Crowds come and go at Chicago Theatre District in the Loop
BY KARA SPAK Staff Reporterfirstname.lastname@example.org December 10, 2012 9:05PM
The Oriental Theatre is one of the houses renovated during the development of the Chicago Theatre District. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times
Updated: January 12, 2013 6:12AM
Gina Capitanini has scheduled more servers.
She’s taken reservations for pre-show dinners.
She’s prepared to add more tables to the bar area.
The third-generation owner of the Italian Village Restaurants, Capitanini is hoping that “The Book of Mormon,” opening for previews Tuesday in the Bank of America Theatre, 450 feet from her restaurants, will have the same blockbuster impact on her business that long-running “Jersey Boys” did.
“We’ve been anxiously, anxiously awaiting it,” Capitanini said of the Broadway hit, which theater insiders estimate could play in Chicago for more than two years. “It was kind of quiet after ‘Jersey Boys.’ ”
Kind of quiet or raging success — which one is the Chicago Theatre District?
It’s been more than a quarter century since Chicago cultural leaders dreamed of a downtown area consistently luring tourists with packed houses, crowded restaurants and after-hours nightlife. In the original plans for the Chicago Theatre District, smaller theaters would serve up cutting-edge fare while the curtains would rise night after night on the biggest shows from Broadway.
The city under former Mayor Richard M. Daley poured $86 million in tax increment financing, or TIF money, into the dream of live theater downtown. In 2010, Daley and his wife were honored for this investment, which was estimated then to have generated $6 billion in overall economic impact.
While the North Loop neighborhood has grown, those in the area say the influx of students mixed with other residential buildings downtown have driven the growth as much as the theater scene.
Long-running blockbusters like “The Book of Mormon” or “The Lion King” may draw tourists specifically building trips around the shows. The bulk of theater offerings in the Loop’s major theaters, though, run between one week and one month. If the audience is traveling to see a touring production, they’re more likely to be coming from another city neighborhood or the suburbs than another state.
There are some restaurant options, but plan on dinner before the show. And forgot about a quick drink after.
“It’s not like New York, where everybody’s a tourist and doesn’t have to go to work the next day,” said Adam Sedelmaier, general manager of Petterino’s Restaurant, which is offering Chicago theatergoers a new “Book of Warmin’ ” cocktail. “Here the majority of people going to productions are residents and subscribers.”
The theater district’s roots are in the Mayor Harold Washington-commissioned Chicago Cultural Plan, the first of its kind for the city. The 1986 plan proposed a “Theater Row on Dearborn Street” that would anchor the redevelopment of a neighborhood that was, at that time, “chaotic,” said Michael Dorf, a Chicago attorney who wrote the first Chicago Cultural Plan.
“For Chicago it was certainly a radical idea,” Dorf said. “We were evangelical for the idea of the economic impact of the arts. Using art brought in money, but it also was used to make the streets safe and the neighborhoods more livable.”
Daley embraced the idea of arts as an economic engine, and three older Loop theaters — now called the Bank of America Theatre, Cadillac Palace and Oriental Theatre — were redeveloped. Currently, they are operated through the Broadway in Chicago group, which started in the 1990s. Broadway in Chicago estimates 1.7 million people see shows in the group’s five theaters, which also include the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place and the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University.
Many of these larger theaters aren’t always booked and when they are they aren’t consistently selling out.
“I can safely say there’s almost always some inventory from some downtown show available,” said Deb Clapp, executive director of the League of Chicago Theatres, which operates the Hot Tix discounted ticket service. “It usually is right around the holidays where every single show is sold out. That’s pretty rare.”
The number of shows booked at one time downtown “ebbs and flows,” Clapp said. And while the larger Broadway in Chicago theaters aren’t always selling out, size isn’t necessarily an obstacle to success, she said.
“Sometimes you need 1,000 seats or 2,000 seats and sometime you don’t,” she said. “It’s better to have them than not to have them.”
In 2000, the Goodman Theatre moved to 170 N Dearborn after years of trying to find a new spot for the company, previously located at what is now the site of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing. Executive director Roche Schulfer believes the Goodman is part of a “critical mass in the North Loop that has been very, very successful.
“The Theatre District was really the first big development in the downtown Loop,” he said. “It stimulated a lot of interest in people living downtown. We found ourselves a couple of years [after moving] being more of a neighborhood theater than we thought because more people are living downtown.”
Even without the residential traffic, Schulfer thinks the theaters themselves are sustaining the neighborhood’s after-work activities.
“The fact that there are so many theaters open 52 weeks a year and literally thousands of people coming to the Loop each night has an enormous impact, and it’s that after-5 impact,” he said. “It’s post-working hours.”
But for all the improvements in the Chicago Theatre District, for post-theater nightlife, try another neighborhood. Jean de St. Aubin, executive director of the Gene Siskel Film Center, said while there’s more going on, the area is still lacking as a total entertainment destination.
“One night we walked out of the Goodman on a Sunday night and there was no place to get a drink” she said. “Even the hotel bars were closed at 10:30 or 11. That was awful.”
Still, she’s not complaining about the increased foot traffic overall.
“The more people on the street the better,” she said. “The more people walking by our front door and wondering what goes on there, the better. The only downside is everybody leaving the parking garages down here at the same time.”