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Got $5 million? Give it to the Goodman now!

Updated: November 30, 2011 12:16AM

Before he was mayor of the city of Chicago, before he was congressman from the 5th District, before he was an adviser to two presidents, Rahm Emanuel was a fund-raiser, and while I knew, in a dry intellectual fashion, that he was a good one, I really didn’t realize just what that meant, on a gut emotional level, until I slid by the Goodman Theatre Thursday morning for breakfast.

It was the sort of look-to-the-future event I normally wouldn’t be caught dead at, but a variety of small nudges put me there: a) they asked (you’d be amazed at how many organizations screw up that part); b) there was food; c) the mayor would be there — that usually means something is worth glancing at.

Coffee was being zupped, scones nibbled. I ran into my pal, the director Robert Falls, and teased him about his play “Red,” starting Saturday. (“Gee Bob,” I said, or words to that effect, in my best faux naive wide-eyed fashion. “That play was such a big hit on Broadway — whatever made you bold enough to decide to put on your own production here?”)

Then we moved to the auditorium, to listen to the five, count ’em, five speakers who went before Emanuel: Roche Schulfer, the Goodman executive director; Falls, its artistic director; Patricia Cox, chairman; Joan Clifford, the Women’s Board President, and Shawn Donnelley, the immediate past chair.

“This is a milestone in the long history of the Goodman Theatre,” Schulfer began, with the rest of the remarks — plus a short film — recounting how the Goodman is an important institution, one that is culturally diverse, one which moved from its original home at the Art Institute 10 years ago, an edifice that helped revitalize the theater district, and now is well on its way to assembling a $15 million endowment to guarantee its continuance, having already snagged $10 million in pledges.

As thrilling as all that is, I didn’t see how it belonged in a newspaper column. I clicked my pen shut and tucked my notebook away.

Then it was the mayor’s turn to speak.

“This is a no-brainer,” he said. “You’re here. You know what it’s about. It’s the last $5 million ... Here’s the deal, folks: 10 years ago this was a dead zone. You’ve anchored something. People from around the world come here because of this theater. Finish it.”

The contrast between Emanuel and the sincere yet sedate directors and chairs who went before him was enormous. If the general emotional tone behind their remarks was this-is-an-important-cultural-institution-worthy-of-support then Emanuel’s was the-house-is-on-fire-get-the-baby-out, where giving $5 million to the Goodman right now is the baby.

As Emanuel continued, it turned out this isn’t just about the Goodman. It was bigger; the fate of Chicago itself hangs in the balance.

“When you think of downtown today, you think of the theater district,” he said, jabbing a finger in the air. “You raised $10 million already. Finish it! You are not just a cultural institution, you are an economic engine. You know why you’re here. Let’s finish the job.”

But driving the economy of Chicago turned out not to be the full extent of it either; the future of creativity itself is at stake. No other city in the world allows artists their freedom.

“In Chicago, you can create,” he said. “You can’t do that in New York, you fail [there], you might as well get a passport out of town because you’re never going to succeed again. In Chicago . . . you can do something, maybe not make it, improve it, come back and do something. That’s in the visual arts, architecture, theater, music, dance, in every other space. No other city has what we have.”

Bits of this I had heard before, but never had I experienced the full rendition, and it struck me, hearing him, that fund-raising is also a performance, when done well. Emanuel was doing the hard job of taking material people already knew and selling it to an audience.

It worked; the donations are expected.

“I would be surprised if we didn’t get some today, he was so persuasive,” Cox said after.

Ever since the days of Daley I, the media saying anything positive about a mayor automatically is seen as an act of toadyism. Believe me, I’m loathe to do it; I have my own audience to think about. I’m eager to sink my pointy teeth into his leg as soon as possible.

But Thursday wasn’t the day to do it.

It gets bad press, but fund-raising is an art, like acting on stage in a tragedy or playing the blues in a club or running the football at Soldier Field, and to the pantheon of uniquely Chicago peak artistic experiences — Brian Dennehy performing Eugene O’Neill at the Goodman, Muddy Waters perched on a stool, bending a note, or Walter Payton breaking a tackle on a Sunday afternoon — you have to include Rahm Emanuel shaking a cup for a good cause. It’s a bravura performance.

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