Friday, February 10, 2006

No Nod for Dillinger (Yet)

The Biograph Theater is undergoing what’s called a gut rehab in the real estate business. Standing there inside it, looking at the wall-to-raw-brick-wall empty space and the dusty concrete slab of a floor tapering off into a section of dirt floor with a huge hole in the middle, and “gut rehab” sums it up. The guts that made the Biograph a dowdy, off-brand movie theater long past its prime are long gone. The seats, the screens, the box office, the carpeting, the light fixtures, even the building’s most basic mechanical systems, are gone. All that’s left is the shell, within which the developers will build something new, in this case a legitimate theater.

I was there because even though I’m not a full-timer at any publication these days, I’m well enough known to recent invitations to various press functions. I’d been invited for a hard-hat tour of the theater. Hard-hard tours are a species of publicity function, and they’re usually used to drum up interest in a project that’s far past its initial announcement and even the groundbreaking, but not close to being done either. You get to see raw space.

According to the developers, the project will be finished in time for the 2006-07 theater season that begins in September. After that the place will be known as Victory Gardens Theater at the Biograph. Victory Gardens is a regional troupe of some renowned (like Steppenwolf or the Goodman), but note that they’re not jettisoning the Biograph name all together. I looked at the plans, and it seems like an excellent new theater is in the making, complete with amenities for the cast and crew, and a fine ambiance for the audience.

Will there be a nod to Dillinger at the new theater? No. As a movie theater in recent years, management kept a female mannequin in a red dress in the theater’s former box office facing the street. She’s gone, and no animatronic bank robber complete with tommy gun and lady in red on his arm will greet visitors to the theater. No, Dillinger will have no official acknowledgment. Not even a plaque.

“We want to get past that,” Dennis Zacek, artistic director of the Victory Gardens, told me when I asked him about it. “We won’t deny what happened, but we won’t play it up either. Mayor Daley and us are of one mind on this question. We want to move past it.” He was polite with me, but there was an undercurrent of annoyance. I clearly wasn’t the first person to ask about it, and I won’t be the last.

Mr. Zacek is an accomplished director, and I respect that. Mayor Daley certainly has his accomplishments. But not acknowledging history is a kind of denial. I think there’s no “getting past” or “moving on” in this case. The Biograph is famous around the world for exactly one thing, and I suspect that fame is going to outlast me, Mr. Zacek and Mr. Daley too. So someday future management of the Victory Gardens might again decide to acknowledge what the world will not forget. No animatronics necessary; a tasteful plaque on the wall would do.


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