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Management shakeup gives Morse Theatre a second chance

by Hollis Templeton
March 12, 2009



New York-based jazz pianist Aaron Parks plays at the Elastic Arts Foundation in February. His show at the Morse Theatre was canceled at the last minute. 



A crowd of only 16 people gather at Elastic on Feb. 20. Parks' booking agent hoped for a turnout of 100-150 people.


Rogers Park had high hopes for the Morse Theatre, which opened after a $6 million renovation only five months ago. But despite attracting big names like Duncan Sheik and Juana Molina, the theater has had a bumpy start, culminating in a management shakeup that has left the area’s business community concerned over the future of the state-of-the-art music venue.

A silent investor underwrote much of the restoration project at the 265-seat performance venue and Century Public House restaurant, which both opened to critical acclaim in October at 1328 W. Morse Ave.

The business side hasn't been as smooth, with the theater's manager, Rogers Park Entertainment Ventures Inc., canceling several acts abruptly last month, leaving patrons and surrounding businesses prepared for an announcement that the theater would close.

Now it appears that won’t happen, after the theater's investor apparently ousted its management last week.

Representatives of the investor, 86th Ohio LLC, announced they had reached an agreement in principle with Rogers Park Entertainment to take over business operations. Illinois state records show that a member of Chicago’s wealthy Pritzker family, James N. Pritzker, is manager of 86th Ohio with a principle office address of 53. W. Jackson Blvd.

Andy McGhee, the theater's manager, declined to comment on the specifics of the dispute. Representatives of Pritzker and 86th Ohio could not be reached.

“My understanding is that the investors are going to try to reopen it with their own people,” said Ruth Hoekwater, owner of The Common Cup coffee shop at 1501 W. Morse Ave.

Hoekwater said the situation has been hard on the community because of McGhee and Rogers Park Entertainment Ventures’ strong local ties.

“They’re all people from the neighborhood,” she said. As a result, Hoekwater said the community may be hesitant to attend the Morse under new management.

The theater is no stranger to misfortune. The building—originally a silent screen nickelodeon in 1912—was damaged by arson last August, resulting in approximately $500,000 worth of repairs.

Since last fall, the venue has hosted a variety of nationally and locally renowned jazz, blues, folk, country, Irish and classical artists.

“It brought a different demographic to the street,” said David Meihaus, manager of the Morseland restaurant and music venue at 1218 W. Morse Ave.

In February, speculation that the theater might be closing its doors prompted emotional reactions from musicians who have performed there.

“The jazz community is very saddened by this bad news,” said Sarah Marie Young, a Chicago-based jazz and R&B singer who performed at the Morse for the first time on Feb. 18. “There was an overall sad-feeling tone from staff and patrons,” she said after news of the theater's troubles first broke.

Jazz pianist Dan Cray of the Dan Cray Trio, who has played at the Morse every other Wednesday since it opened, sent an e-mail to fans the week of his final show at the Morse under McGhee’s management.

“The management team has been nothing but supportive and professional,” Cray said. “They have a love for good music as well as the Roger Park community. It’s still a bit of a rough neighborhood around the theater, but I think there was a real intention to help improve the neighborhood on the part of the theater management,”

Chicago’s 49th Ward Ald. Joe Moore reached out to the Rogers Park community in February, issuing a statement to neighbors regarding his willingness to mediate the dispute between Morse management and the theater’s investor.

“I am optimistic a satisfactory resolution of the dispute can be achieved,” Moore said. “Both parties are very aware of the important role the theater plays in the revitalization of Morse Avenue and Rogers Park, and both have told me they are confident the theater will remain open.”

McGhee informed several scheduled artists last month that their shows would not be taking place at the last minute. One of those performers was Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Aaron Parks, a 24-year-old jazz pianist who was set to make a debut performance with his new trio on Feb. 20 at the Morse. As of Feb. 16 only eight tickets had been sold for Parks’ show.

“The major reason [for cancelation] was no money at the end of the month and the secondary reason was slow ticket sales,” said Michael Kline, Parks’ booking agent. “The latter is because of the former.”

“It’s the definition of bad business,” said Parks, who paid out-of-pocket for his own travel to Chicago.

When Parks’ manager, Matthew Merewitz, told McGhee he was considering filing a breach-of-contract lawsuit against the Morse, he said McGhee told him to “get in line.”