Theatre industry shows clout

By Jonathan Abarbanel

The Fire Commissioner was there. Not his assistant, but the Commish himself. Ditto, the Building Department Commissioner and the Director of the Dept. of Revenue, and all because of six small Off-Loop theatres with barely 400 seats between them. Under normal circumstances, the honchos wouldn’t know these little places existed and if they did know, they wouldn’t care.

But the League of Chicago Theatres cares, and so does its executive director, Marj Halperin, who just happens to be a former staffer for arts-friendly Mayor Richard M. Daley. So when the Department of Revenue raided the six playhouses last Nov. 21, and shut them down in mid-performance for not having the proper license, Ms. Halperin pulled strings resulting in the Jan. 12 meeting with the Top Dogs of three city departments.

What’s more, the Mayor’s Office invited the managements of the shuttered troupes to meet with a top mayoral assistant on Jan. 16 to discuss the matter. Both meetings were without precedent in Chicago’s cultural history.

Now, no one questions the Revenue Dept.’s legal authority to close down theatres. Hey, it’s clear: venues charging admission for a theatrical, musical or sporting event must have a Public Place of Amusement (PPA) license, granted only after building, plumbing, electrical, ventilation and fire inspectors have given their OK. The Artistic Home, ComedySportz , the Playground, Profile Theatre, TimeLine Theatre and the WNEP Theatre were operating without the required PPA, although none of them was cited for safety issues.

But the Mayor likes things to run smoothly. He doesn’t like to see “Goliath-beheads-David” stories in the papers, which is how the press generally viewed the Revenuers’ unannounced raids. He doesn’t like scores of letters coming to his office protesting City actions. He knows the local theatre industry is a golden egg to the tune of $360+ million pumped each year into the local economy. Besides, it was downright embarrassing when it was revealed that Revenue sent out the cops with a list of 37 unlicensed Off-Loop sites to shut down; a list so out-of-date that 31 of the sites weren’t being used as theatres any more.

And then all the Catch-22’s came out in the Byzantine and endless licensing process. Like the fact that the Artistic Home had applied for a PPA license last year and had been told by the Revenue Dept. they would need a zoning variance first, and had gone out and secured the variance (spending $4,000 in legal fees), but was shut down anyway because they hadn’t had time to re-apply for the PPA.

Or the fact that TimeLine operates in a church hall that’s been a theatre for 40 years, yet Revenue won’t issue a PPA license to any venue within 100 feet of a house of worship because many PPA’s serve liquor (nightclubs, sports arenas), and it doesn’t matter if the church wants the theatre there.

Just last July, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance approving PPA’s for Theatrical Community Centers (TCC) in houses of worship, but there hardly was time for the new ordinance to take affect before TimeLine was closed.

So League of Chicago Theatres officials and high city officials agreed to establish an on-going task force that will immediately address the difficulties of the six shuttered troupes, and propose ways to improve communication between city departments, the League and individual theatre companies with regard to licensing issues. More importantly, the task force will develop recommendations to establish a separate, simpler PPA license for TCC’s that would cover most Off-Loop theatres.

But the six troupes remain closed, paying rent on their square footage without revenue coming in the door. TimeLine expects to have a PPA by February 7, and optimistically has announced Feb. 14 as the opening date for its next production, a play called “Paragon Springs.” Among other things, the play shows what can happen when local government looks the other way.

JONATHAN ABARBANEL talks theatre on WBEZ Chicago Public Radio, and writes about it for the weekly Windy City Times newspaper, and the national trade paper, Backstage.