MORSE Theatre reborn in Chicago.
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Morse Theatre reinvented and ready to open
Shows will soon go on at new city venue, despite fire and water damage
By Howard Reich Tribune critic
Chicago Tribune critic
October 5, 2008
Eight months ago, the new operators of the Morse Theatre stood
beaming inside the shell of the place, eagerly anticipating
completion of a $6 million-plus quest to transform the former
nickelodeon and vaudeville house into a concert hall and restaurant.
Since then, the economy has taken a nose-dive and a suspected arson
fire scorched the placebut not the dreams of three men trying to
bring live concert music to a 96-year-old venue and help revitalize
West Morse Avenue in the process.
Come hell or high waterboth of which struck the theater at about
3:40 a.m. Aug. 10the reinvented Morse will reopen Thursday,
featuring the propulsive jazz drummer Winard Harper. At that point,
Morse venue manager Andy McGhee finally will be able to start putting
away memories of what happened that dreadful August night.
"My phone rang, I heard sirens and I didn't even answer the phone,"
says McGhee, who lives near the theater he has been developing for
the past three years. "I knew what it was."
A police arson investigator told the Tribune in August that an
accelerant apparently had been used to torch the Morse. Graffiti
scratched in pencil on a second-floor lobby wall said: "You want war.
[Come] get uz."
Community activists have speculated that criminals opposed to the
perceived gentrification of East Rogers Park perpetrated the attack.
Either way, McGhee and friends wasted no time battling the effects of
the fire, which left the stage-right side of the auditorium's main
floor "completely burned up," says McGhee. In addition, flames
destroyed wiring and charred the theater's walls black; smoke damaged
the entire listening room (but not the restaurant space); and water
At first, it appeared the theater had sustained about $100,000 in
damage, but once the floors starting buckling and other problems
surfaced a few weeks later, the figure rose to about $500,000. As a
result, World Music Festival shows scheduled for the Morse had to be
On a recent afternoon, however, construction looked close to finished
and not a trace of damage was apparent by sight or scent. The Art
Deco-style redo looked every bit as beautiful as the room sounded
when neighborhood pianist Abraham Stokman strolled by to try out the
newly arrived 9-foot Steinway concert grand. Playing excerpts of
Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier and Chopin's Ballade in A-flat Major,
Stokman gave construction workers and others an impromptu concert and
suggested the new Morse could be a cultural boon to music lovers in
Rogers Park and beyond.
"It feels that it's going to be a very intimate space, not
overwhelming," said Stokman, post performance, of a room that will
spotlight jazz, world music, classical and other non-mass-appeal
"The sound seemed very good. It's amazing how it's come together, in
spite of what's happened."
But then there's the other challenge: the economy. Can a room that
seats just 299 in close proximity to the action (the farthest main-
floor seat rests just 51 feet from the stage) make money? Doesn't the
place have to be packed practically every night to make the numbers
"All our pro-formas are built on the range of 200 and 250" people per
show, says William Kerpan, president and general manager of the Morse.
"We never built this on selling out every show. We know that's not
going to happen.
"But if we can get 200 souls in the venue 145 times a year, we should
be able to make it."
Moreover, Kerpan points out that concertgoers aren't the Morse's only
revenue stream. A 20-foot projection screen could make the venue a
magnet for film audiences; a balcony-level mezzanine may be a lure
for corporate gatherings; state-of-the-art broadcast and recording
facilities will serve all manner of acoustic music; and the Morse's
Century Public House restaurant, managed by McGhee's son Devin, will
add a sorely needed dining destination to the Morse Avenue strip.
Kerpan, the McGhees and a silent partner feel they can ride out the
vicissitudes of a turbulent economy and the inherent risks of a
launching a major arts-and-food establishment. Their financial
resources mean "we have more going for us than most club owners would
have," says McGhee. At the same time, he adds, the Morse consortium
doesn't have to deal with the bureaucracy and internecine battles
that often bedraggle non-profit, 501(c)3 cultural organizations.
"Can you imagine Joe Segal's Jazz Showcase as a 501(c)3? Or Dave
Jemilo's Green Mill?" asks McGhee. "It wouldn't be the same. It's
their quirks that make them wonderful."
So, too, the Morse operators hope to develop the place as a home for
unexpected, unconventional music. Upcoming performances by drummer
Harper's sextet, blues veteran Taj Mahal, jazz guitarist Fareed
Haque, "Zappa Plays Zappa" and a "Live from the Morse" radio series
on WFMT 98.7 attest to the eclecticism of the room's offerings to
date. Though the planners obviously hope young and old and hip and
square will converge on their theater, they have a specific target
audience in mind.
"I'd hate to exclude people, but we're looking [mostly] for those
folks 35 years old and up," says Morse president Kerpan. "They might
enjoy going to the Old Town School of Folk Music or Joe's place [the
Jazz Showcase], to Ravinia in the warm months. But they have
responsibilitiesthey're working folks; they don't want to stay out
till 1 a.m.
"We're going to start shows at 7:30, 8 and wrap up by 10:30; you
should be home by 11, 11:30, if you want to. On Fridays, Saturdays,
we're going to do two shows, but maybe the later show will skew a
McGheean ardent jazz loveracknowledges that the initial lineup at
the Morse doesn't feature as much jazz as he would like, mostly
because he has been too busy dealing with construction to do the
More important, however, a potentially important new musical center
will make its bow Thursday, offering shelter to listeners who value
sounds outside the din of the mainstream.
"Today, seeing Abe [Stokman] sitting on the stage and playing, I
almost wanted to cry," says McGhee. "It's like, 'Oh my God, it's
happening.' We've worked on this so long, and we've been so close to
it. Since the fire, it has not been fun. It's now really just
exhaustion and worry.
"I guess it's sort of like a wedding or a marriage," continues
McGhee. "You fall in love, you get married, it's wonderful and then
you have a crisisyou have a test.
"So we're having a test."
The results will be in soon.
Copyright © 2008, Chicago Tribune