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Ten surprising stories from the year in Chicago culture

From Theater on the Lake to spaceship on the park, 2016 was a weird time in the city.

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Northwestern University professor and activist Jacqueline Stevens was banned from campus in July. - DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Danielle A. Scruggs
  • Northwestern University professor and activist Jacqueline Stevens was banned from campus in July.

It's been a year of surreal events. Nothing trumps Trump (or the Cubs), but as always, the cultural front offered its own oddities.

1. Theater on the Lake got a contract that'll shut it down on weekends.

In June, the Chicago Park District board approved a ten-year (and renewable) contract to renovate and run TOL's iconic lakefront facility. The winning bidder turned out to be John Wrenn, brother of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's then-chief of staff Eileen Mitchell. His Lakefront Hospitality Group will operate a restaurant and event space at TOL under a contract that appears to relegate the facility's primary mission—its popular, bargainprice theater festival performances—to a Monday-through-Thursday schedule.

2. Northwestern University questioned the mental state of a faculty activist.

You might think this could only happen in 17th-century Salem (or the 20th-century Soviet Union), but if you're a tenured faculty member at NU unpopular with your colleagues, you could find yourself defending your sanity. After complaints from her department, political science professor and activist Jacqueline Stevens was banned from campus and sent to a shrink for assessment. Did I mention that she'd been investigating the trustees?

3. An international art star had to convince a Chicago judge that he didn't make a painting.

Peter Doig was hauled into federal court here to prove that he didn't paint the 40-year-old desert landscape local dealer Peter Bartlow, using a shape-matching system of his own invention, attributed to him. After years of preparation, untold legal fees, and testimony from his mother, Doig won.

4. George Lucas picked up his marbles and went home.

When Chicago didn't hand over the precise piece of Park District-owned lakefront land he wanted, the Star Wars mogul took his plans for a museum back to California. But that wasn't really a surprise. What was unexpected was that the little guys—Friends of the Parks—stood their ground and won.

5. Michelle Boone traded DCASE for a dock.

In a July e-mail to friends, followed by a city announcement, the successor to Lois Weisberg as Commissioner of Cultural Affairs and Special Events said she'd be giving up the city's top cultural job within a week to become "Chief Programming and Civic Engagement Officer" for a much smaller domain, Navy Pier. She was immediately replaced by former Columbia College administrator Mark Kelly.

After ten years, the Chicago Dancing Festival will no longer take place. - CHERYL MANN
  • Cheryl Mann
  • After ten years, the Chicago Dancing Festival will no longer take place.

6. Chicago Dancing Festival suffered a postfest demise.

Two months after a successful five-day run in August that marked the tenth anniversary of this annual fest, founders Jay Franke and Lar Lubovitch announced that we'd seen the last of it. "We felt like we'd accomplished what we wanted to do," Franke said. Maybe that and the perennial struggle to raise money: a long-term corporate sponsor never materialized for this spectacular event that regularly drew an enthusiastic audience of 10,000 or more to the Pritzker Pavilion.

7. Architect Helmut Jahn said he wants the state of Illinois out of the building he designed as the embodiment of open state government.

In the early 1970s, Jahn designed the Thompson Center as a unique Chicago home for state offices, with a soaring, open lobby meant to represent the ideal of transparent governance. This year, after Governor Bruce Rauner put the building up for sale and signaled his approval of its probable demolition, Jahn said he welcomes a prompt sale, thinks private ownership could restore its function as a public center, and wants to do the adaptive design himself.

8. The Theater Historical Society of America left town.

After a heated annual meeting in Chicago, and without putting the question to a vote of its membership, the THSA packed up its archive of more than 100,000 items and left its longtime home above the York Theatre in Elmhurst. The collection is now housed in rental space at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, and the THSA mailing address is a post office box.

9. Greg Allen pulled the plug on Too Much Light.

After a 28-year run, the Neo-Futurists founder refused to renew the Chicago company's license to perform its signature show, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. Allen blamed Trump and said he wants a more diverse troupe and a more political show; Neo-Futurists past and present said it was a revenge move and the outgrowth of years of struggle over Allen's autocratic leadership. Neo-Futurist companies in New York and San Francisco promptly announced that they'll give up the show and join Chicago in planning a replacement.

10. The Cape Cod Room is going down.

The East Lake Shore Drive exteriors of buildings by prolific Chicago architect Benjamin Marshall are protected as part of a historic district. But like many legendary Chicago interiors, the Cape Cod Room, the restaurant he designed in the 1930s for his posh 1920 Drake Hotel, has no protection. The Drake, now run by Hilton, has announced that the venerable room will serve its last oysters Rockefeller on New Year's Eve—after that it'll be gutted to make way for something new.  v

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