Porno Patrol/ Ovitz Outs the Big Drabinsky | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

Porno Patrol/ Ovitz Outs the Big Drabinsky 

Andersonville neighbors accuse Mike McKune and Kelly Anchors's Sweet Corn Playhouse of pandering to prurient interests.

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Porno Patrol

"Our neighborhood needs your help!" screamed a flyer distributed to homes throughout Andersonville in early April. "A pornographic playhouse has just opened at 5113 N. Clark Street." The flyer, signed by Tom Corfman and his wife, Carol Brook, urged residents to protest the Sweet Corn Playhouse at an April 7 community policing and block club meeting: "The quality of life in our neighborhood will be ruined if we have people coming here to attend adult entertainment shows."

It wasn't the sort of welcome Mike McKune expected when his Sweetback Productions joined with Corn Productions and moved into the 1,400-square-foot black box in February. "We believed this was a real liberal kind of neighborhood," he explains. McKune and his wife Kelly Anchors founded Sweetback in 1992, staging spoofs of cult movies like Female Trouble and Plan 9 From Outer Space. Corn Productions, founded by Robert Bouwman, has been batting around town for just as long; its similarly goofy shows include the "Tiff and Mom" series, a drag comedy about a dysfunctional mother and daughter in Berwyn. "We do not do pornographic theater," insists Bouwman, "and we've never done shows with nudity."

Apparently Corfman and Brook were offended by production photographs for the current show, Spin/Off, which Anchors had hung in the theater's windows: among other things, the photos showed men in drag and a woman wearing pasties. "The pictures are so offensive that we cannot let our seven-year-old sons walk by it," read the flyer. Corfman and Brook did not return calls seeking comment, so one can only guess what their seven-year-olds make of the well-known bathhouse Man's Country at 5015 N. Clark, or the Leather Archives & Museum at 5007 N. Clark.

When the Sweet Corn partners found out about the flyer, they took down the controversial photos and circulated a response: "We would like to assure you that the assessment of our theater company based on one person's opinion is a complete and total misunderstanding....We love Andersonville and are willing to address any concerns anyone might have." They also asked their friends in area theater companies, including Neo-Futurarium and Griffin Theatre, to support them at the meeting.

McKune, Anchors, Bouwman, and members of the Corn and Sweetback troupes showed up on April 7 to discover that more than 50 people had come to defend them. "I think Ms. Brook was a bit overwhelmed by the support for our side and the lack of support for hers," says Bouwman. But according to several sources present at the meeting, Brook stood her ground, doing most of the talking for the opposition. "It was clear she came to the meeting wanting to get us out of the neighborhood," says Bouwman. The two companies attempted to explain their style of theater, but the information "didn't make [Brook and Corfman] any happier." When the subject of Man's Country came up, says Bouwman, Brook refused to address it. The meeting ended with no clear resolution. "We agreed to have an ongoing dialogue, with the area chamber of commerce serving as an intermediary."

Craig Foley, executive director of Andersonville's chamber of commerce, came away from the meeting convinced that Sweet Corn Playhouse will "add vitality" to the neighborhood. "I think the theater companies made a case for being legitimate organizations that don't pander to pornographic interests." Alderman Helen Shiller, who also attended the meeting, thinks the playhouse deserves a chance: "They could be a real positive benefit by creating more foot traffic on the streets and bringing other businesses to the neighborhood." She also believes that Brook, despite her well-intentioned efforts to protect the neighborhood, took action without knowing the facts. "I think she perceived something incorrectly and then acted on an incorrect perception."

Ovitz Ousts the Big Drabinsky

Livent, Inc., the Toronto company that's renovating the Oriental Theater as the new Ford Center for the Performing Arts, was shaken to its foundations late last week when Michael Ovitz, founder of Creative Artists Agency and ousted president of the Walt Disney Company, bought more than a third of Livent's depressed stock and immediately removed Garth Drabinsky as CEO and chairman. Drabinsky's replacement is Roy Furman, an analyst and investment banker with the New York firm Furman Selz LLC, described as a specialist in the entertainment industry. Ovitz installed another associate, David Maisel, as Livent's new president.

Ovitz invested about $20 million in Livent, whose stock had been trading at or near record lows for the past several months; the transaction buys him 36 percent of the vote on Livent's board of directors. For the moment Drabinsky remains vice chairman and chief creative director of the organization he founded in 1989, but he will no longer call the shots. "Garth is very happy with the new arrangement," says Judy Korman, a spokesperson for Ovitz. But Drabinsky, never one to share power, may not stick around with Ovitz's team in place. The situation eerily resembles the late-80s management shake-up at Cineplex Odeon, the Toronto-based movie theater chain; Drabinsky was forced out as chairman of Cineplex Odeon after rapid expansion boosted its debt and pushed it to the verge of collapse.

Ovitz apparently ponied up after learning that Livent had lost about $30 million during the 1997 fiscal year, compared to a profit of $7.4 million in 1996. The hemorrhaging has been attributed in part to Livent's multimillion-dollar revival of Candide, which opened and closed on Broadway in a matter of months. Three touring productions of Show Boat also contributed to the red ink; the show ended a 12-month run at the Auditorium Theatre in March 1997 but played to well below capacity crowds for the last few months. Livent's Ragtime received some good reviews when it opened on Broadway in January but hasn't done the kind of business that might have bailed out Drabinsky.

Neither Ovitz nor his management team has much experience in the theater; Furman indicated that Livent might change direction. For years the sharply devalued Canadian dollar has made Toronto an attractive locale for film production, and with his experience as a talent broker Ovitz might feel quite comfortable setting up a studio there. Meanwhile, officials in Chicago's Department of Planning and Development were unavailable for comment about the surprising turn of events at Livent or its impact on the Ford Center, set to open in October. The city has given Livent $13.5 million to help buy and restore the Oriental. Dan Coffey, architect for the project, believes that Livent would have to repay the funds should it divest itself.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Mike McKune and Kelly Anchors photo by Nathan Mandell.

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