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Condos or live theater at Belmont and Broadway? The answer may hinge on two penises from Australia.

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The operators of the Lakeshore Theater, the latest venture to move into the old movie house at 3175 N. Broadway, have booked for a February opening Puppetry of the Penis, an off-Broadway hit featuring two naked Aussies performing various "dick tricks."

"OK, so it's not for everyone," says Lakeshore's managing director, Richard Friedman. "Call it a hunch, but I'm telling you, I think it's going to be big."

Friedman has learned a lot about what succeeds after almost 20 years overseeing operations at two local theaters. He got his start in the mid-80s as the managing director of the Organic Theater. "I'm not an actor, I'm not a playwright," he says. "I'm a gambler. I love the action of running a theater. I love calling people up and trying to make arrangements and trying to come up with win-win scenarios, trying to calculate what you have to do to find the hit. You're always looking for that hit. And we had some good shows at the Organic. We remounted Bleacher Bums. We did Do the White Thing. But it was always feast or famine at Organic. If we had a hit we were in high cotton. If we didn't we were trying to figure out how to pay our bills."

In 1992 Friedman went to work as managing director at the Northlight Theatre, then based in Evanston. In his early years there he again walked a tightrope, particularly after the theater's deal to move to a space at National-Louis University in Evanston fell through. "We were nomads for two years after our deal with the college fell apart," he says. "Just keeping alive while we moved from one stage to another was a major success."

In 1996 Northlight moved to its current location in Skokie and built a stable pool of subscribers. Last spring Friedman left. "I had a great run at Northlight--I'm really proud of the work I did there," he says. "But both sides agreed it was time for a change--for me and them."

Soon after he left, Friedman got a call from Chris Ritter, then the company manager for the show Over the Tavern, playing at the Mercury Theater. "I used to be an actor," says Ritter. "I guess I'm a recovering actor. My father's a professor of theater, and my mom's an actress--I'm cursed from birth. But for the last few years I've worked on the business side of theater."

Ritter suggested that Friedman join him in taking over the theater on Broadway. "Rich and I are old poker-playing friends--in fact he hired me to do marketing at Northlight years ago," says Ritter. "I called him up and said, 'This is a great opportunity.'"

At the time the theater was shuttered. Throughout the 70s and 80s it had been a popular one-screen movie theater, with a strong base of walk-up patrons from the high-rises to the east. "It had a great location with all the restaurants along Broadway," says Friedman. "You could see a movie and grab a bite. But the one screen killed them--you have to have more than one screen to make a go these days."

In 2001 the landlord, Sam Marcos, rented the theater to a producer who staged the gender-bender rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which had a brief run. "Some landlords might have demolished the theater for condos, but Sam Marcos is a different breed of landlord," says Ritter. "He's old school in this regard. He wants to hold on to a building forever. He's not interested in tearing it down."

Ritter figured he could oversee the day-to-day operations if Friedman could bring in the financial backers. One of the first calls Friedman made was to Craig Golden, a 44-year-old developer who was undergoing his own sort of midlife identity crisis. "I love my business, but I was getting a little restless," he says. "I wanted to do something a little different. I'm not making this up. The guys in my office were telling me, 'You gotta get a sports car.' We were actually looking up sports cars on the Web when Richard called."

Within a few weeks Ritter, Friedman, Golden, and Golden's business partner, Scott Goodman, had formed a partnership to run the Lakeshore. They signed a long-term lease with Marcos and spent about $250,000 fixing up the theater.

On October 4 they opened with a one-man show featuring playwright John R. Powers, who mixed motivational speeches with recollections from his childhood. "That show did OK, but yes, it wasn't a big hit," says Friedman. "It ran for about seven weeks." So in mid-November they were without a show. "We didn't want to be dark for the holidays, so I called [folksinger] Jim Post and said, 'Let's do your Christmas show.'"

Post's show, The Heart of Christmas, runs through January 5. "Jim's great, and he'll do well for us over the holidays," says Friedman. "But we're still looking for that hit, still searching for the show--that Blue Man Group, that Forever Plaid--to put us on the map."

It was Friedman's idea to look into the penis show. "I'd read about it in the New York papers--it was a big hit off-Broadway, and before that it was a big hit in London," he says. "But then you think, Is this the right show to start with? I mean, for better or worse, if we get this show we're going to be known as the place running the show about the guys and their penises."

Friedman decided the show was worth the risk after he saw its creator, Simon Morley, on Jay Leno's show. According to what Morley told Leno, the art of penis puppetry is some sort of Australian thing guys do after hours of drinking. "I don't know a lot about the origins, but I do know that all of the actors who have ever done the roles are Aussies," says Friedman. "When I saw Morley on Leno I figured, it's in the mainstream. I mean, it had played well in Australia, England, Canada, New York, and LA. It should do well here. I wasn't the only one who thought so--there were other theaters in Chicago looking to get it. But the producer came out here, and he liked our space."

As Lewis Segal described the show in the Los Angeles Times, Morley and David Friend "stretched, twisted, bent and mashed what used to be their private parts into the delirious public 'installations' (their words) previously on view in Melbourne, Edinburgh, London, Montreal, Toronto and New York. A winking eye, the Eiffel Tower, a hamburger, the Loch Ness Monster, a turtle coming out of its shell: Enlarged by simultaneous video projection, Friend and Morley's dexterity in what they call 'genital origami' achieved a lunatic virtuosity through their hourlong set."

Friedman notes that his theater is on the edge of Boys Town and that other producers have had success catering to the gay theatergoing crowd. A current hit at Bailiwick, 1229 W. Belmont, is Naked Boys Singing!, a revue of 16 songs performed by eight naked men. "Naked Boys Singing! draws a big gay crowd, but I don't think Puppetry has a core gay audience--at least it hasn't been that way in other cities," he says. "I'm not sure why, but all sorts of people will want to see this show."

"You know what it is? It's two comics doing balloon animals without balloons," says Ritter. "When Richard suggested the show to me he said, 'It's about penises.' I said, 'I've got one. I can relate.'"

"When we got into this venture we said, 'We want to produce art,'" adds Golden. "By art we mean that which we cannot do. This show falls into that category."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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