Waterstone's Fights Back/Chintzy Drabinsky/Little Voice's Slow Start | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

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Waterstone's Fights Back/Chintzy Drabinsky/Little Voice's Slow Start

Joseph is pulling in $600,000 a week, and all Tony Sertich wants is a piddling $1,600 for the League of Chicago Theatres.

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Waterstone's Fights Back

Faced with the prospect of a massive Borders Book Shop opening in the not-too-distant future on the site of the former I. Magnin on North Michigan Avenue, London-based Waterstone's Booksellers isn't standing quietly by. Philip J. Downer, head of Waterstone's U.S. operations only since last January, was in town earlier this month scouting locations for additional stores. Apparently Waterstone's has decided the way to fight such rapidly proliferating giants as Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Crown is to expand just as aggressively.

Downer, based at the Waterstone's store in downtown Boston, said he is using his frequent visits to Chicago to familiarize himself with the city's myriad neighborhoods and sprawling suburbs. He's mum about exactly how many stores the company might add; suburban malls evidently have not been ruled out as sites for future stores despite Downer's concern about the hit many mall operations took this winter in locations throughout the eastern U.S., where he says bitter weather curtailed business hours and even completely shut down some malls for lengthy periods of time.

A few of the city's leading independent booksellers reacted with surprise to the possibility of more Waterstone's stores in the market. "I can't imagine where they would find a suitable neighborhood that isn't already being well served," says Barbara's Bookstores co-owner Pat Peterson. But Waterstone's plans in Chicago are consistent with what the company is doing in Boston: opening more stores in reaction to the competition.

Downer claims to be satisfied with the evolution of the Waterstone's Michigan Avenue location in the 17 months since it opened. He says the store's strongest suit is fiction, and the company's reputation is for stocking a range of classic and back-list titles often not readily available in other large bookstores, where the accent is primarily on new releases. While discounting is not a prominent part of the Waterstone's retailing philosophy, the company has responded to its pervasive presence in the market by heavily marking down New York Times best-sellers and offering sales on selected categories throughout the year. Downer said Waterstone's mounts storewide sales only once a year, but he also said the company will carefully monitor any moves Borders makes to capture market share on North Michigan Avenue and respond accordingly.

Chintzy Drabinsky

The League of Chicago Theatres has a bone to pick with Garth Drabinsky's Live Entertainment Corporation, the Toronto-based organization behind the $4-million production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The glitzy production has been raking in more than $600,000 a week at the Chicago Theatre since it opened last September, but for all the money he's making the Canadian impresario hasn't seen fit to shell out the piddling $1,600 in annual dues to become a league member. And according to league executive director Tony Sertich, staffers have been doing plenty of work on Live Entertainment's behalf. "We must get at least ten calls a day at the league offices from people asking where Joseph is playing or inquiring how to get tickets, and we gladly give out the information." The league's ticket hot line usually gets more callers asking about Joseph than about The Phantom of the Opera. Sertich maintains that the league's written overtures to Live Entertainment have been rebuffed or completely ignored. But Norman Zagier, Live Entertainment's vice president of publicity and promotions, insists the league has made no official membership petition to Drabinsky's company. "To the best of our knowledge there has been no formal correspondence between the league and Live Entertainment, and the benefits of membership have not been explained to us, but if it's worth our while, we obviously would consider it."

Sertich also hasn't gotten any satisfaction from the Chicago Theatre, which is not a league member either. Other major downtown theaters such as the Shubert and the Auditorium are members, but the financially troubled Chicago is still mired in controversy over its ownership. The city has been trying to gain control of the theater, which was bought and restored in the mid-1980s by an investor consortium called Chicago Theatre Restoration Associates. But the CTRA recently declared bankruptcy, and Tom Rosenberg, an unpaid consultant working for the city, said the matter is now in the hands of the bankruptcy court. He declined to speculate on how quickly the court would move.

Little Voice's Slow Start

Like most nonmusicals on Broadway, the Steppenwolf production of Jim Cartwright's The Rise and Fall of Little Voice is starting out with dangerously little box-office momentum. The play begins previews today (Friday) at the Neil Simon Theatre, where it will open on May 1. According to Leonard Soloway, general manager for the show, which is being produced by the Nederlander Organization and several partners, box-office phone lines weren't exactly swamped the first few days after an ad first ran in the New York Times April 2: Adds Soloway: "I think previews will have to begin before people will begin to buy tickets." The production is capitalized at $1.4 million (none of it Steppenwolf's own money), but Soloway says the show will cost just under a million to open. The rest will be kept in reserve in case the production needs additional funds in the critical first few weeks after it opens. Though the show was a hit in its original 1992 London mounting, it hasn't generated much of a buzz in theater circles in this country. Little Voice is the third Steppenwolf production to make it to the Great White Way in four years, following The Grapes of Wrath and The Song of Jacob Zulu. Neither of the earlier productions earned back its initial investment.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Tony Sertich by David Schultz.

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