Veteran stage producer Michael Cullen, owner of the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport, has been extraordinarily generous with his space over the years, donating it for benefit performances, theater community meetings, and other events. Now Cullen needs other people's help. In January he suffered a stroke. He's currently at Schwab Rehabilitation Institute, undergoing extensive therapy to restore his powers of movement and speech, and he'll need more care when he returns home. Thing is, he's got neither health nor long-term care insurance, On Monday, April 19, the Royal George Theatre will host a benefit for Cullen featuring an entertainment line-up to be announced. Organizers of the benefit, which begins at 7:30 PM, are suggesting a $50-$75 donation. For more information or to donate directly, go to michaelcullenrecoveryfund.org.
A sometimes controversial figure, Cullen has played a leading role in the development of Chicago theater over the past four decades. I've known him since the early 1970s, when we both took a class in Anglo-Irish drama, taught by the late, great actor-director James O'Reilly at Columbia College. While still a grad student at the old Goodman School of Drama, he founded Travel Light Theatre, one of the earliest professional off-Loop troupes. The company indeed traveled light, performing at bars around the city before finding a permanent home at Theatre Building Chicago, which Cullen co-founded. He also helped establish the League of Chicago Theatres.
As a producer, his credits include well-remembered productions of James McClure's Lone Star, with Sigourney Weaver; Gretchen Cryer's feminist musical I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road, starring Cryer; Lily Tomlin's one-woman show Lily Tomlin: Appearing Nightly; and the musical Tintypes . In the 1980s, in partnership with Sheila Henaghan and Howard Platt, he coproduced a string of successes at the Apollo, Briar Street, and Royal George theaters, including Pump Boys and Dinettes, I'm Not Rappaport (starring Shelley Berman and Garrett Morris), A Couple of Blaguards, and the Chicago premiere of Driving Miss Daisy, starring Sada Thompson. (Over that production's long run, several actresses followed Thompson into the lead role, including Charlotte Rae—who took great pride in being the first Jewish actress to portray the Jewish Miss Daisy.)
Cullen has juggled crowd-pleasers with riskier shows. Two of his most memorable productions were financial flops: Some Things You Need to Know Before the World Ends: A Final Evening with the Illuminati—a bizarre and brilliant satire of end-times religious fanatics—and a 1989 touring production of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, which lost a bundle at the Body Politic. Though the Frankie and Johnnie had been an off-Broadway triumph, Chicago audiences didn't know anything about it or its leading lady, Kathy Bates. (I interviewed Bates during her stay here. As we chatted, her then-boyfriend, Tony Campisi, was on the phone in the next room talking to an agent about setting up an audition for a movie role. "Some Stephen King thing," he told her, referring to a proposed film version of King's Misery.)
At the Mercury, Cullen has put up such shows as The Last Night of Ballyhoo, Frank McCourt's The Irish . . . and How They Got That Way, and Belfast Blues. The most recent production there—Mark's Gospel, presented by the Fellowship for the Performing Arts—closed last June. The theater has been dark since then, but Cullen continued to run Cullen's, his popular Irish pub next door to the Mercury.
Cullen's situation provides an object lesson in the debate over health-care reform. A small business owner, he couldn't afford to purchase health insurance for himself or his employees. "He puts all his money back into his business," says one former Mercury staffer who's helping organize the benefit.