What Robert Morse needs right now is for Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney to knock on his door and exclaim: "Gosh, mister! We want to put on a show. If we pay you $ 15,000 a day for your big new studio, will you give us a chance to prove what we can do?"
"You want to rent it?" Robert Morse tells us. "I'll be your friend for life."
Morse, the general manager of WMAQ TV, has this wonderful space on his hands. It's the new NBC tower's Studio A, 11,000 square feet of soundstage under a 32-foot ceiling. We stood inside this immense, pristine, empty room and the air seemed to ring with possibilities. Let the cream of Chicago show business pour in here, and what wonders they could work! "Right now it's just a shell," says Morse. "No lights, cameras, equipment. . . . "The company's not willing to put the money into it until we've got a client."
Folks at Channel Five are given to describing Studio A as the biggest TV studio with state-of-the-art equipment (if not installed) between the coasts. Having talked to several of these folks, we remain uncertain whether it is a glittering new civic asset or a white elephant. Morse may wonder that himself. The one thing that will make up his mind is a terrific tenant, and until just a few days ago, Morse thought he had one. Paramount was working up a TV spin-off of John Hughes's Chicago-set teenflick Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and Hughes, a Chicago native, wanted the series to be not just set here but made here.
Paramount's original idea was to shoot Ferris Bueller in front of an audience, and Studio A is configured to accommodate one--halfway up one wall are doors that now lead to midair, but one day the public will parade through them to its seats. Paramount eventually dropped the live-audience idea, but state-of-the-art Studio A continued to look attractive. Paramount's other idea was to set up shop in shuttered New Trier West High School in Northfield. Then everything fell through. If Ferris Bueller the TV series is ever done at all, it'll almost certainly be done in Hollywood.
"It almost broke my heart," says Morse. "And we would have had to do nothing! All they wanted was the shell."
Morse longs for a production that will move in, set up, and occupy Studio A for months on end. Making the station a handsome sum while at the same time--to give this ambition a civic tinge--giving steady work at decent wages to the local acting and filmmaking communities.
Such an operation can have Studio A for about $5,000 a day. Fly-by-nighters like Judy and Mickey might have to go three times as high. "Commercials and training films--they're in there three days maximum and they're out," Morse explains. "And one shoot doesn't relate to another. It's a constant hustle to fill the space. It could end up that's the way we go but I prefer we get a longer-term commitment--a talk show, some kind of movie, an ongoing series. It just makes our jobs easier."
This is probably not the perfect time for a fabulous new Chicago soundstage to come on line. There are several others around: RAH Producers Center on South Desplaines has two stages; John Crededio's Chicago Studio City on West Taylor has three, the biggest of which is a whopping 25,000 square feet; Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Studios on West Washington will soon have three soundstages up and running. Meanwhile, Chicago's feature-film industry is in a state of uncertain health. In 1986, the high-water mark, $53 million in movie and TV production money was spent here. Last year, thanks in large part to competition from Toronto, other large cities, and Los Angeles itself, only $22 million got spent. (1989 will be better.) What's more, cable has scattered the TV viewing audience and the networks are in disarray. They're beginning to look like dinosaurs.
But there's no looking back! Two NBC: producers are trying to cook up talk shows, variety shows, whatever, for Studio A. "Wrestling and boxing crossed my mind, too," says Morse.
At the moment, no one is using the studio but Jonathon Brandmeier, who's rehearsing his next concert in it. Brandmeier gets to rent the space for a song because he and NBC are cooking up some sort of locally produced TV show that will spread his fame from coast to coast. The show doesn't have a format yet. But "From Studio A--it's Johnny B!" strikes us as a lovely way for some Don Pardo to kick it off each night, and apparently it strikes Brandmeier that way too. There is a Studio B, half the size, but Studio A is where Brandmeier wants to operate.
Studio A is generally regarded around NBC as the legacy of Monte Newman, Channel Five's general manager from 1979 to '85. During his reign, and with his encouragement, the network decided not to rehabilitate its obsolete space in the Merchandise Mart, but instead to build new quarters from the ground up.
"We were heavily involved in local production. That was something I made a conscious decision on," recalls Newman, who's now in advertising. "It was a way to position ourselves in a different way. We could either manufacture widgets or do show business. That's how this whole theatrical thing evolved. I got involved with the board of the League of Chicago Theaters. I started to move us very heavily with people like David Finney [whose Playwrights Festival has been offering original drama on WMAQ since 1985]. In the process, I saw the production possibilities here--not necessarily theatrical. It could be anything.
"At the time, there were jam-ups in studio space at NBC on the coasts. It did not take a blind man to figure out that if they had space problems . . . and here we are in the middle of the country . . . in an environment that says local production and theatrical and TV production is a good thing . . . what a great place to have a local production center!
"I still think it's a valid point of view," says Newman. "I hear secondhand there's been a lot of debate."
The odd thing is that the one guy in-house who might be drooling over the fabulous new soundstage has apparently outgrown it. After suffering with the undersized, underequipped studios of the Merchandise Mart, David Finney decided to shoot this year's Playwrights Festival entirely on location.
The festival is another Monte Newman legacy that WMAQ hangs onto because, as Finney says, "it's become one of the station's hallmarks." This year's script is Moment of Rage, a saga by John Logan and Joel Johnston that's a 90-minute "psychological profile of a guy who commits a Laurie Dann type of murder."
Finney's been shooting everywhere from Northbrook to Hyde Park, "I kind of like staying on the streets, to be honest with you," he told us. "It makes it look less like soap operas, if you will, and more like the real thing."
"I am quite confident," Morse predicts flatly, "that sometime within the next year the studio will be a significant profit center for WMAQ TV."
It's a wonderful space and we're sure he's right. But if you find yourself on the planning committee of the junior-senior prom, you might give him a call.
Chicago Times Update
For all our doubts about the latest weird turn taken by Chicago Times, we must say that reborn publisher Todd Fandell's first major decision is a sound one: Flora Johnson Skelly is coming in for three weeks as acting editor.
Skelly's the editor Fandell wanted to hire last December. Instead, his board of directors, dominated by the Small family, booted Fandell off the magazine and brought in Tom Small to run it. But after losing over $2 million, and with more lost millions on the horizon, the Smalls flipped Chicago Times back to Fandell.
Last week we wrote mistakenly that the caretaker editor would be John Twohey, to whom Fandell had turned once before, bringing him in as "editorial director" after the second issue. This time, Twohey, a magazine consultant, will limit his role to giving occasional advice.
"I guess Todd called him first in a 'What do I do now?' mode," said Skelly. "John's been very helpful and supportive. He read a lot of the copy that was in-house and when I said OK, I will do this, he called me and gave me a rundown of everything.
"Obviously, it can't be my vision for Chicago Times magazine," Skelly went on. "I'll use stuff assigned by someone else or I'll make assignments that can be done in a week, assignments to writers available this instant. It's not a normal situation."
Hardly. While Skelly fills the copy hole for the July-August issue, Fandell will be looking for investors who can keep the magazine afloat. "The remaining staff is being wonderful," said Skelly. "They're pitching in--there's a terrific esprit de corps. Objectively, going through all these changes in management must be terrible."
The Smalls were nice enough to agree to pay three months' severance to any staffer who would stay around a month. Trouble is, given Fandell's obscure prospects of keeping Chicago Times alive, three months' pay is a temptation that could lead to massive staff erosion about the time that Skelly is finishing up.
"In a weird way I'm enjoying this," said Skelly, who took vacation time from the AMA News, where she's special projects editor, to help Fandell out, "the way people enjoy an Outward Bound program. It's a real test of your skills."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.