Theater News

Suburb Citadel

The Metropolis Performing Arts Centre puts urban arts onto a suburban track.

The facade of theMetropolis Performing Arts Centre
The facade of the
Metropolis Performing Arts Centre

Take one Chicago suburb with a forward thinking mayor, mix in a former teacher who’s into smart marketing and real estate, add in a nationally renowned sketch comedy troupe and a well-respected Equity theater, then throw in a dash of dance, a new youth symphony, a children’s theater, and a bit of cabaret and jazz, and you get the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights. The Centre, which officially opened May 5, sports the most comprehensive array of performance groups in the Chicago area found under one roof. It’s a veritable stew of Chicago’s best and brightest.

The Centre is also poised to be a moneymaker. While the arts are central to Metropolis, the complex is also anchored by a popular restaurant with a banquet room and jazz club; retail space, including a local bank; two floors for commercial rental space above the arts areas; and loft condominiums, which are almost sold out even though they’re not yet built.

Metropolis will also house two Roosevelt University programs: A Suzuki music program for children and a series of workshops to help non-profit institutions with management and marketing. The complex cost $22 million, several million of which has come in the form of Tax Increment Financing contributed by the City of Arlington Heights, which is helping to build an entire new downtown district.

“It’s been one of my passions to bring a lot more opportunities for our residents to enjoy the arts,” says Mayor Arlene Mulder. “I am just so thrilled about the Metropolis.”

The idea for the facility was born between Mulder and developer Mark Anderson, who still identifies himself as a former teacher even though he hasn’t taught in 20 years. Initially, the idea was to bring Second City back to this northwest suburbs after it’s satellite location in Rolling Meadows “closed down because Motorola turned our theater into a cafeteria,” Second City producer Kelly Leonard said.

But Leonard, whose Second City ticket sales typically rise in the summer, proposed a multi-use facility that could be shared with a theater company with a more traditional fall-spring season. So Kelly and Anderson approached Apple Tree, a highly respected mid-size theater with a loyal following in Highland Park. “Kelly and Mark just walked into my office one day and said, ‘How would you like us to build you a theater’,” says Eileen Boevers, Apple Tree’s artistic director.

Apple Tree will produce three shows a year, all remounts or transfers of popular shows from their Highland Park location. Second City will then have the 310-seat theater for three months during the summer and in December, increasing the seating to 360 for its cabaret-style performance. In between are six performances of the Joel Hall Dancers and the Cerqua Rivera Art Experience; seven Broadway cabaret performances, beginning with Sunset Boulevard‘s Karen Mason (an Arlington Heights native); six children’s theater shows by Emerald City Children’s Theater and the Griffin Theater; three jazz performances in association with the Ravinia Jazz Festival and 11 performances by the newly created Metropolis Youth Symphony, which will squeeze in a trip to Australia for the Olympics in between it’s Arlington Heights dates.

All this programming has been the handiwork of Alan Salzenstein, Metropolis’ executive director, who says his and the various designers’ biggest challenge was “to create a space that could work for different types of production companies.” To address this challenge, HKM Architects+Planners, along with John Morris of Morris Architects and Planners, created a versatile proscenium/thrust combination stage. The half-moon, 20-foot thrust can be at either floor level or stage level, and can accommodate extra seating when it’s on the floor. The Second City and cabaret performances will take place only on the thrust, giving the house a more intimate feel. The Joel Hall Dancers will undoubtedly use all of the 46′ X 25′ proscenium stage.

The theater itself has stadium-style seating and brickwork that makes the space seem cozy. In fact, the brickwork matches what used to be the brick exterior walls of the original two-story building around which the Metropolis complex was built. Part of that building now functions as type of annex that houses the bistro and the bank, while part of it has been surrounded by new construction intended to create a courtyard just outside of some of the office areas. “They didn’t waste one bit of space in this complex,” says Salzenstein.

That goes double for the murals, for their Renaissance feel manages to characterize the diverse mission of Metropolis. The biggest mural is of an outdoor classical performance; opposite that is a mural depicting a youth symphony playing for a king and queen. In between are 12 knights charging on horses which represents the 12 Knights Foundation, an organization which will underwrite 12 Metropolis performances a year so their proceeds may benefit not-for-profit companies. Each organization can charge “whatever they think their market will bear,” says Carol Anderson, the chair of 12 Knights as well as the wife of the developer. Already the market seems to be looking favorably upon the whole Centre, with $200,000 worth of tickets sold in less than two weeks.

“It certainly has surpassed our expectations,” says Salzenstein. “There’s such a strong arts patronage in the suburbs and it’s such an event to go to the city…I think people are starved for the arts.”