The In Inn/ Prop's New Crop/ Cannibal Cheerleaders on the Street | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

The In Inn/ Prop's New Crop/ Cannibal Cheerleaders on the Street 

With a Boom Box in every room, a trumpet-playing doorman, and a black-clad staff, Jan McCormick's Allegro hotel may break the chain.

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The In Inn

Other American cities have their cutting-edge hotels: the Royalton and the Paramount in New York, the Delano in Miami Beach, the Triton in San Francisco, and Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles. Yet such establishments have never caught on in Chicago, a staid convention center dotted with Hiltons, Hyatts, and Holiday Inns. Jan McCormick thinks Chicago is ready for something hipper: next Monday he'll open the doors of the Allegro, a 483-room hotel behind the facade of the old Bismarck at Randolph and LaSalle. "We're going to be anything but traditional," promises McCormick, general manager of the new establishment.

Dating back to 1894, the Bismarck was quintessential Chicago, catercorner from City Hall and a favorite hangout of local politicos. But few people familiar with the increasingly dowdy Bismarck will recognize it as the Allegro. At the direction of California designer Cheryl Rowley, guest rooms have been repainted an eye-opening grapefruit pink; suites are a slightly softer yellow flecked with star bursts. Ho-hum desks have been replaced by sleek oval tables, and each room comes stocked with its own boom box and CDs of Chicago jazz and blues. The Allegro doorman will perform a trumpet call every morning, and the staff will wear black--Calvin Klein designs for the men, Ellen Tracy for the women.

The Allegro will be the first Chicago property of the Kimpton Group, a San Francisco-based chain that's amassed a total of 22 hotels and 24 restaurants in that city and in Seattle, Portland, Tacoma, and Beverly Hills. Kimpton plans to reopen the former Oxford House near Lake and Wabash as the upscale Hotel Monaco this fall, and in spring 1999 it will carve another hotel out of the Reliance Building, at State and Washington. McCormick explains, "We like to take old buildings and find their personality."

As general manager of the Triton, another Kimpton property, McCormick displayed a flair for the dramatic: one weekend he transformed the San Francisco hotel into a giant art fair, inviting galleries to display their work, and on another occasion he closed down the street in front of the hotel to stage a fashion show. His staffing of the Allegro reflects the Kimpton Group's approach to the hospitality business: McCormick held "casting calls" for 325 employees who would radiate a positive, welcoming attitude. "We wanted people who could be more theatrical, more entertaining," he explains. About half of the Allegro's staff have previous hotel experience; the rest took a three-week training course.

If that means the hotel will be crawling with out-of-work actors, at least they'll be able to do some on-the-job schmoozing. Under an unusual plan, certain local arts organizations will receive a 5 percent rebate whenever someone requests a room at the organization's corporate rate; included in the deal are the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, the Joffrey, the Lyric, the Goodman, Court Theatre, Steppenwolf, Victory Gardens, and Organic Touchstone. Some of the hotel's meeting rooms will be named for--and decorated with memorabilia from--the arts groups.

Will Kimpton's offbeat hotel succeed in buttoned-down Chicago? McCormick claims that a number of major local businesses, including the American Bar Association and banking giant First Chicago, have signaled that they'll patronize the Allegro. McCormick also considers value to be a major selling point: a standard guest room at the Allegro goes for $125 a night, compared to $200 or more at many comparable Michigan Avenue hotels. Hans Willimann, general manager of the Four Seasons, wishes the Allegro well but thinks it will have to connect with the bread-and-butter businessman to thrive: traveling professionals, he says, are more interested in efficiency than character.

Prop's New Crop

Prop Theatre will mount its first annual Midwest New Plays Festival and Workshop from April 29 through June 16. Working in conjunction with the prestigious Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, Prop will present six new works, some as readings and the rest as workshop productions. Because the festival came together so quickly this year, four of the six are plays that were workshopped last summer at the O'Neill, but Prop artistic director Scott Vehill will seek submissions for next year's festival. The O'Neill connection has helped Prop secure a three-year, $75,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, as well as a $5,000 grant from the Chicago Community Trust.

Cannibal Cheerleaders on the Street

Torso Theatre is abandoning its tiny upstairs space at 2827 N. Broadway after being served with a cease and desist order by the city. The uninhibited company has operated there since 1990, staging its long-running Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack on weekends and renting the rudimentary space to other companies on off nights. But artistic director Billy Bermingham admits he was never able to license the space as a public place of amusement because it wasn't in full compliance with city building codes. About two weeks ago, the city ordered Torso to stop performing in the space immediately. When asked if the company had staged Cannibal Cheerleaders last weekend, Bermingham replied, "Maybe." He hopes to move the show to the Chopin Theater starting March 14 or 21 and will probably rename the company.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jan McCormick photo by Eugene Zakusilo.

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