The last six months have been fraught with uncertainty at Circle Theatre, ever since a local property developer purchased the Madison Street property where they’ve hosted performances for 18 years. Their new landlord has made it clear he wants to make some much-needed improvements to the dilapidated building-which the theater supports-but he needs the revenue to do it-which the theater says it can’t provide.
In order for this non-profit storefront troupe to survive, they’re going to need cheap rent and maybe a little help paying the bills, according to board members. So in his search for security, Circle Theatre board member Kevin Bellie started calling the mayor, who has long been an outspoken supporter.
“We actually have been completely and totally ignored by the mayor’s office in the last six months,” Bellie said. “I think for an establishment that’s been in Forest Park 23 years, a return call would have been appropriate.”
Circle Theatre has a lease agreement to remain at 7300 Madison St. through the end of October 2010, but earlier this month asked building owner Art Sundry if they could terminate the lease as of Oct. 31 this year. On Jan. 22 board representatives of the theater met publicly with the Oak Park village board to discuss a financing package in which Oak Park would bond for some $212,000 and shovel that money toward the theater’s expenses if Circle Theatre agrees to relocate to Harrison Street in that community.
“This is by no means a done deal, but we need somebody to tell us something,” Bellie said. “When we got no response [in Forest Park] we started listening to other offers.”
Mayor Anthony Calderone expects to bring the topic of Circle Theatre’s future in Forest Park to the council in the coming months, but said at this point he’s not sure what role the village might play. Since the theater’s building changed hands, Calderone said he did in fact receive a bundle of phone calls from managers there, but understood the bulk of those concerns related to spot maintenance and the like, which public officials simply have no say in.
The building’s previous owner, said Calderone, did not maintain the property well and that has caused frustrations for both the new owner and his tenants.
“There was long standing, ongoing issues with the prior landlord,” Calderone said. “There’s always been this sour taste.”
Forest Park doesn’t have a budgeted line-item to help Circle Theatre relocate within town, said Calderone. But that doesn’t mean the commissioners can’t reach an agreement that would benefit the theater.
Bellie acknowledged he called the mayor multiple times with what would typically be property management concerns, but said Calderone has reached out to the theater in the past. Regardless of the nature of the calls, said Bellie, he would have appreciated a response even if it directed him elsewhere.
“I mean not a single, solitary return phone call,” Bellie said.
Circle Theatre’s managing director, Rula Gardenier, said the financing package that Oak Park is working on is crucial and that the bottom line will be a driving factor in wherever the troupe ends up. Gardenier plans to continue productions up until moving day to keep revenue coming in, and is working on a fundraising campaign to help cover costs.
In some ways the theater has “outstayed its welcome” on Madison Street, said Gardenier, and the combination of the aging building, a new landlord and the offer from Oak Park have created a perfect storm.
“We love Forest Park and this is just circumstantial,” Gardenier said. “But we need to keep Circle Theatre going.”
With 18 years on Madison Street and nearly 24 years in Forest Park altogether, Circle Theatre has seen a great number of changes to the community, said both Bellie and Gardenier. And in some ways, the theater has helped bring about those changes. But now that Madison Street has seen an explosion of retailers and restaurants, the theater is a bit out of place, said Bellie, and no longer serves as the sole draw.
Harrison Street in Oak Park serves as that community’s designated arts district and village officials have committed to its expansion. Business Services Manager Loretta Daly said the community has some $2.5 million it plans to spend on various infrastructure improvements along Harrison Street, specifically with the goal of luring businesses like Circle Theatre. If it goes through, the relocation would be ideal, according to Gardenier and Bellie, and wouldn’t require ticket holders to travel much further.
The Oak Park Development Corporation, a public-private partnership, first contacted the Madison Street theater, said Gardenier.
Because Circle Theatre still has 33 months remaining on its current lease, Calderone said the organization isn’t necessarily under the gun to make a decision and is perhaps being “a little quick to the trigger.” As to the role Oak Park has played in ratcheting up the stakes, the mayor said he will reserve judgment until he learns more about those negotiations.
In a Jan. 23 story published online regarding the potential deal with Oak Park, Mike Sturino, the village administrator in Forest Park, accused the neighboring suburb of poaching one of the community’s cultural institutions.
“If Oak Park approached Circle Theatre with no initiation from Circle Theatre, then call it whatever you want,” Calderone said.