Earlier this month, the Chicago Park District announced that it had signed an agreement with George Lucas about how things will work when—um, if—he gets permission to build his Lucas Museum of Narrative Art on its lakefront land.
A day later, another announcement about the Lucas Museum arrived in my e-mail. This one, from a public relations firm, touted the launch of a grassroots organization that's going to serve as the Lucas Museum's pep squad. According to the announcement, the Friends of Lucas Museum will be made up of "Chicago residents, community organizations, arts and cultural partners, business and non-profit leaders."
Like any new volunteer group, FLM is looking for members, but it already has three cochairs, one of whom is Kurt Summers, who also happened to be cochair of the task force Mayor Emanuel appointed earlier this year to hunt down a nice Chicago site for the museum.
That task force looked all around and hit on the lakefront parkland between Soldier Field and McCormick Place, prompting the opposition of another, much older volunteer organization, Friends of the Parks, which is mulling a possible lawsuit to prevent the Lucas Museum from building on land that they say is legally required to remain open.
Which is one reason why the Lucas Museum is going to need some friends.
Summers also happens to work for Grosvenor Capital Management, the hedge fund headed by mayoral friend and frequent adviser Michael Sacks. Together with his employees and their families, Sacks has donated about $700,000 to Emanuel's campaign committee, and he also serves as the mayorally anointed vice chairman of the World Business Council, the city's prestigious and powerful economic development arm (Emanuel himself is chair).
Before he went to work for Sacks, Summers was Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle's chief of staff (it's such a small world in the big city). He was also the guy in charge of Chicago's 2016 Olympic bid, which might not bode so well.
The other two cochairs are Field Museum president Richard Lariviere and Susana Vasquez, executive director of the Chicago office of LISC, a national community development organization.
Friends of Lucas already has its mission too: "To outline the potential benefits of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art and the tremendous impact it will have on Chicago's arts and cultural scene, surrounding educational institutions and the region's tourism and economic climate."
The announcement directed readers to the website, friendsoflucasmuseum.com, for more information. That turned out to be disappointing—there wasn't any additional material, just a space to fill in your name and e-mail address for "future updates."
But there was a pleasant surprise: a lovely picture of the Chicago skyline as seen from the north. Not the view from the stretch of museum-campus lakefront that the Lucas Museum is hoping to settle on, but a totally different sweep of Park District land, with a very nice image of Theater on the Lake in the foreground.
That seemed like an odd coincidence, because if there was ever a facility on Park District property that could use a few friends, Theater on the Lake is it.
I saw a great TOL show this summer—a remount of Theo Ubique's A Cole Porter Songbook, brimming with talent, but it wasn't actually at Theater on the Lake. It was in the tiny coach-house theater at Edgewater's Berger Park Cultural Center. Theater on the Lake's own building has been closed for the entire 2014 season.
A Cole Porter Songbook had sold out in its original run, which made it a prime candidate for TOL, whose mission is to bring the best of Chicago's storefront theater to a wider audience through limited-run summer revivals. The show sold out at the 70-seat Berger Center too—the line for walk-up tickets had formed early, and I was lucky to score one of the last three seats available.
At 280 seats, Theater on the Lake would have accommodated a lot more of us, but it's awaiting renovations announced by the mayor last November. That's when Emanuel said proposals would be sought for an ambitious public-private makeover that would turn TOL into a year-round venue and tie into an Army Corps of Engineers antiflooding project (as yet unstarted) that'll add six acres of landfill to the shore.
If there was ever a facility on Park District property that could use a few friends, Theater on the Lake is it.
So this year, no subscriptions were offered, but TOL had a season of one-week runs of six plays at three other Park District venues, with ticket prices dropped to just $10.
This is an old story—Theater on the Lake has long been something of a white elephant. The Prairie-style building with an open-air pavilion was built in 1920 as a rehab facility for babies with tuberculosis; the Park District has operated it as a theater since the 1950s. Its problems, besides the deterioration that comes with age and neglect, include noise from adjacent Lake Shore Drive and stifling heat in warmer months (there is, of course, no air-conditioning). The Park District paid to have plans drawn for a $6 million renovation back in 2006, then shelved the project. The last time I wrote about it, in 2012, it had acquired a new managing director and a new coat of paint, but not much else.
In February, the Park District issued a call for proposals that lumped the theater renovation together with the design, construction, and operation of a restaurant in the building, which meant that interested architects would have to partner with restaurateurs.
The idea is that a full-service, year-round restaurant in the space (it's had a cafe in the past) could subsidize the theater. But though the site is stunning, it's relatively isolated: parking is across Lake Shore Drive, and there's no public transportation to the door. Word is that experienced restaurateurs are leery. Nevertheless, more than a hundred potential developers asked for information.
How many of them actually applied is a mystery at this point. Although the original deadline came and went in June, no one has been selected, and the Park District isn't commenting except to say that it's "evaluating the proposals." How many proposals? Officials aren't saying.
Theater on the Lake once had a little group of friends of its own that had raised some money for it and was looking out for the theater's interests. Maybe some of the Lucas Museum's supporters, looking at this lovely picture, will be interested in the fate of a historic institution that's already here. Theater on the Lake has its own narrative arts mission, perfectly suited to this great theater town.
In the meantime, the Park District says it will soon be holding public meetings on plans for the museum campus and the Lucas Museum, beginning on a yet-to-be-announced date next month.