After several years of financial difficulties, internal tumult, and near-constant staff turnover, the 25-year-old Body Politic Theater has finally decided to close its doors, leaving the Victory Gardens Theater to take over the building at 2257 N. Lincoln that the two companies have jointly owned for the past 14 years. Victory Gardens, which is currently ensconced on the first floor of the building, expects to close on its purchase of Body Politic’s second-floor space on August 3.
The property Victory Gardens is acquiring includes a 198-seat main-stage theater and the 70-seat studio that Terry McCabe, the last person to hold the title of Body Politic artistic director, carved out of a rehearsal room last winter. Victory Gardens already controls 195-seat and 60-seat theaters on the building’s ground floor.
Victory Gardens had been trying to buy out its upstairs neighbor for several years, ever since the Body Politic’s waning fortunes began to strain Victory Gardens’s own balance sheet. “We didn’t feel we had a real partnership in operating the building,” says Victory Gardens managing director John Walker.
Last year a serious attempt by Victory Gardens to purchase the Body Politic space collapsed when Body Politic board members balked at Victory Gardens’s offer. Then about a month ago, says Walker, Victory Gardens received a letter from the Body Politic board announcing that it was ready to reenter discussions. Board president Gregg Rzepczynski says several factors prompted the move, including McCabe’s abrupt resignation last spring and the loss of the company’s right to operate its annual Lincoln Avenue fund-raising street fair. “We no longer had the wherewithal to raise funds in this type of environment,” says Rzepczynski, adding that the Body Politic board of directors had dwindled to a mere seven members.
According to Rzepczynski, the approximately $100,000 Body Politic will receive for its property should allow the company to pay off its outstanding debts before going out of business. Of all the theater companies snuffed out in the past several years, Body Politic may be the most significant. One of the first not-for-profit companies to open on the city’s north side, it established standards in its early years that other not-for-profits, large and small, have been striving to match ever since.
However sad it may be, Body Politic’s death may bode well for Victory Gardens. Walker, who also is president of the League of Chicago Theatres, has long argued that the key to survival for the city’s not-for-profit theaters is owning real estate. “Owning your theater is rule number one,” he says. Commercial producer Michael Cullen, who’s building a theater on the near north side, agrees with Walker. “Owning your theater is the only way you can control the rents of the venues you produce in,” says Cullen, noting that rising rents have made it increasingly difficult for both not-for-profits and commercial producers to mount profitable productions.
In recent years the plights of midsize theater companies that don’t own venues, such as Northlight Theatre and Remains Theatre, haven’t been pretty. Northlight has been without a permanent home for approximately a year now. Following the demolition of the mall at 1800 N. Clybourn, Remains subsequently produced at the Theatre Building and on the Organic Theater main stage but went into limbo after its poor showing with John Guare’s Moon Under Miami last spring.
With control of four theaters, however, Victory Gardens should gain considerable cachet as both a producer and–if it opts to rent out its upstairs spaces–a landlord. “This will allow us to chart our own destiny instead of dealing with a nonfunctioning partnership that was a source of endless frustration,” says Walker. For the upcoming 1995-’96 season, he says, the current Victory Gardens hit Jest a Second! will continue on the downstairs main stage, while the first production of the new season, a revival of John Logan’s Never the Sinner, will probably open on the upstairs main stage.
Auditorium Suit Dismissed
In a decision announced last week, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Aaron Jaffe dismissed a suit brought by two directors of the Auditorium Theatre Council, Fred Eychaner and Betty Lou Weiss, to bar Auditorium Theatre owner Roosevelt University from using Auditorium profits to fund other university projects. Eychaner and Weiss filed the suit last December immediately after Roosevelt president Theodore Gross announced at an ATC executive committee meeting that he was planning to take $1.5 million from the Auditorium’s reserve fund to help finance Roosevelt’s new campus in Schaumburg. They asserted that Gross’s plan to use the Auditorium profits for other university purposes violated a well-settled rule of state law concerning the administration of not-for-profit corporations, and threatened the Auditorium’s future by depriving the theater of funds needed for an additional $9 to $10 million in renovations. Jaffe disagreed, ruling that Roosevelt, not the ATC, has the “authority, right and prerogative to operate, maintain and restore the Auditorium Theatre” and that the Auditorium’s operating profits “are the property of Roosevelt.” Eychaner and Weiss say they will appeal the decision. Gross, who has since secured funding for the Schaumburg campus from other sources, released a statement saying, “Roosevelt remains committed to the improvement of this cultural treasure.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Peter Barreras.