In case you missed it, the Morse Theater project at 1328 W. Morse, received front page coverage in the Arts and Entertainment section of Sunday’s Chicago Tribune. The Tribune also produced a short video about the project.
For the article and video, click here. You may also scroll to the bottom of this e-mail and read a reprint of the article.
Rogers Park resident, Andy McGhee, and his son, Devin, are spearheading the $6 million makeover of the Morse Theater into a restaurant and music club for jazz and other acoustic music. The property was most recently the site of the Cobbler’s Mall.
For a copy of an e-mail I sent last year, which provides a set of color renderings and an outline of some of the project’s cutting edge environmental benefits, click here.
This promises to be an exciting addition to Rogers Park and will undoubtedly lead to the further revitalization of Morse Avenue. I look forward to the ribbon cutting in September!
BRINGING JAZZ TO ROGERS PARK: WILL PEOPLE FOLLOW?
New venue in the Morse Theatre the product of cultural entrepreneurs
By Howard Reich
February 24, 2008
With interior walls missing and mud and muck everywhere, it’s literally a shell of its former self.
But come September, the seemingly ancient Morse Theatre will be reborn, with the spirit of jazz.
Flush with a $6 million-plus investment and operated by three devout music lovers, the refurbished venue will bring jazz and other acoustic music to a gritty neighborhood that has seen better times. Or at least that’s the plan.
True, these cultural entrepreneurs haven’t conducted marketing surveys to determine if anyone will come to a rejuvenated Morse, which opened as a silent-movie nickelodeon and vaudeville house in 1912. But they believe that a jewel-box like performance space, with a separate casual-dining restaurant under the same roof, can’t miss.
Yes, they acknowledge that finding parking in the residential neighborhood can be a challenge. And they realize that Chicagoans seeking jazz, blues, gospel and world music — plus a touch of classical — do not reflexively think Rogers Park.
They are unfazed by these facts.
“I lose a lot less sleep over parking now than I did last year,” says Andy McGhee, who with partners Devin McGhee (his son) and William Kerpan have spent nearly three years nurturing their vision of a resurgent Morse.
“Actually, I never really saw parking as the big hump — I saw people’s perceptions of Rogers Park as the hump.”
Adds Devin McGhee, “You tell people about Rogers Park, and they sometimes think there are corpses on the street.”
A rhetorical exaggeration, for sure, considering that this strip of West Morse Avenue — less than a block from the “L” stop — seems more quiet than dangerous.
“Once you’ve crossed the threshold” to visit a Rogers Park club, says Andy McGhee, “that problem goes away. People come back.”
But the neighborhood does not typically generate headlines as a cauldron of live music, notwithstanding the contributions of nearby venues such as the Morseland, at 1218 W. Morse Ave.; the Heartland Cafe, at 7000 N. Glenwood Ave.; and Duke’s Bar, at 6920 N. Glenwood Ave.
Venue isn’t that odd
If the Morse appears oddly located for a venue that plans to book national acts, among others, first impressions may be deceptive.
For starters, jazz and other niche musical forms long have thrived in “destination” locales that require listeners to seek them out. In Chicago, the most obvious example is the Green Mill Jazz Club, which Dave Jemilo acquired in 1986, when Uptown was teeming with crime, and junkies long had convened at the Green Mill bar.
Now try getting into the place on a Saturday night.
Furthermore, precisely because the Morse stands in Rogers Park, it’s uniquely positioned to draw audiences not just from its neighborhood but from two choice, close-by markets: Chicago’s North Side, where many affluent concertgoers live, and the comparable North Shore suburbs of nearby Evanston, Wilmette and the like. Major name attractions, of course, could draw listeners from much farther afield.
All of this would be mere speculation if not for the funds that the partners say they have secured for this for-profit venture. The financing comes from a silent partner.
This investor is “looking at a longer period of getting to profitability” than usual in such ventures, says Andy McGhee, who speaks of the Morse’s future not in years but in decades.
“This wouldn’t work any other way. This would not work as a cash-out investment,” in which backers want back their capital and their gains within a few years.
With the bulk of the purchase and build-out costs financed by the principal investor, the Morse consortium believes that the theater and its restaurant, the Century Public House, will be operating on a break-even basis in its first year.
“I wish them luck, but it’s not easy right now in these economic times,” says Jazz Showcase founder Joe Segal, who hopes to re-open his own new venue, in Dearborn Station, by May 1.
“I do think they will increase competition for national acts,” which is the Showcase’s primary fare.
But the Morse should be fundamentally different from the Showcase and other small Chicago music venues, and not only because of its somewhat low-profile location.
Designed as an unusual cross between a theater and a club, it will seat 209 people in a main-floor area and 90 more in a second-level mezzanine. Though its intimate size and musically eclectic programming suggests parallels to the Old Town School of Folk Music, on North Lincoln Avenue, the Morse will not have formal, theater-style seating. Instead, it will use small cafe tables and movable chairs, giving it a cabaret feel in a theater space.
In addition, main-floor listeners will not look up at the stage, as is the case at the Old Town School and other auditoriums. Instead, the stage will be roughly on an equal level with the audience.
“My goal is to pull the audience up onto the stage and pull the performer out to the audience,” says Devin McGhee.
With the farthest main-floor seat just 51 feet from the lip of the stage, that seems plausible.
Dream list of artists
For programming, the planners have fashioned a dream list of jazz artists such as saxophone master David Sanchez, New Orleans pianist Ellis Marsalis and Chilean vocalist Claudia Acuna (any one of whom would be a coup). In addition, Americana banjo pickers Michael Miles and Dan Gellert, singer-songwriters Richard Thompson and Leon Redbone, and classic blues stars Keb Mo and Charlie Musselwhite are contemplated.
The central inspiration for the Morse comes from the long-gone and lamented Amazingrace coffeehouse in Evanston, which flourished at various locations in the ’70s.
“I loved the way the audience interacted with the performer there,” says Andy McGhee. “You could see Chick Corea and Doc Watson and Gary Burton and Odetta. They did such a wide swath of music, every time you went there you left with your mouth hanging open.”
By similarly booking sophisticated but non-mainstream fare, “You almost create a learning environment,” says Kerpan, president and general manager of the new Morse.
Yet the target audience will not be young night-lifers.
“College kids already can go to bars, and there’s plenty of hard rock places and hip-hop places for those audiences,” says Andy McGhee. “But for folks who have jobs, have kids, have cares … that person is shut out of 80 percent of music in Chicago.
“When a show starts at 9 and you get out at 1, and you have to go to work the next morning, that doesn’t work,” continues McGhee, who will start sets at 7:30 p.m. or 8 p.m.
“We’re aiming for people from their late 20s to their late 50s, who have jobs, who have kids, who want to hear live music again.”
That was the goal as McGhee and friends began looking for potential venues, several years ago. When the Morse came on the market, in 2005, they felt they were close to what they wanted, though they would have preferred a place that seats 400.
“It would have been a lot more economically viable,” says Kerpan.
But the Morse was close enough.
Moreover, the future owners were smitten by the theater’s colorful history. Though popular when it opened in the silent-movie era, the Morse in the mid-1920s was overshadowed by rising film palaces such as the Granada and Uptown. That’s when the Morse went dark the first time.
It reopened as a neighborhood movie theater in the mid-’30s and became Congregation Beth Israel Anshe Yanova in the mid-1950s. After the synagogue left, in the 1970s, the theater rarely was used again, though small retail businesses always have occupied its storefront space.
Boon to neighborhood
Veteran arts specialist Ronna Hoffberg, who’s marketing the Morse, hopes to position the theater to become a satellite venue for events such as the World Music Festival, the Chicago Humanities Festival and the annual club tour of the Chicago Jazz Festival. In addition, the Morse has announced a partnership with the WFMT Radio Network to arrange live classical broadcasts from the facility. But the theater’s greatest impact could be on the street.
“I think it’s great for the neighborhood,” says Adam Altman, bar manager of the Morseland and brother of its owner, Greg Altman.
“It’s going to increase foot traffic, it will get people to come to Rogers Park, which has always been one of our biggest problems.”
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About the Morse Theatre
Seating capacity: 299
Square feet: 18,000
Instruments: Concert grand piano; Hammond B-3 organ
Broadcast: Dedicated audio booth; Webcast- and broadcast-ready
Cinema: 20-foot projection screen
Address: 1328 W. Morse Ave.
Web site: themorse.com
IN THE WEB EDITION: The long-vacant 100-year-old Morse Theatre will reopen as a jazz venue in the fall. Take a tour at chicagotribune.com/morse.
Copyright © 2008, Chicago Tribune