Fat Lady Singing at Chicago Opera Theater?
In its moment of crisis, the board of directors of Chicago Opera Theater has opted to ask the public to help cover liabilities that have ballooned to more than $550,000. The decision was made at an emergency meeting last weekend, at which more than 40 COT board members also managed to drum up outside pledges and contribute out of their own pockets a total of $308,500. The company is asking the public to contribute another $300,000 by March 15.
The money raised last Saturday will be used to cover the costs of Idomeneo, the first production of COT's regular season, scheduled to open February 13 at the Athenaeum Theatre. Approximately a third of the funds came from Joan Harris, a founding member of the COT board who left when she became the city's second commissioner of Cultural Affairs. Since leaving her post with the city, Harris has rejoined the board as an ex officio member.
Clearly, it is a do or die moment for COT. According to a source present at last Saturday's meeting, the possibility of closing down the company was hotly debated before the group decided to try to raise enough money for at least one more production. The brief press release issued after the meeting suggested that the fate of this season's remaining two scheduled operas hinges on the outcome of this last-ditch fund-raising pitch. "We want to do whatever we do in a way that is fiscally responsible," says COT general manager Mark Tiarks.
But the board's approach to the worsening crisis unfortunately demands much of its public. COT's last-minute plea for support comes without any formal explanation of how the company was plunged into such debt. (This column published the results of its own investigation last December 21.) The board has obviously had a tough time getting a grip on the organization's financial problems; the $70,000 loss incurred by the December revival of Where the Wild Things Are at the Chicago Theatre is only the most recent setback.
The press release mentioned in passing that a plan is being developed "to allow Chicago Opera Theater to operate with a healthy cash flow and within a balanced budget." Nice words, but certainly they come with no guarantee. Many COT fans may believe that what they have enjoyed in years past is worth digging into their wallets to try and save. But they should do so with the clear understanding that those dollars alone may not be enough.
Daley Administration Takes On Gangsters
Chicago has a gangster problem--at least according to the bureaucrats entrusted with protecting and enhancing the city's image. Mary Laney, director of the city's Office of Tourism, has banned all brochures promoting gangster-related tourist attractions from the display racks in the city's Water Tower tourism office. The move has angered several entrepreneurs in the city whose tourist-related businesses have gangster hooks. Among the businesses whose brochures are unwelcome in the tourism office are Tommy Gun's Garage, a "speakeasy" at 1237 S. State that serves up dinner and a lighthearted floor show with some gangster elements. Brochures for Untouchable Tours, which conducts tours to former gangster hangouts, also have been pulled from the racks. "I think it's a very ignorant move," says Sandy Mangen, owner of Tommy Gun's Garage.
Also at odds with Laney and her minions is Michael Graham, a history buff and businessman who has raised close to $4 million to open a Prohibition-era museum in River North that would include, among many other exhibit topics, a history of gangsters in Chicago. Graham says Laney doesn't like the project and has yet to grant him a hearing. "I think I'm at least owed that," says Graham, who fears city executives will make life difficult for him if he proceeds without their blessing.
Laney did not return repeated phone calls, but Terry Levin, a spokesman for executive director of special events Kathy Osterman (Laney's supervisor), confirmed the city is deadly serious about downplaying anything remotely related to gangsters. "It interferes with the perception of what Chicago really is," says Levin. Mayor Daley, in his travels overseas, has seen too many people mimic machine-gun fire when asked about Chicago, Levin added. But he said the city wouldn't necessarily nix a big-budget gangster movie using a Chicago location--that would generate jobs and revenue. Such is Laney and Osterman's enlightened--if inconsistent--approach to improving Chicago's image.
What's Next for the Civic Opera Building?
Will Dino D'Angelo stay in the arts business? Ownership of the Civic Opera Building--comprising the Civic Opera House, the Civic Theatre, and the Civic Studio--passed last week from D'Angelo to the Travelers insurance company. Neither party would comment on the exact nature of the transaction, leaving observers to speculate that D'Angelo fell behind in mortgage payments to the Connecticut-based insurer. Since 1983, D'Angelo has presented a range of cultural events in the three theaters under the banner of the not-for-profit Civic Center for Performing Arts (CCPA). The cultural impresario and real estate developer is keeping quiet about his future plans, and a Travelers spokesman in Hartford said it was too early to say what the company might want to do with the theaters in the complex. The Lyric recently extended its lease on the Civic Opera House and the Civic Theatre through 1999. One observer close to the situation said last week that the Lyric might consider buying the building if there is no momentum to build a new performing arts center in Chicago. A Lyric spokeswoman said she knew of no such discussion.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.