Chicago comedy institution iO Theater will reopen after sale

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Chicago comedy institution iO Theater will reopen after sale
Inside the iO Theater in Chicago, May 14, 2021. More than a year after it was announced that the Chicago improv mainstay iO Theater was closing permanently because of the financial strain of the pandemic, the theater’s building and brand have been sold to local real estate executives, the institution’s founder said Monday, July 19. Lawrence Agyei/The New York Times.

by Julia Jacobs

CHICAGO (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- More than a year after it was announced that the Chicago improv mainstay iO Theater was closing permanently because of the financial strain of the pandemic, the theater’s building and brand have been sold to local real estate executives, the institution’s founder said Monday.

Charna Halpern, who started iO four decades ago, said the theater would reopen under the ownership of Scott Gendell and Larry Weiner, who both run real estate companies in the Chicago area. The closure of the theater — which played a crucial part in the careers of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Stephen Colbert — was a major loss for the city’s community of improvisers, many of whom studied, performed and socialized there.

“It’s a huge relief that this thing I’ve been working on for 40 years is going to continue,” Halpern said.

In a statement, Gendell and Weiner, who describe themselves as lifelong friends, said that they planned to “continue the cultural gem that is this iconic theater.”

In June 2020, three months into the pandemic, Halpern announced that she was closing iO for good, saying that the pressure of mounting bills, without any income during the shutdown, had become untenable. “At this point in my life, I can’t continue the struggle to stay open,” Halpern said then.

The announcement came at the same time that performers associated with iO called for major efforts to improve diversity and equity there. In a petition, they said they would refuse to perform at iO unless its leadership met a series of demands: they asked Halpern to “publicly acknowledge and apologize for the institutional racism perpetuated at iO,” as well as hire a diversity and inclusion coordinator.

About a week after the petition was published and Halpern had agreed to work toward meeting the demands, she announced that iO would close for good, stunning performers. She said in May that if iO had been on better financial footing, she would have met with the protesters and addressed their concerns, but that she could not do so when the theater’s prospects were so bleak.

In the months since Halpern put the building, at 1501 N. Kingsbury St., on the market, her hopes that someone would step in to save the institution brightened and flickered out again and again. She said recently there had been at least three interested buyers, including a Hollywood talent agency. At one point she contemplated reopening the theater herself, but a leaky roof introduced another financial roadblock, she said.

For the time being, the closed theater appears frozen in time, with signs pointing audiences where to line up for shows that were scheduled for March 2020.

Now, the task of making the theater's four stages operational again will be up to the new owners, whose deal was finalized last week, Halpern said. She declined to disclose the price.

With this sale, as well as that of another storied comedy theater, Second City, Chicago’s improv scene looks very different from it did a year ago. Second City had faced its own accusations of institutional racism and calls for reform, and new leaders there pledged to “tear it all down and begin again.” In February, it was sold to a private equity group, ZMC, run by Strauss Zelnick, and in May it resumed live performances.

Although it is unclear when iO will reopen, the sale will help the city become a comedy “mecca” again, Halpern said, after months of darkened theaters.

For Halpern, who has run the theater from the beginning and — along with her partner Del Close — helped transform improvisation from a marginal art form into a bustling business, it is unclear what her role will be going forward, although she says, “I’m happy to return in some capacity if they want me.”

“The other day I turned over the keys,” she added, “and when they walked me out and said, ‘Thank you, Charna,’ it was the first time I cried. It really hit me.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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