Sunday, June 23, 2013

Chicago Legends George Wendt and Joe Mantegna on Architecture and saving the Hull House Theater

“Not only is Chicago theater well-regarded, well renowned, obviously Chicago architecture is well regarded and well renowned.  Crombie Taylor is a noted theater architect worthy of being preserved, just on the basis of the architectural value.  We've all seen that coffee table book, Lost Chicago, and this would be another piece of Lost Chicago if we don't get these folks to change their mind and save a little culture . . . ”
That was George Wendt talking about the Hull House Theater in Uptown.  Along with another legendary Chicago actor, Joe Mantegna, he had been recruited by former Organic Theater director social service association founded by Jane Addams in 1889.
Stuart Gorden to come to Chicago and run a gauntlet of media interviews - including the one you see here -  in support of the Consortium to Save Hull House Theater.  The group is mounting a last-ditch campaign to keep the historic Uptown venue from being converted into apartments by its new owner, developer Dave Gassman.  Gassman bought the property for $1 million in May, a year after it had fallen into foreclosure after the bankruptcy and abrupt  liquidation of the last remaining vestiges of the

“It's kind of like a church in a way, ” says Mantegna, “because it's a living, breathing thing, because of the activity that happens within it.  When we used it for the Organic Theater, this space on Beacon Street, here was this beautiful, jewel box kind of a theater.”

It was 1966 when the Hull House Theatre moved into the new Hull House Association building at 4520 North Beacon Street in Uptown, designed by architect Crombie Taylor.  The innovative 144-seat arena-styled theater sits in the basement of the 16,000 square-foot structure, and is currently the home to Pegasus Players under a lease that runs through 2014.  Although perhaps best remembered as a Louis Sullivan scholar who was instrumental in saving and restoring the Auditorium Theater Building, Taylor's own work was “celebrated for their simplicity and elegance, with the Hull House theater “known for its unobstructed views, perfect acoustics and intimate experience. It is widely considered one of the best designed theaters in Chicago.”

The Hull House became one of the early flash points for the exploding Chicago theater scene, first under the direction of Bob Sickinger, and then when it became home to Stuart and Carolyn Purdy Gordon's Organic Theater Company, the adventurous ensemble whose artistic roster included Joe Mantegna, Dennis Franz and Meschach Taylor, and whose productions included the world premiere of David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago.  The Organic's production of Mantegna's Bleacher Bums, which followed  the interactions of a group of fans watching a Chicago Cubs game, was a breakout hit - running for two years in Chicago and 13 in L.A. -  and was adapted for PBS.

“I think,” recalled Mantegna, “that Stuart [Gordon] discovered this theater existed in this Hull House on Beacon Street in Uptown and here was this beautiful space.  The look of it was not typical.  It was not the traditional kind of proscenium.  This was a kind of arena setup, where the stage is down the floor and the seating goes up like this.  Years later, it led itself perfectly to create the world premiere of Bleacher Bums, because we had no money to do sets for the play.  So we came upon the idea, if we take seats out of one section - just remove the seats - now the concrete risers become the bleachers.  We acted in that section of the theater on the concrete risers.  The audience sat on the stage in folding chairs and in the remaining seats in the arena.  It was a case where the flexibility of the space helped create a show.”

Hull House's longest-running tenant was Jackie Taylor's Black Ensemble Theater, which made the house their home for 24 years until moving to their own theater in 2011.

The Consortium to save the theater was quickly mobilized after Gassman's plans for the property became known last month, and its membership consists of “artists including Joe Mantegna, Jim Belushi, George Wendt, Jim Jacobs, William H. Macy, William Petersen, Robert Falls, Marilu Henner, Jackie Taylor and Stuart Gordon, as well as members of Preservation Chicago and local business leaders.”  A petition in favor saving the theater quickly attained over 1,800 signatures, including playwright Jeffrey Sweet and Redmoon Theater's Jim Lasko.

Said Wendt, “Stuart Gordon has been a colleague of Joe's and mine for decades, and he was the one who alerted us to the issue and that's how we got roped into it.  We feel it's a worthy cause to be roped into.”

With 46th Alderman James Cappleman and the Beacon Street Block Club in his corner, Gassman's initial response was not encouraging.  Claiming that for the 47 years since its founding, the Hull House Theater is, and always has been, illegal, violating zoning regulations, Gassman told DNAinfo Chicago he “. . . would tell anyone who doesn't like it.  Don't live in America. That's how it works.”  He said he was making a proposal to Pegasus to buy out their lease.

However, when the necessary zoning change came before the City Council Zoning Committee on June 11, after hearing the Consortium make its case, the vote was rescheduled until this coming Tuesday, June 25th, with Cappleman saying it was to allow more time for the Consortium to try to change Gassman's mind and/or come up with a proposal to buy the building from him.

When I asked Mantegna about the idea that historic buildings in some way encapsulate the spirit of a city over time, I got a very philosophical response.

“I don't want to get into a long dissertation about this, but the whole thing is that my belief system is based on the fact that the difference between somebody who's alive and somebody's who's dead is energy.  And Einstein said energy can't be created or destroyed.  So therefore, when you die, where did it go? That thing, the Lifeforce, whatever it is that makes you alive -the soul, whatever you want to call it, that's that thing.  The thing that makes us sitting here talking and being alive, and the difference from if the three of us were dead right now, is that energy, and if can't be destroyed, and that's a proven thing, that you can't destroy energy, where did it go?

“And it could manifest itself in grace,” added Wendt, getting back to the main message.  “And I think David Gassman has a chance to do the graceful thing here and preserve a theater.”

Joe Mantegna and George Wendt has a lot more to say about Chicago and its architecture.  Check out the rest of the conversation, after the break.

Wendt:  You know, most theaters are quite beautiful, especially the older ones.  I remember doing a
gig at the Auditorium Theater and I'm up on the stage, and there's several thousand people in the audience and I wanted to say, ‘No, no, no - don't look at us.  The show's back there’, 'cause I had the best seat in the house looking out at that theater.  It's just so beautiful.  Often times, these old houses, like the Chicago Theater . . .
Mantegna: . . . the State and Lake.
Wendt:  Yeah, the State and Lake.  Where's Book of Mormon?
Becker:  The Schubert
Mantegna:  That's where I did Hair.  My first professional play.
Wendt:  I did Twelve Angry Men there.
Mantegna:  I saw you do it.
Becker:  When you go to a historic theater, is it just sentiment or do you actually get a sense of the past from the building?
Wendt:  For me, it's just awe-inspiring.  It reminds me to bring my ‘A’ game.  You've got to bring your ‘A’ game, anyway, but to play in the West End of London and walk around backstage just touching bricks and thinking ‘Charles Laughton probably touched that brick that I'm touching right now.’  It's just amazing - Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness
Mantegna:  Gielgud.
Wendt:  Yeah.
Becker:  If someone hadn't told you, would you still know?  Would you still feel that?  If you hadn't learned it somewhere?
Mantegna:  It depends on your belief system.  Some people believe in ghosts and all that other stuff.
Becker:  What's your belief system?
Mantegna: I don't want to get into a long dissertation about this, but the whole thing is that my belief system is based on the fact that the difference between somebody who's alive and somebody's who's dead is energy.  And Einstein said energy can't be created or destroyed.  So therefore, when you die, where did it go? That thing, the Lifeforce, whatever it is that makes you alive -the soul, whatever you want to call it, that's that thing.  The thing that makes us sitting here talking and being alive and the difference from if the three of us were dead right now is that energy, and if can't be destroyed, and that's a proven thing, that you can't destroy energy, where did it go?
Wendt:  And it cound manifest itself in grace.  And I think David Gassman has a chance to do the graceful thing and preserve a theater.  Put apartments above it, maybe less than he wanted, but . .  .
Mantegna:  Yeah, I think this is an opportunity for the city, for him [Gassman], for whomever is involved to actually do something that would give him more attention, and even more commercial opportunity.  Let's also have a win-win situation, where we preserve the art.
Wendt:  The arts have generated money, as Rich Daley knew - maybe it was Maggie's idea - but to stay very supportive of the arts, because it regenerates neighborhoods in a very real, real estate way and also attracts companies such as Boeing to Chicago.
Mantega:  When we moved into that Hull House Theater in 1973 as the Organic, Argosy Magazine at the time named that neighborhood the most dangerous neighborhood in the world, because it had basically the biggest conglomeration of different ethnic types of any neighborhood on the planet.  It was a tough, tough neighborhood.  You had drunks laying in the streets.  We were there before they built Truman College, so we saw the gradual kind of gentrification of that area.  It's still not complete.
Becker:  And to go back to the importance of saving Hull House Theater?
Mantegna:  For me, it's already proved its historical value just by what's gone down there over the last many years.  What the theater scene has done in the last 40 years in this town is amazing.  It went from a center for dinner theater and Broadway roadshows to a place that sends out world renowned actors, director, writers . .  .
Wendt:  Pulitzer-Prize winners . . .
Mantegna:  Tony Award winners, Academy Award winners.  Then go back to why it's part of Hull House, the history of that.  Do you want to wipe it all away?

. . .  You go to Rome, you go to Paris, you go to London, and you see that what makes them the great metropolises, part of it is they have - yes there's so much modern, but yet they've retain and protect.  What would it have been like if they had turned the Colisseum into apartment buildings?  Or Parliament into a dandy-looking condo complex?  We have an opportunity here as a relatively young country to start taking care of the things that, hopefully, hundreds and thousands of years from now will be part of our heritage and part of our culture.  If you lose that, then you really got nothin'.  You've just got a place to hang your hat.  There's no identity.  There's no soul.  There's no heart.
Becker:  You were both born in Chicago.  What was it like the first time you came downtown?
Mantegna:  Back then you'd have to dress up.  We'd have to wear ties and stuff when I was a kid.  It was a big deal.
Wendt:  Van Buren Street was an eye-opener.  I lived on the South Side in Beverly and we'd take the Rock Island downtown on Saturdays.  There was a lot of adult entertainment, seedy things.  We were like ten years old and we'd just go, ‘What is going on here?’
Mantegna:  Congress and State, too.  They had those three strip clubs.   Actually what George said
photograph courtesy Cinema Treasures
about his experience with the Auditorium, I remember that aspect of it, too, going to the movies downtown and going into the State and Lake, going in the Chicago Theater, going into the Oriental . .  .
Wendt: . . . the Woods . . .
Mantegna: . . . the Woods.  I grew up on the west side.  The Marbro theatre was like that.  These were palaces.
Wendt:  Oh, yeah.
Mantegna:  These were like, “Wow!”  I remember the Marbro and the Alex.  Madison, Crawford, that's the area where I grew up.  The Marbro was a big, beautiful place so it was on par with the Uptown . . .
Wendt:  The Riviera, the Uptown.  And out at my neck of the woods was the Capitol Theater, and the
Capitol Theater,
photograph courtesy:
Cinema Treasures
Highland at 79th and Ashland.
Mantegna: Even when I went to High School, Morton East it has an auditorium that's been preserved as a historical landmark, because it's on a par with those theaters like the Marbro.
[Digressive Note: The Beaux Arts Chodl Auditorium at Morton East in Cicero is on the National Register of Historic Places.  This coming September 18th, it will host a concert of Brahms and Verdi played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Muti.]
Mantegna: I remember I used to do plays on that stage, and when I did my first Broadway play, Working, in 1978, I kept thinking, what's it going to be like doing my first Broadway play when I get out on that stage?  What's it going to be like?  I remember walking out on that stage and looking out at the audience and the theater, and I thought to myself, this is not as big or nice as my high school auditorium.  It was the 46th Street Theater, which was a nice theater at that time, but compared to what I was used to at Morton . . .  So even as a kid, I was impacted by the majesty of a theater.
[Historical digression:  the 46th Street Theater is now the Richard Rodgers. (I saw Bill Irwin there many years ago.) Working was an adaptation of the classic book by Studs Terkel, adapted, directed and with music and lyrics -with others, include James Taylor - by Stephen Schwartz, after Pippin and Godspell and before Wicked.  Along with Mantegna, the cast included Lynne Thigpen, David PatrickWorking was nominated for five Tony awards, but ran only 24 performances.]
Kelly, Bobo Lewis, and, about a year away from their triumphant reunion as that lovely couple down the street, the Perons, Bob Gunton and Patti LuPone.  A production of Goodman Theatre,
Becker:  So when you were kids and went to the movies, did it draw you to becoming active in theater?
Mantegna:  It's gotta help.
Wendt:  Well, it was air conditioned (laughs) and it smells like popcorn.
Mantegna:  You don't appreciate it as much as a kid, but as you get older.  I remember the Auditorium had just been rediscovered.  It had been like mothballed and then when they rediscovered it, and kind of fixed it up, all the sudden, it's a showplace.  So here's another case of something that was neglected and forgotten and now it's a showplace.
Wendt:  Legend is that Frank Lloyd Wright was involved . . . My neighborhood in Beverly had several Frank Lloyd Wright houses, and all the Wright houses are among my favorite Chicago buildings.

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