The owners of Hamburger Mary’s have big ideas for the former Star Gaze nightclub space in Andersonville. They want to turn the building, vacant since 2009, into a two-space venue that would be home to Hell in a Handbag Productions as well as hosting other theatrical groups. But Mary’s co-owner, Ashley Wright, says the building’s owners appear to have suddenly rejected their proposal last week in favor of leasing the space to a restaurant—something this stretch of Clark Street is not lacking for.
Neighborhood blog A-Ville Daily first reported on August 30 that Mary’s owners had designs on turning 5419 North Clark Street, empty since the closing of Star Gaze a year and a half ago, into a venue sporting a 100-seat main stage, a 44-seat cabaret theater and a lobby bar. But Wright, who owns Hamburger Mary’s with his brother Brandon, said later that day that the deal was looking less than likely.
“We had been negotiating for the lease, but the landlords have decided to rent it to another restaurant instead,” Wright says. “So what we’ve been trying to do is change their mind.” Wright notes that more than 50 Clark Street businesses had signed a letter of support for the theater plan, which he says also has the support of the League of Chicago Theatres and 48th Ward Ald. Harry Osterman.
Wright says when the building’s owners, Newcastle Limited, asked for additional information on potential theater tenants, he secured verbal commitments from Hell in a Handbag, which would be in residence at the space, as well as About Face Theatre and Bailiwick Chicago, all of whom have previously held performance events at Mary’s Attic, Hamburger Mary’s upstairs bar. “We also were in the works with forming a production arm [so] we could eventually produce our own original shows,” he says.
Though Mary’s Attic, not to mention the Neo-Futurarium, seem to offer proof that there’s an audience for theatrical events in Andersonville, Wright said last week his impression was that Newcastle wasn’t convinced. “They felt it was less risky, I guess, to put in another restaurant. They answer to their shareholders; they’re looking at their risk factor. But I haven’t given up on it.”
Through a representative, Newcastle disputed Wright’s timeline, claiming the management company was already in final negotiations with the restaurant operator when Wright made his proposal, and that the restaurant actually had Ald. Osterman’s support. At press time, Ald. Osterman had yet to respond to a request for comment.
“This would bring so many opportunities: prime-time, late-night, weekends during the day for kids’ shows.… We’d have no problem filling the space,” says David Cerda, Hell in a Handbag’s artistic director, noting that theater spaces of this size are few and far between both in Andersonville and citywide. “I mean, nothing against restaurants, but this would be so much better for the neighborhood.”
Wright says he has hopes to make the venue “a little Main Street theater” for Andersonville. “It really doesn’t work on a side street, or anywhere that’s not on the main street of Andersonville, which is, you know, Clark Street,” he adds, noting that the only available space on the strip of a comparable size to 5419 is an empty garage that would require much more renovation, and whose proximity to the Philadelphia Church across the street would preclude it getting a liquor license. “That’s the unfortunate thing—there are other places for a restaurant to go. But really, if the theater doesn’t go here it’s probably just not going to happen.”