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Merle Reskin Theatre

The Merle Reskin Theatre is a performing arts venue located in the Loop community area of Chicago, Illinois. Originally named the Blackstone Theatre, it was founded in 1910. The Merle Reskin Theatre is now part of DePaul University, although it is still used for events not affiliated with the university. It serves as the home of The Theatre School at DePaul University.

The building was designed by Marshall and Fox and developed by Tracy C. Drake and John Drake of Drake Hotel fame on the former site of Timothy Blackstone's mansion. The theatre has a rich history of live performances that have traditionally been touring productions of hit and prize-winning shows.

Building

The building was designed by the firm of Marshall and Fox, who also designed the adjacent Blackstone Hotel in 1909. As with the hotel, the theatre took its name from Timothy Blackstone, whose mansion had previously occupied the site. The original address was on Hubbard Court, which was later renamed Seventh Street, and renamed once again to East Balbo Drive, the current name. The building is six stories tall and built in a French Renaissance style. Constructed only seven years after the Iroquois Theater Fire, the theater was required to be fireproof and the management claimed the auditorium could be cleared in three minutes. Seating capacity was 1,400 people until 1988, when renovations to reinstate the orchestra pit and to create seating for handicapped persons reduced the seat count to 1,325.

The developers of both the Blackstone Hotel and Blackstone Theatre were Tracy C. Drake and John Drake, better known as developers and proprietors of the Drake Hotel. Their father, John Drake (1826-1895) had been a business partner of Blackstone's.

The building of the Blackstone Theatre directly resulted in the shuttering of an older, nearby theatre, the Olympia.

History of the Blackstone Theatre

The theatre officially opened on December 31, 1910, with the premiere of George Ade's play "U.S. Minister Bedloe." Although the first production at the theatre was original, most of the performances at the Blackstone were plays which had already won the Pulitzer Prize or the Tony Award, presented by touring companies from New York.

The theater was managed by Harry J. Powers, who worked for the management company of Klaw & Erlanger and Charles Frohman, who incorporated under the name "Blackstone Theatre Company" (which was part of their larger Theatrical Syndicate, formed in 1896). During the first decade of operation, the theatre held productions by the Stratford-Upon-Avon Players. They performed fourteen of Shakespeare's plays in two weeks during 1913, George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion" in 1914, and Louis N. Parker's "Disraeli."

Because the Blackstone Theatre was a touring theatre, many actors appeared there who would not have otherwise had that opportunity if the venue had specialized in new productions. Some of the actors who graced the stage of the Blackstone include Ethel Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Ruth Gordon, Cornelia Otis Skinner, and Spencer Tracy. During the 1920s the Blackstone presented 60 plays by playwrights such as George Bernard Shaw, Eugene O'Neill, Sean O'Casey, Sir Arthur Wing Pinero, Richard Sheridan, Ben Jonson, Oliver Goldsmith, Frank Craven and George M. Cohan.

At the end of 1930, the Blackstone Theatre Company terminated its lease. Building owners John and Tracy Drake managed the theatre for a year before foreclosure loomed in 1932. In 1934, they leased the theatre to Playgoer's Incorporated, although this group only lasted a year.

The Blackstone was saved in the 1930s by the Federal Theatre Project, which leased the theatre in 1936 and continued to use it for rehearsals and productions until the program was abolished by Congress in 1939. During this period, the Blackstone played host to original plays.

In 1940, the theater was rented by Oscar Sertin, who staged "Life with Father" starring Lillian Gish, which opened in February and ran for more than a year. The following year, Buddy Ebsen starred in "Good Night Ladies!," which ran for 100 weeks. From 1942 through 1945, the theatre was run by Slavin Amusement Company. In 1945, a reconstituted Blackstone Theatre Company managed the hall until 1948 when the Shubert Brothers bought the theatre.

With the rise of other forms of entertainment, such as television, attendance at live theaters declined and the Shubert Organization scaled back the Blackstone's season from 28 weeks to as few as 14 weeks each year.

1959 saw the premiere of Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun." Although the play was successful, after four weeks it left Chicago for New York. Around the same time, a renaissance in Chicago theatre was taking place on the city's north side.

The Blackstone was dark from 1986 until August 1988, when it reopened to Lily Tomlin's one woman show "The Search For Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe." At this time, the Shubert Organization decided it was time to divest itself of all Chicago theatres except for the Shubert Theatre on Monroe Street. The building was offered to DePaul University. Although DePaul's Theatre School began officially performing in the Blackstone on March 21, 1989, with a production of The Misanthrope by Molière, it had an earlier production of "The Phantom Tollbooth". In addition to the Theatre School, the building is also used by other arts organizations.

In 1992, Harold and Merle Reskin made a sizable donation to the Theatre School and on November 20, the theatre was renamed the Merle Reskin Theatre. Merle Reskin (nee Muskal) had spent five years as a professional actress, portraying Ensign Janet MacGregor in "South Pacific" on Broadway and appearing with Etta Moten. She gave up her career upon marrying Reskin in 1955, however she spent thirty years as the Midwest Regional Auditioner for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

Theatre School

The Goodman School of Drama (renamed The Theatre School in 1985) was founded in 1925. It joined DePaul University in 1978 and the 2005-2006 season marked its 80th anniversary. Alumni include Gillian Anderson, John C. Reilly, Scott Ellis, Joe Mantegna, Theoni V. Aldredge, Karl Malden, Michael Rooker, Elizabeth Perkins, Judy Greer and Eugene Lee.

Season

Each year The Theatre School presents the Chicago Playworks series as well as The Theatre School Showcase, which both run throughout the academic year at the Merle Reskin Theatre. Chicago Playworks presents works intended for families and young audiences, while the Showcase series offers contemporary plays and classics.

2006-2007 Theatre School Showcase

Cloud Nine by Caryl Churchill — This constantly shifting, time-defying play explores gender and sexuality from the 1880s to the 21st century. 10/6/06 through 10/15/06 with previews on 10/4 and 10/5. Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 PM, Sundays at 2:00 PM.

Life's A Dream by Pedro Calderón de la Barca — Calderón's beautiful poetry weaves a tale about following destiny and walking the fine line between dreams and reality. 2/9/07 through 2/18/07 with previews on 2/7 and 2/8. Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 PM, Sundays at 2:00 PM.

The Trial by Franz Kafka — A play that brilliantly illuminates Kafka's questions about the nature of authority, the ambiguity of justice and the power of guilt. 4/20/07 through 4/29/07 with previews on 4/18 and 4/19. Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 PM, Sundays at 2:00 PM.

Like a Cow or an Elephant by Kara Lee Corthron — This play was the recipient of the Theodore Ward Prize for African American Playwrights at Columbia College. The play follows Kreena, a 30-year-old woman who works as a janitor - a job she cherishes - and her struggle through many personal and familial obstacles to find independence and self actualization

Notes

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