Part of the Chicago Icons series from the 2023 Best of Chicago edition. Read the rest here.
I couldn’t get a work permit in Paris because somehow I couldn’t prove to the French government that it needed another wannabe painter.
Taxi drivers in Chicago were more informed than most people I knew in California, so in the early 1970s I chose to come back to Chicago.
It has been good to me.
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My colleague at the Illinois Arts Council, Ann Barzel, introduced me to dance and a host of other riches. I had no idea that she was a preeminent dance historian. Later she left her collection of dance films and ephemera to the Newberry Library.
When I got to know Bruce Sagan, I learned that he had brought dance companies to a converted movie theater in Hyde Park. Among the dance companies that Bruce brought by station wagon was the fledgling Joffrey company.
Gerald Arpino and Robert Joffrey had started the company in 1956. Chief patron Rebekah Harkness tried to take over the company in 1964—she owned the costumes, dances and all—so when Bob Joffrey said no to changing the company name from Joffrey to the Harkness ballet, there was nothing to do but start over.
Touring with Arpino, The Harper Dance Festival gave Gerry and his little group of young dancers a chance and when the legendary dance critic Clive Barnes, then at the beginning of his tenure at the New York Times, came to see them in Chicago in 1965 it was the new start they needed.
Fast-forward many years when Bruce and I had converted an apple-picking barn into a little cottage in the woods in upstate New York. Bruce got a call from Gerry asking if he could come and visit. Gerry arrived with an entourage of the company, a photographer and the publicist. There were three major dance companies in New York at that time, and a recession. Several Joffrey board members who were from Chicago suggested that Gerry, the surviving founder after Joffrey’s passing in 1988, bring the company to Chicago.
Gerry wanted Bruce’s advice and Bruce was all-in.
The owner of the Chas. Levy Company, the venerable Chicago-based national distributor of books and magazines, was a strong supporter of Joffrey and a board member. The company sent trucks bearing their slogan, “Readers Are Leaders,” to New York, emptied the Joffrey warehouse and transported all the costumes and sets to Chicago. Bruce found an old building on Wabash and Lake that had a medical theater where students watched operations (or maybe autopsies). It was a very cheap space, as no one wanted it. Bruce figured because of the tall ceilings it could be a rehearsal space and worked to convert it into a rehearsal studio.
What other dance there was in Chicago at the time worried loudly that Joffrey would absorb all the money and interest in dance that there was in the city. There are dozens of healthy dance companies being supported by Chicago now. This holiday season, Joffrey’s beautiful production of “The Nutcracker” was the best-attended in its history.
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Back in 1979 when I was working at the Landmarks Preservation Council a wonderful guy from downstate was in town and said his kid was going to be in a play that night. I knew Bruce didn’t like amateur productions, but I asked him to come see the kid’s play as a favor to me.
The play was “Say Goodnight, Gracie.” My friend’s kid was John Malkovich and the cast included Joan Allen, Austin Pendleton, Glenne Headly, Robert Biggs and Francis Guinan. At intermission, we decided we had to see everything this little company called Steppenwolf did, because we were sure they would move to New York in a New York minute.
At another production, Hedy Ratner saw Bruce in the audience and thought he would make a good board member. Bruce joined the Steppenwolf board but he was still afraid Chicago would lose Steppenwolf’s amazing ensemble of talent unless they had a new home. He led the way to build a new theater just for them, which opened in 1991. Last year, Steppenwolf added another theater to what has become a compound on Halsted.
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I knew Hedy because I had convinced some organizations like Continental Bank and the Union League Club that the neighborhood would slip into further blight unless they worked with the struggling new housing in Dearborn Park and the newly landmarked Printers Row to promote the area. (interest rates were fifteen percent at the time.)
Nearly everything from out the back door of the Hilton on Michigan Avenue to Clark Street and from Jackson to 18th Street was a wasteland.
We formed an organization, which later became The Near South Planning Board, and started working to get people to come to cultural events. Hedy came to ask if we would help sponsor an enormous feminist work that local museums had all turned down.
The undertaking was a little difficult for our board, which was all men, but space was found and the show was a success and even extended. An all-women volunteer committee met every week for a year to raise money in order to put on the exhibit. The proceeds, made from admissions, went to the brand-new Chicago Foundation for Women. The artwork, called “The Dinner Party” by Judy Chicago is now housed permanently in the Brooklyn Museum. New York got that one.
Bette Cerf Hill is a painter, poet and a community activist who was Deputy Commissioner of the state’s Bicentennial Commission, the Executive Director of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois and a board member of The Chicago Architecture Foundation. Hill founded the community organization that became the Near South Planning Board and the Printers Row Book Fair (now known as the Printers Row Lit Fest), has served as a State of Illinois Public Art Advisory committee member and served on the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women. Hill is a founding advisory board member of the Rush Neurological Behavioral Center for children with brain-based problems. Additionally, Hill is a founding board member of the Young Women’s Leadership Charter School of Chicago.