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Theater League Plays the Field

Will Disney's cold feet about the Chicago Theatre force the city to terminate their lease?

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Theater League Plays the Field

After nearly eight months, the search for a new director of the League of Chicago Theatres is beginning to look as futile as Diogenes' hunt for an honest man. In a surprise move, the league decided to go back to the drawing board last week after it had narrowed the field of candidates to two finalists: Grant Park Concerts Society executive director Betty Madigan and New York-based arts consultant Harvey Seifter. League president John Walker, the managing director of Victory Gardens Theater, indicated that the search committee intends to shake the bushes for perhaps another month.

Both Madigan and Seifter had second interviews in late June. According to sources familiar with the process, Madigan went into the final interview as a dark horse, but emerged as the candidate favored by the majority of the search panelists. A vote at last week's meeting reportedly went four to two in favor of hiring Madigan, but the two naysayers refused to support her appointment, forcing the league to seek out other options.

Madigan supposedly came to the search committee with good promotional ideas, something the league has lacked in recent years. Prior to coming on board at the Grant Park Concerts Society, Madigan managed and booked the Arie Crown Theatre for nearly a decade in the late 1970s and throughout much of the '80s. While at the Arie Crown, Madigan had little or no contact with the burgeoning off-Loop theater scene, but she developed close ties to a number of powerful theater-industry figures, including James Nederlander, head of the New York-based Nederlander Organization, and Manny Kladitis, another New York producer who packages large touring shows. But some search committee members, including Court Theatre managing director Sandy Karuschak, were evidently concerned that Madigan wasn't familiar enough with the city's small not-for-profit theater companies to help them undertake any marketing initiatives.

Seifter's biggest drawback may have been his admitted lack of familiarity with Chicago. But he apparently did convince the search committee that he had considerable expertise in fund-raising, another area of critical importance to the league as it looks to initiate more programs to promote and market theater to both local residents and visitors.

It's still too early to say whether the league and the head-hunting firm it retained to assist in its search will find a more qualified applicant. Some good candidates may be reluctant to consider the job because of its perceived difficulties. Observers say league directors have struggled in the past to reconcile the often conflicting interests of the league's members, which include not-for-profit theaters and commercial producers as well as educational institutions with theater programs.

Disney: Don't Call Us, We'll Call You

Executives in the city's Department of Planning and Development are starting to think the unthinkable: Walt Disney wants out of the deal it made to lease and possibly purchase the financially troubled Chicago Theatre. In the wake of revelations that Disney was late in providing renovation plans to Chicago Theatre management, a source close to the situation says city executives fear that not only has the deal gone cold but that Disney may have lost interest in setting up shop in Chicago. A Disney spokesperson declined to comment because of "the legal nature of the issue."

The effort to transform the North Loop into a booming theater district--which produced last winter's pact with Toronto producer Garth Drabinsky to restore and reopen the Oriental Theater--originated in the city's planning department. But when it became apparent last month that the Chicago Theatre deal with Disney was in jeopardy, behind-the-scenes negotiations were handed over to Tom Rosenberg, a real estate developer and movie producer (The Commitments) with close ties to Mayor Daley. A source says Rosenberg told city officials that Disney was trying to squeeze every concession it possibly could from Chicago Theatre management. Rosenberg was on vacation this week and unavailable for comment.

According to the terms of its lease, Disney was to take control of the Chicago Theatre for at least three years starting September 1. Despite well-publicized concerns about the theater's cramped stage space, Disney reportedly expressed some interest in purchasing the property when its lease expired. The company was expected to move its stage musical adaptation of Beauty and the Beast into the theater next fall, soon after the lease went into effect. City officials had expected Disney to formally announce its plans in February or March, but as the months passed and no announcement or renovation plan was forthcoming the city began to suspect the worst.

Disney's possible change of heart may be attributable in part to the less-than-spectacular box-office take Beauty and the Beast has pulled in since going on the road last fall. The lavish touring production did disappointing business in Detroit, where it played for much of last spring. The Los Angeles production is still up and running, but it's failed to match the expectations raised by the show's long-running success on Broadway.

The Chicago Theatre may seek to terminate the deal with Disney rather than face an uncertain situation for the duration of its three-year lease. Termination of the lease would give Disney the option of taking Beauty and the Beast to the Rosemont Theatre, which has a large stage well suited to the production's requirements.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of the Chicago Theatre by Randy Tunnell.

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