Greenhouse Theater Center’s general manager resigns in protest over live show’s opening during pandemic
Derek Rienzi Van Tassel is stepping down amid controversy over the opening of the “Judy & Liza” tribute show.
Derek Rienzi Van Tassel, the general manager of the Greenhouse Theater Center, has resigned his post in protest over what he calls the “foolish and dangerous” decision by the company to open a live theater show this weekend.
The production, a remount of “Judy & Liza, Once in a Lifetime: The London Palladium Concert — A Tribute” starring Nancy Hays (as Judy Garland) and Alexa Castelvecchi (as Liza Minnelli), is slated to run July 24-August 9 at the theater, 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue.
Via Facebook on Thursday, Van Tassel made public his July 18 decision to exit the job, calling out the owners of the Greenhouse Theater Center: “William Spatz and Wendy Spatz are not friends of the Chicago Theater Community. Their decision to reopen The Greenhouse with a show this weekend is foolish and dangerous. The theater is in the epicenter of the virus, Lincoln Park, and they have not thoroughly addressed their safety precautions. Reopening right now in the middle of this pandemic will only spread the virus further, cause another lockdown, and put more theater artists out of work. This is unacceptable.”
Reached Thursday afternoon, Van Tassel said he was initially “gung ho” about opening the show, but that by July 18, he had changed his mind and tendered his resignation to William Spatz, who is co-producing the show with his wife and Hays.
“I admit it. It was excited to get back to work. I love theater and I love the Greenhouse. I was blinded by my own selfish desire to create, but after a lot of thinking I decided otherwise and have tried to make you rethink the decision,” he told Spatz in a subsequent July 18 email.
Van Tassel expanded on the developments during a phone interview Thursday.
“We were very sad that show wasn’t able to get its full due,” he said of “Judy and Liza.” The production originally opened March 7, and shut down the following weekend due to COVID-19 restrictions. “When the mayor announced Phase 4, we started looking at the restrictions given to us by the mayor and talking about whether we could put on a show.
“But ‘should we put on a show’ was never a conversation. That got to me. I thought we would talk about it for a long time. I was flabbergasted when the Spatzes approved this to open in July.”
Reached Thursday by phone, Spatz said he had hired a new general manager and that the show would open as planned. “Filled the job in an hour. I could have found 100 people to do it. All that person has to do is sit in the box office behind plexiglass. It’s not a dangerous job. It’s not a strenuous job.”
In a story published in Thursday’s Sun-Times about the production, the Spatzes (who are on a Florida trip that was prolonged by COVID-19) said that while they don’t feel safe traveling to Chicago for the opening, they stress that they would feel safe attending their show. In that story, Spatz said various safety precautions have been put in place at the theater that “either meet or exceed the Illinois Health Department’s Phase Four Guidelines.” Audience capacity is capped at 36 people for the Center’s 200-seat main stage. In addition, tickets must be purchased in advance and all attendees must wear masks the entire time they’re in the theater (including during the show). Every other row of seats will remain empty and six-foot social distancing will be adhered to. The orchestra will be masked, except for the reed player, who will be seated apart from the other musicians and the actors and at least 15 feet from the audience.
Spatz said he’d be surveying ticket buyers after each performance. “If people are significantly uncomfortable, we’ll round up the troops and and decide if we want to go on.”
Veteran stage and television star Alexandra Billings was among those on social media calling for the cancellation of the production. In one Facebook post, Billings wrote: “Theaters were designed to spread a joyful noise, not a contagious virus.”
Van Tassel was supportive of the cast on Facebook, but urged the public not to attend the show. “The show they are opening is a Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli tribute show with Nancy Hays, Alexa Castelvecchi, and Robert Ollis — all of whom are lovely people in my experiences. ... Please please please do not put yourself or anyone else at risk of contracting the virus by seeing this show!!”