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Redmoon Theater Permanently Closing After Fire Fest Debacle, Financial Woes

By Stephanie Lulay | December 21, 2015 2:37pm
 Redmoon staged the Great Chicago Fire Festival on Northerly Island this year.
Redmoon staged the Great Chicago Fire Festival on Northerly Island this year.
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Evan Barr

PILSEN — After 25 years of staging large-scale theatrical events across the city, Redmoon Theater is closing its doors for good.

Faced with mounting financial problems, the Pilsen theater at 2120 S. Jefferson St. is shuttering operations altogether this month, Redmoon executive director Jim Lasko told DNAinfo Chicago Monday.

Redmoon's closing comes after a recent lawsuit alleging the company owed more than $60,000 in back rent.

The lawsuit prompted Redmoon to cancel its annual New Year's Eve Spectacle party at the venue. Although it was still advertising the event as late as Dec. 6, by Dec. 14 angry patrons who had purchased tickets were asking why their ticket purchase was refunded.

Late last week, the Reader reported that landlord Phillip Mumford filed suit against Redmoon in October, claiming Redmoon owed unpaid rent for September and October and continued to occupy the property after its right to possession had been terminated. In total, Redmoon owed $62,082, according to the court filing. 

On Monday, Lasko didn't dispute the theater owes back rent.

"I just feel sad that it came to this," Lasko said. "But I'm trying to focus on the good things we accomplished."

The theater company's employees have all been let go, and the theater plans to vacate the building before the end of January, Lasko said. At its peak, Redmoon employed 19 people.

Redmoon representatives are due in court on the case Wednesday.

Part out-there costume party, part theater event, Redmoon Theater was known for its Boneshaker Halloween celebration in Pilsen. [Redmoon Theater]

Two big bets

Lasko said the theater was ultimately sunk by "two big bets" Redmoon made three years ago — a planned move to a massive 57,000-square-foot space in Pilsen and the now-infamous Great Chicago Fire Fest in 2014. 

"We bet on the Great Chicago Fire Fest, and we bet on our home," Lasko said. "In the end, one of them needed to pay off, and neither did."

Hoping to have a bigger impact on the great city of Chicago, theater leaders decided to expand from a space in West Town to the larger space in Pilsen about three years ago.

"We bet that we could do our events indoors and earn real revenue," Lasko said. And for a time, the theater was doing well in the new space; shows and parties were selling out.

But Redmoon's plan to sublet the west side of the space didn't pan out with the landlord, hurting the theater's bottom line, Lasko said. The nonprofit theater company that was funded through grants and donations had a five-year lease on the building through February 2018, Lasko confirmed.

And then there was the now-notorious Great Chicago Fire Festival that Redmoon staged on the Chicago River in October 2014.

The Fire Fest that fizzled

Well documented in headlines and by a crowd of tens of thousands who braved cold, gloomy weather expecting a spectacle, Redmoon's inaugural Great Chicago Fire Festival in 2014 was considered at best a failure and at worst a fiasco.

When the floating constructions fashioned after Victorian mansions didn't burn brightly on the Chicago River as promised — the intent was to represent the city's rebirth after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 — the disappointed crowd turned to chanting: "We want fire."

The closing ceremony's "failure to ignite" not only cast a cloud over the entire fest, it also made it much more difficult for the theater to raise money for the event in 2015. While the theater staged a scaled-back, more successful fest this year at Northerly Island, the city yanked its funding for the fest in October.

Both moves — the big space and the Great Chicago Fire Fest — didn't pan out, Lasko admits.

"We chose to make a big leap. It was a very conscious effort to achieve a scale, to elevate our game [to serve the entire city of Chicago] and we just couldn't sustain it," he said.

But Lasko doesn't regret the ambitious moves. The theater could have "struggled through" this financial hardship and chosen to regroup as a smaller entity, but that wouldn't make sense for the theater company that had plans to impact the city on a large scale, he said.

"This moment is very difficult, having to let people go, feeling [like we] let anybody down. But that is the scale we wanted to achieve to feel like we were having a real impact on the city. I don't regret it. [We] took the bet, and it didn't pay out," Lasko said. 

A look back

During its 25 years in operation, Redmoon Theater brought "unique, exciting and free" performances to 40 of Chicago's neighborhoods, helped open Millennium Park, staged theatrical parties and private events and helped nurture and mentor artists who went on "to make their own great art," Lasko said.

Started in 1990, the theater received grants of at least $100,000 from Allstate, Bloomberg philanthropies, the MacArthur Foundation, Pritzker Foundation and Pritzker Pucker Family Foundation, according to the theater's website. Despite its closing, Redmoon was "in good stead" with all major funders, Lasko said.

Redmoon's Winter Pageant in 2014. [Al Zayed]

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