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Theater League Picks a Politico

High Taxes and slumping attendance greet incoming leage of Chicago Theatres capo Marj Halperin.

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Theater League Picks a Politico

After a nine-month nationwide search, the League of Chicago Theatres finally found a new leader in its own backyard. As predicted in this column two months ago, Chicago Park District marketing director Marj Halperin has been pegged as the league's executive director, replacing Tony Sertich, who resigned last January in the wake of a messy staff shake-up. Prior to joining the Park District in 1993, Halperin served as deputy press secretary for Mayor Daley, press secretary for the Chicago Public Schools, and policy adviser and press spokeswoman for the Illinois state treasurer's office. She's also worked as a radio news anchor and reporter, most notably as a contributor to National Public Radio.

But the Chicago Park District is where Halperin's marketing talents apparently came to the fore, defining a powerful position that didn't even exist before she arrived. "She is incredibly creative and a tough taskmaster," says Park District director Forrest Claypool. Halperin helped publicize the glories of the park system through such marketing maneuvers as launching a $650,000 radio and television advertising campaign, publishing the first facilities directory, and forming a partnership with Coca-Cola to distribute park information. She introduced new marketing methods, including direct mail and consumer research. She also proved to be skilled at wrangling funding from foundations, securing a $200,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to support programming in the parks. Yet Halperin's tenure was not without conflict. One of the most heated contests involved the 19-year-old Grant Park Concerts Society, which supplied promotional support to the annual Grant Park Music Festival. Earlier this year the Park District severed all ties with the society to start its own festival fund-raising arm.

Though Halperin has no experience working in the theater business, she apparently wowed the league's search committee and the board of directors, who hired her at a lengthy meeting last week. Sources say the board was impressed enough to offer Halperin a three-year contract with annual compensation in the neighborhood of $90,000, reportedly only matching her salary at the Park District but still an unprecedented 50 percent increase over Sertich's $60,000 salary. "Halperin's breadth of experience in management, marketing, media, and government fit exactly with the league's and the industry's needs in the 1990s," says Court Theatre's Sandra Karuschak, who chaired the search committee.

Halperin will need every bit of that experience to grapple with the serious challenges she will face once she assumes her new position January 1. Chief among those tasks is raising the visibility of the local theater industry not only at home but elsewhere. Privately local theater executives admit their companies need to do a better job on marketing and promotions, and they believe Halperin, with her background in both the media and politics, can help the league achieve that goal. "The industry has to reflect the power and the prominence that it really has here," says newly elected board president Robert Perkins, producer and co-owner of the Royal George Theatre Center. The league's long been frustrated by the lack of local theater coverage on radio and television, and they will be looking to Halperin to improve the situation. Halperin's appointment was reported on the local TV news, perhaps a sign of things to come.

Despite a great deal of lobbying, the league still hasn't made headway in eliminating the city's 7 percent amusement tax on tickets for commercial theater productions. The situation stands to get worse in light of a recent announcement that Cook County wants to impose an additional 3 percent amusement tax. Halperin's political experience could help the league in its efforts to exempt theaters from the tax. But she's cautious not to overstate her political clout. "It's a funny topic," she says. Halperin says she's found that success in politics comes from a combination of relationships and tactics. "You have to understand the needs of the other players and develop a strategy to meet their needs," she says.

While Halperin may know how to wheel and deal with politicians, she'll have a tough time attracting more people--especially young people--to the theater. Halperin says she has a long-standing personal interest in theater and is going into her new job convinced that Chicago has "the most exciting" theater scene in the country. "Theater reflects the diversity of the city," she explains, "and this was a perfect opportunity to bring together my background in marketing and my interest in the arts." Unfortunately not many share her excitement. One of the first things she hopes to do at the league is to research why people go or don't go to the theater: "I think we have to find out what we can do to make people more comfortable with going to the theater and make it feel like less of an elitist thing to do."

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

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