University Wants Auditorium Profits
The first salvos have been fired in what looks to be an ugly fight for control of millions of dollars the landmark Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University has generated since it became the venue of choice for long-running musical spectacles such as Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon. On one side of the fight is Theodore Gross, president of Roosevelt University, which owns the Auditorium. He's also chairman of the not-for-profit Auditorium Theatre Council, incorporated in 1981 to restore, maintain, and operate the theater. Openly opposing Gross are Fred Eychaner and Betty Lou Weiss, two ATC members who last Friday filed suit against Gross in Cook County Circuit Court alleging he is improperly attempting to allocate $1.5 million in ATC assets.
Some of the approximately $3 million in the ATC coffers as of last week came from contributions, but most of it is rental revenue from the steady stream of big musicals the theater has hosted over the past six years. One source estimated the Auditorium could be commanding $25,000 or more a week in rental fees, and the theater is likely to grow much richer over the next couple of years, with Miss Saigon expected to return next fall, followed by an open-ended engagement of Hal Prince's production of Show Boat beginning in March 1996.
Since 1989 more than $3.5 million in revenues and contributions has gone toward renovations, including an attractive new glass entrance and backstage improvements. Eychaner says more work still needs to be done, including installation of a new roof and an elevator for the disabled, as well as dressing room upgrades.
Gross, Roosevelt's president since 1988 and ATC chairman for almost as long, apparently would like to use the big bucks rolling into the theater's coffers to fund the university's expansion. "Gross views the Auditorium Theatre as his football team or his basketball team," suggests Eychaner, a local businessman who owns Channel 50 and the printing company that prints the Reader. Gross dismisses the lawsuit as "full of inaccuracies....We will do what we can to override the lawsuit, and we will pursue this until we have access to all the money from the Auditorium Theatre."
At what was expected to be a perfunctory meeting of ATC's executive committee last Thursday, Gross asked the theater council to approve the use of $1.5 million from the Auditorium's financial reserves to help buy and renovate a new suburban campus building in Schaumburg. Gross is under pressure to secure the $17.5 million needed for the suburban campus project by January 25, 1995, when the university trustees are expected to vote on the project. According to the tape-recorded minutes of the meeting cited in the suit, Gross told the ATC executive committee that the Schaumburg campus project is "more important than the Auditorium Theatre as far as the University [is concerned], more important than anything, and it has to happen." The suit filed by Eychaner and Weiss seeks an injunction against Gross until a court can rule on the legality of his demand for funds. The lawsuit claims that "all donations and revenues generated by the ATC have been and continue to be held in trust for use on Theatre renovation and operation." Gross maintains that because the university owns the Auditorium it should have clear access to the revenues it generates. Says Gross: "We've checked this out every which way." He also says he intends to use only earned income, not contributed funds, for other university purposes.
For some time Gross has been moving decisively to gain control over the Auditorium and the substantial moneys connected to its operation. More than 18 months ago, a source in the theater business said Gross had his eye on Auditorium funds and planned to use them for other Roosevelt projects. At that time Eychaner, other ATC members, and Gross vehemently denied any such plan was in the works.
Doubts about the theater's governance were compounded October 28 when Gross, in his capacity as ATC chairman, sent a confidential memorandum to all 31 members of the theater council. In the memo he calls for dissolving the existing Auditorium Theatre Council and setting up a new governing board composed of "eight members who represent the interests of Roosevelt University" and three independent members. The proposal also calls for establishment of an Auditorium Theatre Board on which current ATC members would serve only in advisory and fund-raising capacities, leaving the theater's operations and its finances under the university's direct control.
Roosevelt University trustees approved Gross's proposal last month, and the existing ATC was expected to vote on the proposal at its next regularly scheduled meeting in late January. According to the existing ATC bylaws, the proposal needs a two-thirds vote to pass. Eychaner said an informal poll of ATC members last month indicated at least a simple majority of the current members didn't favor the proposed restructuring.
Eychaner says his motivation in filing the lawsuit is to try to protect the Auditorium's hard-won financial assets. One ATC member said, "Eychaner remembers when the theater had fallen on bad times back in the mid-1980s, and he doesn't want that to happen again." A decade ago few shows were playing at the run-down Auditorium, which carried a deficit of several hundred thousand dollars.
Edward S. Weil Jr., senior vice chairman of the ATC and second in command to Gross, says "I fully concur with Fred Eychaner's position, but I don't know that I would have filed a lawsuit."
Eychaner says, "We had to do a suit," but the apparent unwillingness of other ATC members to attach their names suggests they might not be so eager to cross Gross. Says a current ATC member: "There's no question Gross will wind up taking control of the theater."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Armando Villa.