Three's a Crowd
For more than 60 years the New York-based Stagebill cornered the Chicago market in slick theatrical programs, warding off competitors with its local advertising offices and a local editorial staff that could craft features around its clients' productions. But in recent years the competition has intensified. Two years ago Performance Media, a division of the Chicago Sun-Times, began publishing programs for the Shubert Theatre, Ravinia Festival, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. And Milwaukee-based Marcus Promotions, Inc. has introduced its Chicago Footlights program at the Ivanhoe Theater complex, the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, and several small off-Loop venues.
Then last month, with the opening of Rent at the Shubert, New York's Playbill made its first foray into Chicago as the program supplier for all Shubert productions. The granddaddy of the theater program business, Playbill has been Broadway's primary program for more than a century, and it services a number of off-Broadway theaters as well. The company also publishes programs for key theaters in Boston, Philadelphia, south Florida, and Washington, D.C., and it's moved onto the Internet with a highly informative Web site. Recently Playbill has established a foothold in Los Angeles, picking up contracts at the Wilshire, the Pantages, and the Henry Fonda.
Playbill snapped up the Shubert contract when Performance Media dropped the theater in an apparent shift in strategy. "We're not interested in theater any longer," says Nanci Batson, manager of ad sales for Performance Media. Batson claims the demographics for legitimate theater are less attractive than those for the CSO and Ravinia, which complicates the process of selling advertisers a package that includes all the program books. In addition to dropping the Shubert, Performance Media walked away from the Rosemont Theatre, which is now a client of Chicago Footlights.
The prestigious Shubert account may not be Playbill's last coup in Chicago. "We are in a definite expansion mode," says Clifford Tinder, publisher of Playbill's classic arts division. Tinder was hired away from Stagebill's New York headquarters last summer, a smart move by Playbill. "Clifford was responsible for all the contracts that Stagebill signed with theaters," says a source at Stagebill, "so he knows what is in all of them."
Just as Playbill has ventured outside its New York turf, Stagebill has encroached on Playbill's territory, picking up the Walt Disney Company's New Amsterdam Theatre on Broadway (a contract said to have been negotiated by Tinder) and the off-Broadway New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theatre complex. Stagebill also publishes programs for Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, for the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and for venues in Dallas, San Francisco, Atlanta, and the Los Angeles area.
But Stagebill might seem vulnerable to competitors since its owner, New York-based Primedia (formerly K-III Magazines), put it on the block last spring; Stagebill has already changed hands twice since the late 80s. "Putting the magazine up for sale does bring some uncertainty," says Shira Kalish, a former marketing director who was named publisher in October. For now, Kalish says, the magazine is doing fine: "The editorial staff is intact, and things are operating per usual." Sources say that Primedia considers Stagebill a poor fit with its other, more consumer-oriented magazines (including Chicago), and as a result Stagebill doesn't get the resources it needs. Kalish says Primedia is talking to several parties who are interested in Stagebill, but she doesn't know when a new owner will be announced.
Meanwhile producer Garth Drabinsky's Ford Center for the Performing Arts, scheduled to open in October 1998, will likely be the next plum contract up for grabs in Chicago. Playbill already publishes the program for Drabinsky's Ford Center in New York, where Ragtime opened last month. But the contract stipulates that only Ford Motor Company can place auto advertisements in the program. Kalish says Stagebill had to bow out of the competition in New York because of Ford's demand, and she expects it will have to do the same in Chicago. Playbill is publishing the Ford Center program in New York under a different title, Showbill, which it might also have to do in Chicago if it wins the Ford Center contract here.
Dance Coalition Looks North of the Border
Following a lengthy search, the Chicago Dance Coalition has named Gerard Seguin its new executive director. Seguin comes here from Toronto, where he was the director of development for the Danny Grossman Dance Company, a 20-year-old modern dance troupe considered one of Canada's finest. Seguin, 32, previously worked in the marketing department at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and held other managerial positions with orchestra and opera organizations around Toronto. He made his first visit to Chicago about a year ago and has been back several times. As director of the Chicago Dance Coalition, his first priority will be "to meet the coalition membership and talk with them in a frank and open manner about what their needs are." Seguin has some fund-raising experience and hopes to expand the coalition's budget. "I want to look at how we can increase earned and unearned income, because the budget as it stands now has little left in it for new programs." If all immigration formalities go smoothly, Seguin will be on the job by February 1.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): program bill covers.