"This is no longer a ma-and-pa operation," says Marjorie Craig Benton, chairman of the board for the Old Town School of Folk Music. The "pa" in this case is executive director Jim Hirsch; the "ma" is his wife, Michelle Hirsch, who in May was asked to step down by the school's board after 11 years as financial director. Both she and Benton stressed that the board's action was no reflection on her performance but a precaution to prevent any conflict of interest from arising in the future. Hirsch says she had no idea the board was considering an antinepotism rule, though Benton says board members had discussed it on and off for more than a year.
Hirsch is credited with handling the school's finances as it grew from a $250,000-a-year operation in the late 1980s to one with a budget of more than $5 million; last fall the school opened the Chicago Folk Center south of Lincoln and Wilson, raising nearly $8 million to renovate the former Hild Library building and increasing its operating budget by more than a third. Hirsch has returned to her old job as a math teacher at Francis Parker Academy, while her husband and the board recently began interviewing candidates to replace her as financial director. "I certainly wasn't in the job for the glory," says Michelle Hirsch. "It was always a labor of love."
Northlight Theatre's upcoming production of Side Show, the bittersweet musical about Siamese twins, has experienced a sideshow of its own. In late August, after casting the play, director Victoria Bussert notified Northlight artistic director B.J. Jones that she was quitting. Jones insists he had no warning but does remember Bussert saying at some point, "I think you want to codirect this show." He says he gave Bussert free rein in casting the production and agreed to most of the designers she wanted but nixed her plan to import a New York choreographer. "It was just going to be cost prohibitive," explains Jones. Bussert directed several well-received musicals at Pegasus Players in the early 90s and went on to numerous directing assignments in Cleveland, including a production of Side Show. "I was able to realize my vision there," says Bussert. She describes the situation at Northlight as "really a personal thing, because I had a feeling B.J. and I were seeing things differently."
Despite some highly favorable reviews and a score by Dreamgirls composer Henry Krieger, the 1997 Broadway production of Side Show ran less than three months. The play has since developed a cult following in theatrical circles; Jones fell in love with it after seeing a production last fall in Palo Alto, California. He's replaced Bussert with Philadelphia director Joe Leonardo, whose Chicago credits include Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? and Sweeney Todd, both at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. Jones says that Leonardo was on his shortlist originally but lost out to Bussert because his fee was too high; the two have since come to "a new agreement." The show is scheduled to open at Northlight in May 2000.
Once a shining light on the local theater scene, Dulcie Gilmore has quietly left her job as general manager of the Oriental Theatre, following its acquisition by New York-based SFX Entertainment, Inc. The Oriental staff was interviewed for positions after SFX bought the theater from the bankrupt Livent Inc., but Gilmore was among those cut loose. She could not be reached for comment, but according to one source she was hurt by her membership in the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers, which guarantees her a higher salary: "SFX isn't into paying that kind of money to union members to run theaters."
In the late 80s and early 90s Gilmore served as executive director of the Auditorium, winning considerable praise for renovating the decrepit theater and reversing its precarious financial situation with three smash hits: Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, and The Phantom of the Opera. But Gilmore was also involved in a controversy in 1992 over an arrangement devised by two former Ticketron executives to broker prime seats to Miss Saigon at inflated prices. Amid rumors of tension between her and the Auditorium Theatre Council, which operates the theater, Gilmore left the Auditorium in July 1997, and since then she's kept a much lower profile.
Her departure from the Oriental has also fueled speculation that SFX might merge the staffs of the Oriental and the Palace Theatre, which it co-owns with Fox Theatricals. Fox has already taken over group sales for the Oriental, though Fox producer Michael Leavitt says that right now his organization is too busy readying the Palace for its December opening to consider the matter.
Successful touring musicals are scarce these days, but Jan Kallish, executive director of the Auditorium Theatre, hopes to keep the venue lit with a series of semistaged musical concerts similar to the "Encores!" series at New York's City Center. Sources familiar with Kallish's plan say the Auditorium's "Ovations" series would present two or three musicals, limited to five or six performances each, with actors dressed in black reading from scripts. Kallish has asked various members of the local theater community to join an advisory board that will organize the series, and Dan McMahon, director of marketing for the Auditorium, confirms that the theater is exploring the idea for the 1999-2000 season. In a letter to one potential adviser, Kallish said the series would cost between $300,000 and $350,000, a major financial risk for a theater that's still the object of a legal tug-of-war between the Auditorium Theatre Council and Roosevelt University. (The ATC has appealed the case.) "Encores!" was hugely popular and spawned the hit revival of Bob Fosse's Chicago, but press reports attribute the success of the series to the talent involved rather than the format. As of now, the Auditorium's only theatrical booking is a four-week run of Miss Saigon scheduled for next summer.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Dan Machnik/Dorothy Perry/Jon Randolph.