It's Show Time!
New and Expanded Performance Venues are Bringing Top Talent to a Stage Near You
If you love live performances, but dread the ticket prices and hassle of going downtown to see a show, do we have news for you. It’s a great time to live in the western suburbs, where the culture is world-class, the prices are reasonable, and the parking is plentiful.
There is an amazing variety and depth of concerts, shows and performances being presented at a wide range of theaters and performing arts centers in the area. There’s a venue for whatever experience you want — from stadium concerts to comedians, from amazing Broadway productions to classical performances. And they’re all in our backyard.
THE BEAUTY OF THE WEST
As recently as a generation ago, people moved to the western suburbs to get away from it all. Today, everything has come to us.
Besides the shows, the parking and the ticket price, restaurants tend to be plentiful and in walking distance. And the network of interstates makes towns easy to get to.
“There are a lot of people in the suburbs who do not like going downtown no matter what,” says Patrick Nagle, executive director of the Allstate Arena and the Rosemont Theatre. “Every major artery in Chicago crosses right in our front yard. And Rosemont offers 15-plus hotels, great restaurants, the theater, the arena, the convention center. We’ve got it all in one stop.”
The Arcada in St. Charles has fans not only from this area but from all over the country, some of whom fly in for a show. “This isn’t downtown Chicago, the acts are affordable, and the venue is intimate. It’s just incomparable,” says Ron Onesti, who owns the Arcada.
And performers are catching on to the beauty of the suburbs. “Many artists know that even though we’re geographically close, we don’t draw the same audiences,” says Brian Lynch, fine arts director at North Central College. “Someone can play two concerts in the area on the same weekend but at different venues, and they’ll draw totally different audiences.”
“There is really great potential in the western suburbs for acts as well as audience,” says Tim Rater, president and CEO of The Paramount in Aurora. “Three years ago, 55,000 people went to the shows; this year we had over 200,000. And we’re not the only ones doing it. It’s certainly not shrinking, no one is going away, and most are getting stronger.”
As far as being in a large metropolitan area, Randy Green, general manager of the Rialto Square Theatre in Joliet, calls Chicago a “hyper-competitive market,” but quickly notes, “It’s a great market. The people here are interested in attending live entertainment shows and we have a role to play in providing (that).”
And while people enjoy being in the suburbs, that doesn’t mean they’re staying in their town. “The vast majority of our patrons, 85 percent, are from outside of Aurora,” says Rater. “Most of them, 75 percent, are coming from within 25 miles. We’re pulling them here because it’s just as easy to get here, often less time than downtown. And you don’t have to deal with parking or the commute. There are reasonable places to dine and ticket prices are affordable. We’re consistently doing high quality work.”
And there is also the appeal of “going local” and supporting the arts groups in your own neighborhood. “We’re truly a part of the community,” says Leslie Rodriguez, managing director of the Performing Arts Center at Dominican University.
“We’re really proud to be part of the western suburbs,” adds Susanne Kepley of the Elgin Arts Center. “We feel that we have a really strong arts community and a wonderful community of patrons. You can see just by how many organizations there are out there.”
Most venues in the western suburbs are friendly with each other. Often they’re competing for the same performers, but just as often one venue makes more sense. And there’s a good-natured rivalry among them.
Tony Payne, general manager of the Artist Series at Edman Chapel at Wheaton College, refers to a “psychological distance” that often works to a venue’s advantage. Traveling from, say, Wheaton to Elmhurst, can feel like a long journey, even though in reality it’s only a few miles. Many people really prefer to stay closer to home.
“We’re all in this together,” says Payne. “It’s very collaborative.” Lynch of North Central agrees. “We really help each other out.”
GO WEST, PERFORMER, GO WEST
Performers are flocking to the western suburbs for good reason. We have quite a reputation. And the folks who run things out here know quite a few people. Most have worked in the industry for years, building up relationships with agents and agencies and attending booking conferences.
Ron Onesti of the Arcada has been in the business for 25 years. “My business is 110 percent relationship based,” he says.
Not only does Onesti know which performers his customers like, chances are, he knows them personally, and keeps in close touch with their agents.
“I talk to them ahead of time and they know what I want,” Onesti says. “I can get first crack at some acts because they come to me first, they’re comfortable with us and we’re friends.”
Onesti and The Arcada are so well-known in the industry that Joan Rivers shot her Showtime special there and Foreigner used it to film its VH1 special.
The big venues, such as the Allstate Arena in Rosemont and the Sears Centre Arena in Hoffman Estates, work closely with agents, agencies and production companies.
Nagle, of the Allstate and the Rosemont Theatre, has been booking talent for more than 20 years and has relationships with agents across the country and all the major promoters in Chicago. He looks for a wide variety of popular artists and performances and has booked everyone from Pink and Elton John to the Ringling Brothers Circus and Yo Gabba Gabba.
“It’s really a matter of what the act can draw and what they want,” he says, noting that occasionally a big name performer who could fill an arena prefers the more intimate setting of the theater.
“You have to know everyone and keep in contact and have a good product,” says Nagle.
“If someone isn’t treated well, they’re not going to come back. That goes for the crew as well as the performers and patrons.”
There are also booking conferences, which appeal to some venues. Lynch of North Central attends two a year and has developed relationships with many of the agents there. “They now know what we’re looking for in our venue. They know what are good fits and what will work.”
Diana Martinez, interim executive director at the McAninch Arts Center in Glen Ellyn, also attends the agency conference in New York City each year. She describes it as a five-day conference, where “every touring act has an agent, and there are three floors of acts to choose from.”
Technology also plays a role. Wheaton College’s Payne admits to checking YouTube to hear what an artist sounds like when performing. And although many performers use agents, there are a few holdouts, particularly those not in the U.S. He points to a flutist from Korea whom he reached directly through her website.
Ultimately, booking shows comes down to a delicate balance between what the performers charge, how many seats a venue has, and what the ticket price can bear. The result is the magic formula for matching destination and performer.
NO MORE WILD WEST
A theater for everyone
There’s truly a venue in the western suburbs for every act out here. We’ve got large arenas, like the Allstate and the Sears Centre, which bring in some of the hottest names in the business.
But we also have gorgeous venues with excellent sound quality and amazing histories. The Arcada Theatre in St. Charles and the Rialto Square Theatre in Joliet were both built in 1926 and the Paramount Theatre in Aurora went up in 1931.
The three theaters began as vaudeville music houses, and they have been beautifully and painstakingly restored to their original glory.
Today, each venue has carved out a niche in the market, as well as a loyal group of patrons. The Rialto hosts Broadway touring productions of current big name shows as well as concerts, comedy and family entertainment. The Arcada specializes in shows that appeal to baby boomers: Big name musicians, shows, and entertainers from the 60s, 70s and 80s.
The Paramount recently beefed up their performance schedule to include a popular self-produced Broadway series four times a year, while still bringing in the concerts and comedians as they’ve always done.
“Jim Corti, our artistic director, is incredible and our subscription is growing,” says Rater, of the Paramount. “20,000 people have purchased Broadway season tickets this year and we expect 30,000 next year.”
And the same folks that run the Paramount operate RiverEdge Park, an outdoor concert venue which opened last summer and played host to variety of concerts ranging from classic rock and country to blues, folk and jazz.
The college equation
The western suburbs are also a thriving cultural center, and many of the local colleges have filled the niche with quality performers and high-end classical concerts.
The McAninch at the College of DuPage recently completed a redesign of its theater. The walls are now lined with Italian sapele wood to enhance the acoustics and design. With new comfortable seating, a more energy efficient and quieter heating and cooling system, a new concession area and box office, it may as well be a new venue.
“We have a wonderful, established audience that really likes cultural and unique music, and educational programming,” says Martinez. “We’re also hoping to expand a little and bring in more shows that appeal to the student base — comedians, pop music and groups that appeal to the students.”
With many regular patrons of the MAC indicating that they enjoy Broadway shows, she’s working to accommodate that as well. “With 777 seats, we can’t bring in the big shows without charging a huge price tag, but we can bring in big Broadway stars for a show, and that’s a great crossover between the two audiences.”
North Central College in Naperville has hosted popular bands such as Foreigner and KC and the Sunshine Band as well as Liza Minelli, Patti LuPone, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Wynton Marsalis and numerous Shakespeare productions.
Dominican University’s Performing Arts Center in River Forest presents three series annually, which appeal to community members as well as students. They present a variety of vocal and musical performers — think Mary Chapin Carpenter and jazz musicians — as well as a global series of eclectic music, dance and vocals from a variety of cultures.
And carving out a role in the classical music scene is the Artist Series at Edman Chapel at Wheaton College. The hall seats more 2,350 people and has welcomed Yo Yo Ma, Marvin Hamlisch, the Russian National Ballet, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Most college and university performing arts centers see themselves serving the community as much as, or even more so, than the students.
“We have a loyal subscriber base and artists guild group,” says Payne of Wheaton College. “They really believe that Wheaton should have a professional arts scene. We want to reach out to them as well as expose our students so they can better appreciate and understand music.”
Elgin’s Art Center does some programming in conjunction with the school, but recognizes that many of their patrons come from within the nearby community. And they cater to that. They bring in touring artists such as John Lithgow, guitarist Tommy Emmanuel, and an upcoming Dinosaur Zoo Live for kids, as well as college performing ensembles.
One venue, in particular, has had to adjust to the challenging economy, and has done so quite successfully. The Hemmens in Elgin used to produce its own performances, but a few years ago the city-owned venue became a rental-only facility. Today, not only is it home to the Elgin Symphony and many local dance companies, but its schedule is fully booked. “I even have waitlists for certain weekends,” says Butch Wilhelmi, the cultural center director of the city of Elgin.
“There are a lot of entertainment options in the western suburbs,” acknowledges Wilhelmi. “All of these options create this energy about the arts that draw more people in. We have different types and sizes of venues so there is really a different experience at each one.”
WHERE TO GO FOR GREAT SHOWS
The western suburbs are home to a diverse range of entertainment venues.
6920 N. Mannheim Rd., Rosemont. 847 635-6601
Highlights of upcoming season: Chicago Wolves Hockey, Disney on Ice, Lady Antebellum, George Strait, Women’s Big East Basketball Tournament
105 E. Main St., St. Charles. 630 962-7000
Highlights of upcoming season: Kevin Costner, Dana Carvey, Cheap Trick, Foreigner, Pat Benatar
Dominican University Performing Arts Center (DUPAC)
7900 W. Division St., River Forest. 708 488-5000
Highlights of upcoming season: Ladysmith Black Mambazo, The Wonder Bread Years, Matthew Morrison, As You Like It
Drury Lane Theater
100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace. 630 530-8300
Highlights of upcoming season: Les Misérables, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, The Game’s Afoot, Camelot, West Side Story
Elgin Community College Arts Center
1700 Spartan Dr., Elgin. 847 622-0300
Highlights of upcoming season: “American English,” Naturally 7, Mark Cohn, Dinosaur Zoo Live
45 Symphony Way, Elgin 847 931-5900
Highlights of upcoming season: Home to the Elgin Symphony Orchestra, and rents its stage to local and touring groups
McAninch Arts Center
425 Fawell Blvd., Glen Ellyn. 630 942-4000
Founded: 1986. Newly renovated and reopening Spring 2014
Highlights of upcoming season: Keb’Mo’, David Sedaris, Jim Belushi, Pilobolus Dance Theatre, Chicago Jazz Philharmonic
North Central College
310 E. Benton, Naperville.
Highlights of upcoming season: Bill Cosby, Ben Vereen, ABBA Mania, Moscow Festival Ballet
Wentz Concert Hall
171 E. Chicago Ave.,
Naperville. 630 637-7469
Capacity: 617 to 717
Highlights of upcoming season: Cat’s Pajamas Vocal Band, The Irish Rovers, Ramsey Lewis & John Pizzarelli
23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora. 630 896-6666
Highlights of upcoming season: 42nd Street, Rent, The Midtown Men, Peking Acrobats, Imagination Movers
4051 E. Main St., St. Charles. 630 584-6300
Highlights of upcoming season: American English Beatles Tribute, Nunsense, Sisters of Swing, Piano Man, ABBA Salute
Prairie Center for the Arts
201 Schaumburg Ct., Schaumburg. 847 895-3600
Highlights of upcoming season: Syss, Taj Mahal, Gus Giordano Dance, Luma, Senior Follies
Rialto Square Theater
102 N. Chicago St., Joliet. 815 726-7171
Highlights of upcoming season: Trisha Yearwood, Stomp!, Jim Gaffigan, Sesame Street Live, Green Day’s American Idiot, BB King
360 N. Broadway St., Aurora. 630 896-6666
Capacity: 8,500 Outdoor.
Upcoming season not yet announced.
5400 N. River Rd., Rosemont. 847 671-5100
Highlights of upcoming season: REO Speedwagon, Elvis Lives, Disney Live, Ten Tenors, Il Divo
Sears Centre Arena
5333 Prairie Stone Pkwy., Hoffman Estates. 847 649-2222
Capacity: 11,800. Varies depending on show.
Highlights of upcoming season: Professional Championship Bullriders, Circus Spectacular, Monster Truck Nationals, Winter Jam 2014
Wheaton College Artist Series at Edman Memorial Chapel
418 N. Chase St., Wheaton. 630 752-5010
Highlights of upcoming season: Red Priest, Vocal Essence with Wheaton College Concert Choir, Chamber Orchestra Kremlin, Charlie Albright