They're Outta There
After four years, the long and costly war for control of the landmark Auditorium Theatre is still getting uglier. Last Monday, September 28, after hearing more than ten weeks of testimony on the latest round of actions and counterclaims, Cook County Circuit Court judge Aaron Jaffe issued a 75-page decision that not only ordered the Auditorium Theatre Council to relinquish control of the theater to Roosevelt University but also delivered a stinging reprimand to the council's Fred Eychaner.
Jaffe's ruling, not surprisingly, reinforces his 1995 finding that Roosevelt--not the council, which has run and raised money for the theater since 1960--had the "authority, right, and prerogative to operate, maintain, and restore" the Auditorium and the right to spend its revenues however it saw fit. That decision came in response to a suit filed by council members Eychaner and Betty Lou Weiss to block Roosevelt president Theodore Gross from using theater profits to help pay for a new Schaumburg campus.
In the new decision Jaffe was especially blunt in his depiction of Eychaner as the instigator of the lawsuit. In one key passage, Jaffe wrote: "Eychaner, the one who was going to protect the Theatre for the public good, was the one who threw the Theatre into a situation where their treasury would be greatly dissipated. Eychaner has attempted to portray himself as a person who only had the Theatre's interest and well being in mind. His actions speak just the opposite. His actions were deliberate and premeditated and done with malice. Eychaner is a bright individual. He has been very successful in the business world. He knew what he was doing and now must be held accountable."
Jaffe granted Roosevelt's claim that Eychaner had breached his duty as an agent of the university and deemed him liable for damages incurred by Roosevelt as a result of his "willful and wanton" behavior. Eychaner's attorney Don Hilliker says the council, which became a separate nonprofit corporation in 1981, does not consider itself an agency of Roosevelt, but in the decision the judge referred to it as a "shell corporation." Jaffe absolved Weiss, writing that she had been "used" by Eychaner because she is related by marriage to Beatrice Spachner, who spearheaded the restoration of the theater in the 60s.
Just hours after Jaffe's decision became public, university representatives showed up at the theater to take the reins from executive director Jan Kallish, who came to the position last summer from Friends of the Auditorium Theatre, an ad hoc group formed in support of the council. Kallish, however, had already locked up and gone home, telling all but the box office staff to do likewise. Kallish maintains she was simply following Jaffe's decree that the council and its agents "cease operating, restoring, using or maintaining the theater," but last Tuesday Roosevelt attorneys asked the court to declare her and the council in contempt; on Wednesday Jaffe did exactly that.
Terry Grimm, head of the council's legal team, says Eychaner and company have appealed the September 28 decision on grounds that it violates the public trust by turning over to Roosevelt funds that were contributed with the understanding that the council would administer them.
Roosevelt's Gross says he'll fight for as long as it takes to keep control of the theater. If the council's appeal fails, Gross says, he'll be ready to install a new governing board headed by attorney and Roosevelt trustee Melvin Katten; some 20 members have already been selected. Gross's plans for the Auditorium include a mix of long-running megamusicals (presuming the theater can continue to land them) and limited engagements by local groups.
It's been nearly a year since the mammoth Arie Crown Theatre at McCormick Place was grandly reopened, and the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority is still struggling to sell it to concert promoters and major theatrical touring productions. MPEA spent $6.5 million to cozy up the theater's cavernous interior, reupholster the seats, add new boxes, and improve acoustics, and even added divider curtains so the seating capacity could be reduced from 4,249 to as low as 2,000. But so far the Arie Crown hasn't attracted a single theatrical engagement, and its first Christmas in a quarter century without the Tribune Charities production of The Nutcracker is looming.
Powerhouse local presenter Jam Productions initially trumpeted its intentions for the space and did put on a couple of early concerts there, including Johnny Mathis and Chicago. But lately it's been taking its theater bookings and some concerts to the Chicago Theatre instead, where it can take advantage of the management's not-for-profit status (Disney sublets the theater to the Chicago Association for the Performing Arts) to circumvent city and county amusement taxes. A Jam source says the Chicago Theatre is "more popular" with producers who have touring shows on the road. "We are still looking for product that would be suitable for the Arie Crown."
In response to political pressure Mayor Daley has reportedly taken an interest in trying to lower the amusement tax on theatrical venues--if he can find a way to do so without angering local sports facilities. Meanwhile MPEA has brought in a new marketing and development manager, Tony Karman, who held a similar title at the Auditorium Theatre. "We want him out there talking to producers and selling the Arie Crown to them," explains McCormick Place senior marketing director John Devona. Exactly what Karman will be able to offer producers to lure them to the Arie Crown over other equally hungry and available downtown venues is unclear at this point. Karman was on vacation and unavailable for comment.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ted Gross photo by Nathan Mandell.