Another casualty resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic’s theater blackout: the Mercury Theatre in Lakeview, shuttered since March, will close at the end of June, according to owners L. Walter Stearns and Eugene Dizon.
The Mercury has had a long history in Chicago, built in its current location on Southport Avenue in 1912 as the Blaine Theater, a silent-film nickelodeon.
It remained so until 1928 when the rise of talkies caused it to close. A new motion picture theater opened a few doors south and still operates today as The Music Box Theater.
The old theater building continued to exist as various retail operations until 1994, when veteran producer Michael Cullen purchased and renovated it with 299 seats for live stage productions and renamed it “The Mercury” — a tribute to Orson Welles’ famous acting company.
The producer also opened an Irish Pub next door called “Cullen’s Bar and Grill.”
Under Cullen’s guidance it opened with the musical “Pope Joan,” co-produced by Michael Butler, and continued with a number of excellent shows including “The Irish and How They Got that Way,” “Over the Tavern,” a tribute to Sinatra called “His Way,” and even a controversial production of the notorious musical “Urinetown,” before it had to close due to Cullen’s failing health.
After it was taken over by Stearns and Dizon in 20ll, the theater had an extensive series of productions which included, not only an extended run of “Freud’s Last Session” starring Chicago’s ageless icon, Mike Nussbaum, but also a collection of such great musicals as “Barnum,” “Spamalot,” “Avenue Q,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” “The Producers” and “The Color Purple.”
After he converted the adjacent Irish bar into a unique jewel box of a cabaret space called “Venus,” Stearns created delightful, intimate performances of great shows like “Pippin,” “Company,” and even a stint by Angela Ingersoll in her signature role as Judy Garland.
Before the decision to shut down, Stearns and company planned to continue productions of “Shear Madness,” an old interactive Chicago beauty salon mystery-comedy classic which had performed for 17 years in the Blackstone Hotel’s Mayfair Room before being forced to close in 1999. They also were preparing to bring in “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” as their next production.
Unfortunately, it is not to be.
This fine mid-sized theater, since its reopening has produced 25 plays and musicals, including four world premieres and four productions with extended runs. It employed 975 actors, musicians, designers and administrators, entertained nearly 400,000 audience members and donated $100,000 to Season of Concern. It made such a wonderful contribution to the health of Chicago’s theater community.
So, to Walter and Eugene, please accept my condolences, and my wishes that your fortunes will change and the Mercury will rise again.
In the meantime, here are a few kind words from your friends concerning your loss.
From Michael Weber, Artistic Director at Porchlight Music Theater:
“Walter Stearns and Eugene Dizon are two artists devoutly committed to music theatre in Chicago. They made the Mercury Theatre into a dependable locale for Chicago audiences to experience professional musicals at an affordable price, (with) continuous employment … for artists and technicians. ...(A)nother irretrievable blow to …Chicago. (It)will be sorely missed.”
From Nancy Malitz, critic and editor of Chicago on the Aisle, a theater magazine:
“Freud and C.S. Lewis going at it in ‘Freud’s Last Session’ — an intellectual boxing match if there ever was one … And who can forget William Bole’s air balloon set of ‘Into the Woods’ — everything about it — the music, the acting, the absolute stitch of a witch — was spot on.”
From Denise McGowan Tracy, playwright and performer:
“Walter and Eugene both hold a special place in my heart. Not only for the great entertainment … but also because of providing their wonderful Venus Cabaret for the first reading of my ‘Eleanor’s Very Special Merry Christmas Wish,’ where the music and lyrics first went from page to stage.”
From Alan Bresloff, Critic with “Around Town Chicago” and radio host:
“They changed the whole concept when they took over the Mercury, making it affordable and family-friendly. What a shame with ‘Venus’ just starting to get somewhere.”
And a final word from my friend, Jonathan Abarbanel, former president of the American Theater Critics Association and a longtime Chicago critic who currently reviews for WDCB Public Radio and the Windy City Times:
“Chicago has lost a lovely mid-sized theatre in a vibrant entertainment neighborhood…. Stearns and Dizon did superb, fully-realized productions of musicals that added depth to Chicago’s musical theatre scene, beyond the Broadway behemoth shows at the big Downtown houses. I sincerely hope they will find theatre work equal to their talents and somehow the Mercury itself will survive as a theatre venue.”
I agree, and add the following: Having seen L. Walter Stearns for years as a director, producer and entrepreneur, I have respected his talent, imagination, patience, kindness and the courage to always do the best work possible, regardless of cost.
And to conclude this rather solemn column on a brighter note — please omit flowers, but send any contributions in memory of the Mercury to Season of Concern Chicago, at 8 S. Michigan Ave. Chicago, 60603.