Doug Bragan, loved Chicago theater so much he bought the Ivanhoe, dies at 79

Mr. Bragan helped foster the city’s off-Loop theater scene as the owner of Ivanhoe for nearly two decades.

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Doug Bragan

Doug Bragan (shown in this undated photo) bought the Ivanhoe Theater in 1982. A commodities broker, he was also a lifelong champion of Chicago’s theater scene.


A lot of people weren’t sure what to make of Doug Bragan when, in 1982, he bought the Ivanhoe Theater — the castle-looking structure at Clark Street and Wellington Avenue in Lake View.

He was a successful commodities broker at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

He wore jeans that were too big and rolled up, shirts with missing buttons and tattered collars, or sometimes the brown polyester suit he kept in the closet of his high-priced condo in the Water Tower Residences building in the Gold Coast.

On the trading floor, he wore a bowtie and plaid shirt to help stand out — he was short — and advocated for a looser dress code, friends said.

“There was no missing him when he was on the sidewalk,” said playwright and close pal Vicki Quade. “It was an eccentric charm, he just didn’t care how he looked.”

It soon became clear what he did care about — the health of the city’s theater scene.

“He wanted to keep theater alive and develop and promote and watch little theater companies succeed and there isn’t anybody like that now,” said Quade, whose hit show, “Late Nite Catechism,” had a long run at the Ivanhoe. “What mattered is what was in his heart and that was this really abiding love of theater and entertainment and actors, and he really wanted to help and foster that in Chicago.”

Mr. Bragan died July 8 of thyroid cancer. He was 79.

The Ivanhoe was a single-stage, 500-seat theater when he bought it. Mr. Bragan added a 150-seat auditorium and a 50-seat basement stage. It was called the Wellington Theatre from 1990 to 1994.

Mr. Bragan’s talent didn’t lie in the artistic side of theater. He was good at finding others to put in the spotlight by renting space to theater companies that produced their own shows.

“He offered me a very small guaranteed weekly rent with the agreement that he’d get 20% of the box office, and he’d say to me, ‘When you do good, I do good,’ so he’d be making money and helping promote you,” Quade said.

Mark Gagne’s theater company, Free Associates, specialized in parody and improv. One of his shows titled “BS” — a spoof on the television hospital drama “ER” — ran at the Ivanhoe for several years.

“He was definitely a fighter for the underdog. And for someone of means, he never acted like it,” Gagne said.

“Most storefront theaters stood in their own way when it came to the business side of things. Here we are as artists, not competent and not rich, and here’s this guy with money who’s saying, ‘Here’s how you do this.’ And it was certainly helpful and helped me mature as a businessman and producer, and he gave me more confidence in my work and ideas. What he did was he gave you a chance.”

He also had a knack for spotting shows that were ending their run at other theaters but still had wheels and potential, according to friends.

Before becoming a theater owner, Mr. Bragan volunteered with The Saints, a nonprofit group that helps with theater tasks ranging from box office duties to answering phones, stuffing envelopes and ushering.

Mr. Bragan grew up in Baltimore and earned a business degree from Louisiana Tech University and an MBA from Northwestern University.

Mr. Bragan, who held a seat at the Mercantile Exchange until selling it in 1991, sold the Ivanhoe in 2001 after a dispute with a neighbor over parking spaces that were critical to the theater’s success.

The Ivanhoe had been a restaurant and a theater under previous ownership dating back to the 1920s. Part of the interior was decorated like a forest. And part of the basement resembled catacombs.

It played an important role in developing the city’s off-Loop theater scene. Under Bragan’s ownership, the Ivanhoe presented stars including Ellen Burstyn and Loretta Swit (in “Shirley Valentine”), songwriting great Sammy Cahn (in a one-man retrospective of his career) and “Mary Tyler Moore Show” cast member Georgia Engel (in “Nonsense”)

The building is now a Binny’s liquor store.

Mr. Bragan also founded A.R.T. League Inc., which placed ads for theaters in media publications around town. He continued doing that work long after shutting the Ivanhoe.

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