Majestic makeover

Ryan Wenzel

Bruce Siewerth hates the Shubert Theatre. That’s not what you would expect of a Northwestern theatre graduate who taught drama at Evanston Township High School for 37 years. It’s not the programming that Siewerth dreads. He has seen 2,389 “quality” plays and musicals at the Shubert – he keeps every playbill.

The problem, surprisingly, is his height. At 6-foot-3, Siewerth’s knees always press uncomfortably against the seat in front of him. “The Shubert has always been a cramped, horrid place,” says Siewerth. “And it’s hard for people to pass me to get to their seats, even if I’m standing. I have never been comfortable at the Shubert.”

But this winter, Siewerth and other patrons of the Shubert Theatre, 22 W. Monroe St., will have a little more leg room – and a completely renovated and renamed theater.

After the last night of Monty Python’s Spamalot on Jan. 16, the 2,016-seat theater closed to undergo a $25 million renovation. The facility will reopen Jan. 31 as the LaSalle Bank Theatre, with a golden marquee and ornate stone carvings in place of the fading black exterior. Crews will expand the lobby, double the number of restrooms and install more conveniently positioned seats. “Most of the renovations are intended to enhance patron comfort,” says Lou Raizin, president of Broadway in Chicago.

Bathrooms and Bumping Elbows

Many theater-goers say the renovations are long overdue. Judy Freeman, a consultant to the Architecture and Design Society of the Art Institute of Chicago who regularly buys blocks of tickets to “enforce culture on friends,” says she has seen at least 100 performances at the Shubert. She thought of the Shubert as the city’s “grand old theater,” but admits it had considerable flaws. In addition to claustrophobic seating, Freeman says there were far too few restrooms – an inconvenience that sometimes marred her outings. “The bathrooms were awful,” she says. “The one in the balcony only had three stalls.”

Michael Phillips, arts critic for the Chicago Tribune, says standing in line for the restroom during intermission sometimes could mean missing the first few minutes of the second act. “You would have to wait in line for 10 minutes to use a restroom, and then lights were telling you to get back to your seat,” he says. “The old theaters tended not to worry about people’s bowels.”

But for Phillips, the theater’s cramped lobby was the biggest annoyance. The lobby’s entrance was a long, thin corridor that met another small hallway at a right angle. Phillips says the T-shaped lobby left little room to socialize – unlike the spacious lobby of the nearby Cadillac Palace Theatre. “The lobby was like a locus,” he says. “People were getting trampled everywhere. No one will miss that lobby.”

Other upgrades will improve the theater aesthetically by exposing older parts of the building, some of which date to the theater’s opening in 1906. Crews will remove the outer lobby ceiling to reveal two-story vintage decor, including ionic columns and a ceiling treatment. “There used to be drop ceilings that hid spectacular architectural elements,” Raizin says. “There are elements of the theater that no one has seen for 50 or 60 years. We’ll be exposing and revitalizing those elements of the theater’s history.”

A Rich History

The renovation marks the beginning of another chapter in the theater’s long history. The Shubert Theatre first opened on New Year’s Day 1906 as the Majestic Theatre, the first venue in Chicago to cost more than $1 million, and quickly became a popular stop on the vaudeville circuit. In the 1920s, the Majestic’s stage was home to several world-renowned acts, including magician Harry Houdini and actress Lily Langtry.

But by 1930, the Great Depression had left little money for theatrical diversions, and diminishing ticket sales closed the theater’s doors. It remained abandoned until 1945, when the Shubert Organization purchased it. The Shuberts extensively restored the theater before reopening it as the Sam Shubert Theatre – a memorial to the oldest of the three Shubert brothers, who died in a train accident. The Shubert became a frequent destination for big-name plays and musicals in the ’50s and ’60s, including Annie Get Your Gun, Carousel, My Fair Lady and Kiss Me, Kate.

“When the Shuberts took over the theater, it turned legit,” says Richard Christiansen, a former Chicago Tribune critic and author of A Theater of Our Own: A History and a Memoir of 1,001 Nights in Chicago. A professional critic since 1962, Christiansen has attended more than 200 performances at the Shubert. While working he watched several of Chicago’s biggest Loop theaters – including the Erlanger, the Great Northern and the Harris – go out of business. “But the Shubert was very active,” he says. “It was basically the only active downtown house for awhile.”

The Shubert Organization held on to the theater until 1991, when it sold it to a competitor, the Nederland Organization. The Shuberts considered the theater expendable and out-of-date because, unlike most newer venues, it had a third balcony and obstructive support columns. “When the Shuberts sold it to the Nederlander Organization, they were glad to get rid of it,” Christiansen says. “They thought it was a white elephant. But, on the contrary, it has remained very busy.”

After its last change of ownership, the theater continued to host big-name shows, including the Chicago premiere of Rent and revivals of Chicago The Musical and Cabaret. The Shubert recently made a foray into pre-Broadway engagements, hosting the American premieres of The Goodbye Girl, Victor/Victoria, The Sweet Smell of Success, Twyla Tharp’s and Billy Joel’s Movin’ Out and, most recently, Spamalot.

Many Chicago theaters host internationally acclaimed shows – Wicked has been playing at the Ford Center since summer. But Christiansen says the Shubert is different from other Chicago theaters in an important way: “It’s got a history.”

What’s in a Name?

But one significant part of the theater’s history will change – its name. The theater’s name has always been significant. The Majestic’s pointed to its unprecedented grandeur, while the Shubert’s reminded patrons of its owners. Consumers accept advertising on billboards, park benches and El trains, but does naming a theater after a bank cheapen the theater’s history? Shawn Platt, director of public relations for LaSalle, admits that the Shubert’s renaming is in part a marketing strategy. “LaSalle is very committed to the arts and theater community in Chicago,” he says. “The renaming is a commitment to those areas – and a marketing opportunity to get our name on one of the biggest marquees in town.”

In the last decade, corporate sponsorship has become a fact of life in Chicago theater. In 1997, the Oriental Theatre became the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, and Cadillac attached its name to the Palace Theatre in 1999.

The theater is only one of LaSalle’s philanthropic endeavors. The company has helped fund events such as the LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon and the LaSalle Bank Winter WonderFest on Navy Pier. “Being a good corporate citizen means being actively involved in the community,” says Norman R. Bobins, chairman, president and CEO of the bank, in a written statement.

Regardless of the bank’s motives, the name still disappoints more traditional theater-goers. Christiansen says he dislikes the new name, but understands it’s necessary for preserving the theater. “I do hate to see theaters named after financial institutions,” he says. “‘LaSalle Bank’ has a little less ‘oomph’ than a person’s name. But if it improves the theater, I guess it’s OK.”

Chicago’s ‘Jewel’

But corporate sponsorship wasn’t the impetus for the refurbishment. The City of Chicago and Broadway in Chicago wanted to improve the theater long before LaSalle became involved, says Eileen LaCario, vice president of Broadway in Chicago. In November 2003, Mayor Richard Daley int
roduced a plan to City Council calling for the redevelopment of the 21-story Majestic Building, which houses the theater. “It will be another jewel in the crown of the Chicago theater district,” Daley says in a written statement.

The Nederlander Organization also plans to pick a hotel chain to remodel and convert the upper floors of the Majestic Building into a 128-room hotel, an addition Broadway in Chicago officials hope will make the building a multi-purpose destination for out-of-town theater-goers.

The City of Chicago will help with the $25 million project by contributing $5.5 million in tax-increment financing, a tool many local governments use to publicly finance structural improvements. According to the city’s estimates, the theater will generate $18.7 million in new taxes, real estate, amusement, hotel business, sales and utilities in its first 20 years.

LaSalle presumably made a large donation to receive the naming rights for the theater, but neither city nor bank officials released the exact amount. “We don’t quantify the LaSalle involvement,” Raizin says. “The naming of the theater is a long-term relationship between the theater and LaSalle.”

Other tax-increment financing projects have helped restore the Cadillac Palace, the Chicago Theater and the Ford Center. As of last November, the city had spent more than $60 million on improving theaters and the theater district streetscape. Phillips says the Shubert is one of the last big Chicago playhouses in need of a facelift. “The Shubert was always the poor cousin,” he says. “It’s great that it’s finally getting fixed.”

A New Beginning

Broadway in Chicago already has a show lined up for the Jan. 31 opening of the theater – the stage adaptation of Mitch Albom’s inspirational best-seller Tuesdays with Morrie, starring Tony Award winner Hal Linden. The touring production will stop in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Indianapolis before its two-week engagement in Chicago.

The theater originally planned to open Nov. 15 with a pre-Broadway run of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new musical, The Woman in White, based on the 1860 Wilkie Collins novel of the same name. But the show’s producers announced in June that the show will instead open Nov. 17 at New York’s Marquis Theatre.

Phillips doubts The Woman in White could have been Chicago’s next Wicked because, unlike British audiences, American audiences lack a strong attachment to the novel. But Phillips says its Chicago premiere would have been an amazing opportunity to challenge Chicago’s “second city” status within American theater. “The U.S. premiere of any show is a big deal,” he says. “It’s bound to attract considerable attention. A lot of cities would have been happy to host an Andrew Lloyd Webber show.”

Patrons of the former Shubert Theatre are sure to flock to the new LaSalle Bank Theatre to see Tuesdays with Morrie, if only to see the results of the renovations, according to Broadway in Chicago. Regardless of the less-than-satisfying name change, Siewerth is eager to extend his legs – and add another high-quality show to his log. “I’m looking forward to the possibility that there just might be adequate leg room for us over-six-footers,” he says. “But I’ve never stayed away from the Shubert because of discomfort.”

Medill junior Ryan Wenzel is the PLAY editor. He can be reached at [email protected]