Oh No!/The Easy Way Out | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

Oh No!/The Easy Way Out 

Restaurateur Frankie Janisch went all out to persuade his neighbors to vote "yes" on a referendum to allow liquor sales in the precinct.

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Oh, No!

Two years ago chef and comedian Frankie Janisch had a vision: a fringe entertainment complex where he, on occasion, might whip up Frankie J's Pork Extravaganza and then dash upstairs to do a few minutes of stand-up shtick. Little did he know what a struggle it would be to open the restaurant portion of his dining and theater establishment. Last winter, about ten months late and $70,000 over budget, he turned in tears to his casting director who, as it happens, is also a spiritual medium. "This is so painful," Janisch whined--about the union pickets, the stop orders from the city, the money drain. "Can you tell me anything?" The casting director predicted two checks in the mail and a celebration on the first of April. When the money arrived within the next three days, Janisch figured his troubles were over. He opened Frankie J's on Broadway on April Fool's Day and didn't worry about the fact that it was located on the dry side of the 4400 block of Broadway. He'd get a referendum on the November ballot, and soon he'd be serving merlot with the New York strips.

Janisch's neighborhood, the 38th Precinct of the 46th Ward, had been voted dry a couple of decades ago--a piece of history he learned just after signing his lease. To reverse this, he'd need majority approval on a "go-wet referendum," and to get one on the ballot he'd need a petition signed by 25 percent of the precinct's nearly 600 voters. But Janisch, former business manager for Improv-Olympic and a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America,

wasn't worried. He knew the 50-seat MethaDome Theatre upstairs and gourmet meals below would be a welcome addition to Uptown. The liquor moratorium "just didn't faze me; I didn't feel like that was going to be a big challenge."

Last spring, while breaking in the newly opened kitchen, he assigned the referendum research to a staff member, who went to meetings, collected information, and told Janisch they couldn't start circulating the petition until August 1. "On July 14, I was curious to know where we were at," Janisch says. "So I picked up a pamphlet and I read that we could have started on April 1--the ending date was August 7." Janisch fired the staffer and hurriedly drew up a petition requesting a referendum that would read, "Shall the prohibition of the sale at retail of alcoholic liquor be continued in this 38th Precinct of the 46th Ward of the City of Chicago?" "Hustling my butt off," he collected 176 signatures and turned it in on deadline.

About two weeks later he got confirmation of his filing from the office of City Clerk James J. Laski. The "report of filing" form verified all the important information--the date of the filing, his name, the address of the restaurant, the number of signatures--but the language of the question had changed slightly. Three words had been dropped, and it now read: "Shall the sale at retail of alcoholic liquor be continued in this 38th Precinct of the 46th Ward of the City of Chicago?" Janisch was perplexed. "I was like, that's weird. My petition said 'shall the prohibition of the sale be continued.' I was gonna call and question it, but James Laski's office is pretty heavy. This is what they do for a living. So I figured I'd wait a couple weeks." A second letter three weeks later repeated the new wording. "Now when I saw that--I'm not a lawyer, and I didn't have the money to go and get a lawyer--I was thinking whoa, I got it wrong. This has to be right. This is the City Clerk telling me."

Assuming that the referendum question would appear exactly as it did on the forms from Laski's office, Janisch shaped his campaign accordingly. He spent $3,000 on letters, postcards, and other paraphernalia, all carefully crafted to urge the precinct's residents to vote "yes." He stood in the Jewel parking lot handing out flyers that repeated the message, and on election day, November 5, he took to the streets. "I had big banners on sticks and I'm walking around telling people to vote yes," he says. In Janisch's grand plan, the restaurant would have to subsidize the theater, and the restaurant needed liquor sales to survive. His message was fervent, and the voters got it: 65 percent of them marched into the polling place and voted "yes." But a few stopped on the way out to say they were confused. When they read the referendum, they told Janisch, it seemed like they should have been voting no. "I was like, oh my God," Janisch says. He went in and read it for himself: "Sure enough, it was different. It said 'Shall the prohibition of the sale of alcoholic liquor be continued...'" He had conducted a successful campaign to keep the precinct dry.

To top it off, Janisch says, when he finally did consult a lawyer, he was told he couldn't float another referendum for four years. But Laski's office apologized for the mix-up and sent him another petition packet. As he understands it, if he got it filed before Thanksgiving, they'll slip a new referendum on the February ballot. At press time, he was collecting signatures.

"Initially some wording was wrong," says City Clerk spokesperson Valerie Landon. "But that was amended and sent to the board of elections. Voters read, made their choice, and as it stands the area will remain dry."

The Easy Way Out

No one at Lyric Opera is doing any singing about this yet, but word on the street is they'll announce a change in the lineup for next season at a press conference scheduled for December 14. Benvenuto Cellini and L'amore dei tre re, two rarely performed operas that were announced for the 2003-'04 season three years ago, are likely to be dropped in favor of two more reliable box-office draws: Gounod's Faust and Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance. Looks like the devilish economy and noticeable holes in the audience for this fall's production of Susannah are to blame, though Lyric spokesperson Susan Mathieson Mayer says, "Right now our season is running 95 percent. In this economy, we're pleased." (Light Opera Works got a jump on the fluff: its production of Pirates, featuring off-Loop icon Alexandra Billings, opens December 21 at Cahn Auditorium in Evanston.)

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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