For the past four years Karen Bauman has been a contract administrator in the legal department at Harpo Productions, Inc., securing the rights to materials used on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Working for the city's most prominent entertainer has given her considerable experience behind the scenes, but now Bauman has produced a show of her own. The Shadow, a stage adaptation of the old radio mystery, opened July 15 at the Athenaeum Theatre's studio and is drawing sellout crowds on the weekend. Directed by John Hildreth, an ensemble member of Lifeline Theatre, the show re-creates the experience of seeing a staged radio play, with live organ music and sound effects. "Even the corny dialogue and offstage schmoozing have contemporary comic appeal," wrote Reader critic Kim Wilson. The show has been drawing an older crowd who no doubt remember the original. According to Bauman, one 83-year-old woman wanted to see the show so badly that she changed buses three times to reach the theater.
For Bauman this has been a long time coming. A native of Chicago, she earned a broadcasting degree from the University of Wisconsin and during the late 80s worked as a production assistant on the ABC sitcom Mr. Belvedere. Her career stalled after the series ended in 1990, but by 1996 she'd returned to Chicago and landed a job at Harpo. She met Hildreth, a founding member of the now-defunct comedy troupe Cardiff Giant, when she enrolled in his improv class at Second City. In 1998, Bauman founded AKA Rachel Productions (Bob Uecker, a star of Mr. Belvedere, had nicknamed her "AKA Rachel" to distinguish her from another Karen on the show), and last year Hildreth approached her with the idea of staging The Shadow. "If I sold out every seat till the end of the run, I might clear $50," she admits. But it's a start, and now that AKA Rachel has a track record, Bauman hopes it will be more attractive to investors.
The radio series aired on the Mutual Broadcasting System from 1930 to 1954, but unlike other radio heroes the Shadow never made the transition to television (a movie adaptation with Alec Baldwin bombed in 1994). Hildreth says he got the idea for the stage version from Chuck Schaden's old-time-radio show on WNIB FM. "When one of the Shadow segments came on, I just stopped working and listened for 30 minutes." He dug up about two dozen episodes from various sources, including the Museum of Broadcast Communications at the Chicago Cultural Center, and chose two of them as the centerpiece of his adaptation. Bauman says she looked at his proposal and without much hesitation decided to put up the entire $17,000 production budget herself: "I trusted John and his instincts." Apparently his instincts were right: because of a previous booking at the Athenaeum studio, The Shadow must close August 20, but Bauman and Fred Solari, the theater's general manager, are already discussing the possibility of a return engagement in January 2001.
Lost in Translation
Serious playwrights who live and work in the Chicago area rarely see their work produced in New York; artists like David Mamet, Scott McPherson, Tracy Letts, and John Logan are more the exception than the rule. Rebecca Gilman joined that select fraternity recently when Spinning Into Butter made its New York debut at Lincoln Center. The play, about the white faculty of a small New England college trying to deal with harassment of a minority student, opened at the Goodman studio in May 1999, and some local critics were wowed by a blunt second-act monologue in which a white college dean reveals her own racist feelings. Gushed Richard Christiansen of the Tribune, "In its sharp intelligence and dumbfounding honesty, it's unlike any play about our deep racial divisions that I've ever seen."
The New York dailies weren't impressed. Margo Jefferson's noncommittal review in the New York Times mostly summarized the plot, with a puzzling digression about a white friend who found the play "programmatic." Linda Winer of Newsday was much clearer, calling Spinning Into Butter "a thoughtful but simpleminded play that keeps wishing it were dynamite." And Donald Lyons, writing in the New York Post, even worked in a backhanded slap at Chicago theatergoers: "It is, in addition to being perverse, dramatically clumsy--though it was somehow a hit in Chicago." Only the Daily News was positive, though stringer David Kaufman still noted the play's "contrivances."
Now Chris Jones may have to find a new cause. The local theater critic and reporter discovered Gilman in 1996 when her play The Glory of Living was performed at Circle Theatre, and he's championed her work in numerous publications, including the Tribune, Variety, Stagebill, and American Theatre. Before Spinning Into Butter opened at Lincoln Center, Jones even wrote a profile of Gilman for the Sunday New York Times in which he suggested that the playwright would earn a pile of money from regional productions of the play. Now that's spinning.
For nearly 20 years Potbelly Sandwich Works was a quaint shop in Lincoln Park. But in 1995 entrepreneur Bryant Keil was waiting to buy a sandwich when he saw owner Peter Hastings stoking the shop's namesake stove. "I went up and asked him why he hadn't opened any more stores," remembers Keil, "and he said he hadn't met the right person." Keil replied, "You have now."
Keil had already turned around Room Service Deliveries, a company that transported meals from a variety of fine restaurants to its patrons' private residences, and he made Hastings an offer on Potbelly. The two men spent a year ironing out a final sales agreement, and since then Keil has opened four more shops, including one on Webster at Clybourn and another in the Loop. A sixth is set to open on North Michigan in September, and in the next 18 months Keil and his investment partners expect to open between 20 and 30 more in Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. Keil hasn't changed much about what made the original Potbelly a success: prices for large submarine sandwiches have jumped only a dime, to $3.59.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.