With the Joffrey leaving, what’s the future of the Auditorium Theatre? | On Culture | Chicago Reader

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With the Joffrey leaving, what’s the future of the Auditorium Theatre?

The ballet company will head for a new home in 2020, and the historic venue needs to figure out how to replace it.

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The Auditorium Theatre—that massive, stony hunk of Chicago history—celebrated the anniversary of a rebirth earlier this month with an evening of spectacular dance by members of 14 top national and international companies, including Alvin Ailey, Berlin State Ballet, and American Ballet Theatre. Also on the bill were some familiar pleas for financial support.

The behemoth, designed by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan and first opened in 1889, needs some work. Again. And it won't be cheap. When you're 128 years old and you've been neglected, there's no quick fix.

The November 12 gala, put together by CEO Tania Castroverde Moskalenko, marked the 50th anniversary of the Auditorium's 1967 reopening. At that time the decrepit theater, owned by Roosevelt University, had been shuttered for more than two decades. It was brought back to life thanks largely to the efforts of a single woman—Roosevelt University trustee Beatrice Spachner, who made it her personal crusade. Spachner founded the nonprofit Auditorium Theatre Council to support and run the theater, and worked for years to raise the money for its restoration.

The '67 reopening event was a New York City Ballet performance featuring legendary dancers Edward Villella and Suzanne Farrell. Villella, back for the gala last week, took the stage, looked out at a packed audience under the Auditorium's distinctive concentric arches of golden lights, and declared that he'd danced all over the world, "but never in a theater like this." Castroverde Moskalenko followed up with a request for support that'll keep the national historic landmark "glittering and great."

The celebration came on the heels of some unexpected news, however. The Joffrey Ballet, which has been the Auditorium Theatre's prestigious resident company for 22 years (in what seemed like a perfect pairing), will dump the Auditorium at the start of the 2020-'21 season and move in with Lyric Opera.

Castroverde Moskalenko, who's only been on the job for a year, says the move came as a surprise to her. In an interview last week, she told me she'd heard some rumors in the spring and had asked Joffrey officials about it in May, but was told they were "just exploring options." After that, Castroverde Moskalenko says, she heard nothing more until she got a phone call from the Tribune asking for comment on the departure. On September 22, Lyric and Joffrey issued a joint announcement of a seven-year rental agreement. Joffrey artistic director Ashley Wheater was quoted as saying that the opera house's "backstage assets" alone will take the dance company to "new levels of artistry."

Castroverde Moskalenko says the three-year notice gives her board enough time to come up with a new strategic plan for the Auditorium (which now functions variously as rental house, presenter, and producer), and will "allow us to reimagine our future." At this point, she adds, "I don't know what that plan is."

When it originally opened, the Auditorium building included office and hotel space and was said to be one of the world's first mixed-use facilities. It put Chicago on the map as an up-and-coming cultural hub, lending it the prominence that landed the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. The Auditorium's 17-story tower was the city's tallest structure, and the interior boasted eye-popping innovations, like 3,500 electric lightbulbs, air cooling (thanks to 15 tons of ice, replenished daily), 26 hydraulic lifts under the stage, and a democratically designed 4,200-seat house (now 3,900) that put the expensive box seats at a 90-degree angle to the stage and gave the cheaper seats the good views.

By the 1930s, when its original opera and symphony tenants had long since moved into their own buildings and its shared hotel bathrooms were out of favor, the Auditorium Building had fallen into bankruptcy and disrepair. The city took it over and turned it into a servicemen's center during World War II, converting the stage to a bowling alley. Roosevelt University acquired it in 1946, and moved its classes and offices into the hotel and office space. In the 1990s, a new crisis arose: then president Theodore Gross, looking for money to build a suburban campus, signaled that he might dip into the theater's funds. Several members of the Auditorium Theatre Council took Roosevelt to court, waging a lengthy battle for control of the venue that ended with a state supreme court decision in 2002 affirming the university's ownership.

Roosevelt is now dealing with its own financial troubles, mostly stemming from debt taken on to build a new landmark—an adjacent, glassy blue tower with a zigzag profile that's primarily used for student housing. The theater has been operating at a loss in recent years. Castroverde Moskolenko says fiscal year 2017 reversed the trend, closing with a balanced budget of about $14 million, but raising money for restoration and maintenance is an ongoing project. And Castroverde Moskalenko doesn't yet know how much she'll need.

Still, she doesn't want to dwell on the Joffrey's exit. The Joffrey and the Auditorium are wedded in the local public mind, she says, "but the Joffrey is here 14 weeks out of a 52-week year. It's not everything we do."

It's not what makes the theater important to the larger world. Last week, the National Trust for Historic Preservation bused the 1,500 attendees at its annual conference to the Auditorium for the main session. Amid concerns about a House tax reform bill that eliminates the tax credit for historic preservation that has fueled much of its work, trust president Stephanie Meeks recalled the 1960s rescue of this unique building, which was named a National Historic Landmark in 1975.

Looking to inspire her audience for the potentially more difficult long haul, Meeks told them, "This room is filled with Beatrice Spachners."  v

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