of props, hoping to strike it rich with a show called Jensen Magic. The 27-year-old Texan was booked for a six-week run at the Mercury Theater, with an opening date of May 3. But the night before the press show, Jensen Magic disappeared; three days later the truck was heading back to Texas, along with Jensen and his manager, Willia Browning. "We decided to shut down in Chicago, and that's all I really have to say about what happened," said Browning, speaking last week from Dallas. But the story of Jensen Magic says a great deal about how marketing functions in contemporary theater--it's all done with mirrors.

In February Michael Cullen, owner of the Mercury, was desperate. He'd cut a deal with the producers of Triple Espresso, a frothy revue from Minnesota, expecting that the show would run well into 1998. But Triple Espresso closed after only two months, during New Year's week. Cullen didn't want his marquee empty when the theater could be pulling in as much as $7,000 a week in rental fees. Then he got a call from Jensen, a well-paid magician who'd done industrial and corporate shows around the world. "He wanted to come to Chicago and was looking at a number of venues," Cullen recalls. Jensen was tired of corporate work and dreamed of putting on a show that might elevate him to the celebrity ranks of David Copperfield. He spoke of making Chicago the first booking of a national tour that would end in New York.

Cullen agreed to look at Jensen's brochures and videocassette, and he found the video particularly impressive: "It was slick, much better than what we get from a lot of people looking to book our theater." Several weeks later Jensen came to town to inspect the 300-seat house; he liked the idea of bringing the audience close in to the magic onstage, and he proposed a four-week run. Cullen urged him to book the theater for six weeks, to allow more time to polish the production, and Jensen agreed. Cullen collected a nonrefundable deposit of $40,000, secretly hoping that Jensen Magic would last until the fall, when he and his partner, Sheila Henaghan, hope to open a show of their own.

Back in Dallas, Jensen and Browning held a marketing strategy session with Paul Black, creative director at the Dallas design firm Squires & Company. Black never saw the show, but his clients told him it was based on 1930s vaudeville. The company came up with 20 possible advertising images; Jensen and Browning immediately focused on a sleek silhouette of a gentleman wearing a fedora, from whose cigar curled a plume of smoke in the shape of a question mark. "The image had a retro feel," explains Black, "but seemed contemporary at the same time." When the ad appeared in Chicago in early April, it was an eye grabber, but it didn't sell many tickets. According to one source, the show was pulling in no more than $200 a day--about six tickets. Cullen will say only that the show's total advance was under $10,000, a paltry sum for a theater the size of the Mercury. Henaghan argues that the low advance wasn't surprising: "Nobody, after all, knew who this guy Jensen was."

The illusionist pulled into town in late April, with the first preview scheduled for Tuesday, April 28. Jensen hired Karen Leahy, one of the city's top general managers, and press agent Cheryl Lewin, who lined up a puff piece in the Tribune describing "big sets...a hip and jazzy sound track...a neoclassical, cigar-smokin' swank persona." Jensen even took the trouble to distance himself from Copperfield. "An audience shouldn't be 200 yards away when it's watching magic," he told the Trib. "I like to have my audience close enough so that they can see me sweat."

After the first preview Jensen had plenty to sweat over. "It was tremendously amateurish, with the quality of a Great America show," says one hotel executive who attended. Though all the tricks seemed to work that evening, some apparently began to malfunction later in the week. By Friday, two days before the press opening, Jensen and Browning were panicked, and Cullen could see his booking collapsing in front of him. On Saturday afternoon Jensen decided to shut down the show. "Those reviews would have followed him around the rest of his life," explains Cullen, who at the very least has a $40,000 deposit to soften the blow. Last week Jensen was lying low in Dallas, with nothing up his sleeve, it turns out, but an ad campaign.

Meanwhile, Back at the MCA

The best and the brightest continue to head for the exits at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Amada Cruz, acting chief curator, has announced that she will leave at the end of July for Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, where she will direct the museum at the college's Center for Curatorial Studies and Art in Contemporary Culture. Cruz was named acting chief at the MCA in February 1997, after chief curator Richard Francis resigned. Lucinda Barnes, the curator of collections, left the museum two months ago, so Cruz's departure will leave the museum with only one full curator, Lynne Warren, who reportedly keeps only a part-time schedule. Three other staffers hold the title of assistant curator.

According to an MCA spokesperson, Cruz intends to return to the MCA to help open two future exhibits: sculpture, photography, and videos by Jana Sterbak, which opens in October, and sculpture by Katharina Fritsch, which opens next March. Museum director Kevin Consey will leave this fall when his contract expires; this latest shake-up means that his replacement, who should be chosen this summer, will have to rebuild the curatorial department almost from scratch.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Mercury Theater photo by Nathan Mandell.

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