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MORSE Theatre reborn in Chicago.

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  • mrcooby
    www.chicagotribune.com Morse Theatre reinvented and ready to open Shows will soon go on at new city venue, despite fire and water damage By Howard Reich
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 7, 2008
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      www.chicagotribune.com

      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 place—but 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 water—both of which struck the theater at about
      3:40 a.m. Aug. 10—the 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
      sloshed everywhere.

      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
      moved elsewhere.

      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
      fare.

      "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
      work?

      "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
      responsibilities—they'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
      little younger."

      McGhee—an ardent jazz lover—acknowledges 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
      bookings himself.

      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 crisis—you have a test.

      "So we're having a test."

      The results will be in soon.

      hreich@...



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