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Chicago’s Mercury Theater closing permanently, due to fallout from COVID-19 pandemic

The theater’s executive director cited extreme loss of revenue due to the mandated shutdown brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Mercury Theater, at 3745 N. Southport, is closing its doors permanently at the end of June.
The Mercury Theater, at 3745 N. Southport, is closing its doors permanently at the end of June.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The Mercury Theater Chicago, long a fixture at its North Southport Avenue location, will be closing permanently at the end of the month, it was announced Tuesday.

Executive director L. Walter Stearns and partner/business manager Eugene Dizon cited extreme loss of revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The theater had been closed since mid-March, following Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s mandate prohibiting all large gatherings due to the coronavirus. The mandate forced the early closure of the theater’s production of “Shear Madness” and halted the opening of “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.”

“We closed our doors on March 13, and no one expected it to go on as long as it has. I told our [staff] we’d be down about four weeks maybe and gave everyone two weeks’ salary,” said Stearns, when reached by phone Tuesday afternoon. “We paid off all our expenses with all of the shows, and we managed to maintain our staff for an additional 16 weeks. You take all of those [things] into consideration and the total [financial] loss for us was just north of $250,000. It’s an overwhelming economic loss and I don’t know how we could ever climb out from under that.”

Salon owner Tony Whitcomb (Ed Kross, left) is questioned by detective Mikey Thomas (Sam Woods) in a scene from “Shear Madness” at the Mercury Theater.
Salon owner Tony Whitcomb (Ed Kross, left) is questioned by detective Mikey Thomas (Sam Woods) in a scene from “Shear Madness” at the Mercury Theater.
Brett Beiner

Opened in 1920 as a silent film nickelodeon, the movie theater would undergo several retail business incarnations in the decades that followed. In 1994, it was transformed into a 300-seat live theater rental venue by veteran theater producer Michael Cullen, who also incorporated a restaurant as part of the renovation of the four-city-lot site. It “reopened” in 2011 under the current owner/leadership team as an Equity-affiliated commercial theater house, having since produced 25 plays including four world premieres. According to an official statement, the theater over the years has “employed 975 actors, musicians, designers and arts administrators, and entertained nearly 400,000 audience members.”

The for-profit theater relies on investors for much of its operating budget, “individuals who see the value of arts in our community and who also see a path to a return on their investment,” Stearns told the Sun-Times. “This overwhelming loss — there was just no way we could climb out of this hole.”

Some of Mercury’s recent productions included the long-running hits “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” “Avenue Q” and “Little Shop of Horrors,” which each enjoyed more than 100 performances. “The Christmas Schooner,” presented annually since 2012, became a holiday favorite.

The site also includes the now-shuttered Grass Roots restaurant, which closed its doors on Jan. 1. Stearns said they were unable to find a replacement for the space.

Stearns said he has been in contact with a real estate agent about the building, “looking to see what our options are.”

News of the closure could be a sign of things to come for the theater world, not only in Chicago, but across the country, as the pandemic keeps the venues closed, affecting hundreds of thousands of workers both on stage and behind the scenes — from actors, directors and choreographers to stagehands, lighting designers and costume designers, among other artists and personnel in the industry.

“I think the midsize theater [such as ours] might be affected first,” Stearns said. “The smaller theaters are more agile as they’re typically not owning spaces. The big [players], not to diminish their struggle, they’re also struggling, but they also have donors and endowments. They [most likely] have built up enough money in the bank to last until the end of COVID. Because that’s what we’re looking at here. You can’t open theaters’ doors until the end of COVID. And I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.”