When the man on the phone said, "This is your mayor," Sarah Ward thought she was being punked.
"Shut up," the South Chicago Art Center executive director said. "This isn't the mayor."
"Actually, it is the mayor," Rahm Emanuel told her. Then, he got straight to the point.
Pearl Jam — the socially conscious rockers from Seattle who play at Wrigley Field July 19 — pledged to donate a portion of ticket sale revenue to the tiny after-school art program Ward founded on the Far Southeast Side 12 years ago.
Plus, the Cubs — and the family charity of baseball boss Theo Epstein, A Foundation To Be Named Later — pitched in to double the amount to $65,000.
"And that's when I was like Shut the F up." Ward said. "You're kidding."
No joke, the mayor told her.
Pearl Jam donates $2 from each ticket sold at most of its shows to its Vitalogy Foundation, which scouts local charities to help. Front man Eddie Vedder and his bandmates personally select the groups that the foundation helps, according to the band's website.
In addition to South Chicago Art Center, Pearl Jam pledged to donate cash to Marwen, a River North arts program for underprivileged youth.
Marwen boss Antonia Contro said she got the call from Emanuel while vacationing in a little cottage in the woods.
"I was just beside myself. Absolutely thrilling," Contro said. “I immediately went on a Pearl Jam bender. I’ve been listening to Pearl Jam for so long, and Eddie Vedder. Love them. And it's so great to get selected for this by a band who you have an artistic affinity with."
Pearl Jam's donation comes at a defining moment for Marwen, which is set to launch a fundraising campaign aimed at expanding its River North building into an urban art campus for kids.
"This is a really exciting moment, a milestone moment, for Marwen," Contro said. "And getting a gift like this will really help to energize that."
For South Chicago Art Center, 3217 E. 91st St., the impact is even bigger. The gift equals 20 percent of center’s total budget.
"That's an insane amount of money for us," said Ward, a punk-rocker turned art teacher. "This is ginormous."
On Wednesday, Emanuel and Epstein visited Ward and her students at the converted 800-square-foot house staffed by two people — and two dogs — that locals call the "Happy Art Center."
"You come down here and it's not a photo op. It's not polished. It's not a Marwen,” Ward said. "But the minute you walk in you get a real feel for it and how it's the only place down here for kids to go."
While the mayor talked with kids as they made art, Epstein drew a dinosaur with colored pencils. Then, the Cubs' president of baseball operations gave Ward a bit of business advice.
“He said I need to find my inner cold-hearted corporate person and really take advantage of this,” Ward said. “I'm just an artist who started a program and it grew into this. We had about 3,900 kids last year. That's a crapload for this little rinky-dink art center."
Ward hopes to use the donation to buy a bigger building she's had her eye on — in a rare part of South Chicago that isn’t claimed as gang turf.
"I'm on the Far Southeast Side. I'm not gonna cry and play violin about how few people know about little organizations like us that do so much for kids who are just stuck down here,” Ward said. “This kind of generosity doesn’t come too often. I've been surviving on a shoestring for a long time. I told the mayor about my dream building — a place that has dedicated studios, kilns, computers and a gallery space."
In addition to the cash, Pearl Jam plans to add a link on its foundation website so the band's fans — there's 13 million of them on the mailing list — can donate directly to Marwen and South Chicago Art Center.
After Pearl Jam's sold-out show at Wrigley, Ward, Contro and a few of the kids in their programs will get to meet Vedder and the guys.
"I want to tell him thank you for being philanthropic, and I’d love it they'd come back and visit and see what the money can do for our kids,” she said. “It will have such a huge effect. Huge. This is just amazing. All the stars aligned."