Tony 'n' Joyce's Venture
Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding producer Anthony Tomaska and Joyce Sloane, well known for many years in theater circles as a Second City improv producer, are teaming up to open a 30,000-square-foot performing arts venue at 777 N. Halsted, near the intersection of Halsted and Chicago. Known as the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts and set to open in September, the complex will house four theaters, a restaurant, party facilities, and space to offer classes on subjects such as acting, movement, voice, and screenwriting. The four theaters will include a 375-seat main-stage facility and three other spaces seating between 100 and 200 that will host concerts, cabarets, and theater productions. Tomaska and Sloane will be joined in this commercial venture by Tomaska's brother Joseph and Sloane's daughter Cheryl, also a producer.
Estimated to cost well in excess of $1 million, the center is being constructed in a relatively out-of-the-way location that has not yet proved to be particularly hospitable to theater. Russ Tutterow, artistic director of Chicago Dramatists Workshop, which has operated for seven years in a small space a couple of blocks west of the proposed center, described the area as isolated from the heart of the theater community; he is currently investigating other spaces on the near north side. Other theater companies, including Remains Theatre, previously looked at the site Tomaska and Sloane are developing but passed on it.
Aside from the location issue, the new center's owners will be under pressure to fill the four venues in the facility with paying customers, especially considering the number of new venues they'll be competing with. Veteran commercial producer Michael Cullen's 375-seat proscenium theater is due to open in September near the Music Box Theatre; a state-of-the-art theater is under construction in Skokie; the Chicago Music and Dance Theatre is still on the drawing boards for Cityfront Center; and the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority is seriously considering erecting an 800-seat proscenium theater on Navy Pier within the next two years. Meanwhile large off-Loop theaters such as the Apollo Theatre have remained dark for months at a time, while producers willing to mount shows in off-Loop venues face empty seats.
But at the moment Tomaska's confidence isn't shaken. Last month he went to London to scout possible productions for the new venue, and he points to partner Joyce Sloane's many years in the theater business and her extensive contacts within the industry as assets. In addition to importing shows from other cities, Tomaska and Sloane expect to develop new works in the center's small theaters and if the shows have audience appeal move them to the main stage for extended runs. "We want to give talented people a place in Chicago where they can be nurtured," says Tomaska.
Tomaska also thinks the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts stands a better-than-average chance of succeeding because of the attractive lease deal he cut, a 20-year contract with options to extend. His number crunching indicates that the restaurant, classes, party facilities, and shows on four stages will generate enough cash to cover the rent. Any profits will be funneled back into producing shows at the center.
In describing how he plans to run the center, Tomaska talks at length about the need to make the theatergoing experience as pleasurable as possible, arguing that customer service is a large part of what has kept Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding running profitably for two years. Theater observers say Tomaska's approach could be successful, especially because so much of the off-Loop theater audience is looking for a comfortable theater experience with high production values and convenient parking.
The Drury Lane Oak Brook Theatre, its owner Tony DeSantis, and the theater's artistic director Gary Griffin appear to have been spared what could have been a long and costly legal battle. Late last week, DeSantis's attorney Scott Petersen hammered out a tentative out-of-court settlement of a lawsuit filed in New York City in March by director Gerald Gutierrez, who alleged that Griffin's production of Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella replicated aspects of Gutierrez's copyrighted 1992 Broadway staging of the show.
According to Gutierrez's attorney Ronald Shechtman, the tentative settlement requires Drury Lane to place an ad in Variety acknowledging Gutierrez's contribution to the Drury Lane production. The settlement also includes a payout to Gutierrez, but both sides have agreed not to disclose the amount. Gutierrez's suit had asked for more than $500,000, but one source familiar with the settlement of similar lawsuits estimated that Drury Lane was paying Gutierrez, who recently picked up a Tony award for directing the current Broadway revival of The Heiress, no more than $30,000. Because the case was settled out of court the legality of copyrighting stage directions--as Gutierrez did for The Most Happy Fella--will not be resolved by a judge.
Late last week Griffin said he was relieved that a settlement seemed imminent. "This has been a real learning experience," says the director, who predicted the suit would make other local producers and directors more cautious in their approaches to mounting works recently seen on Broadway.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.