News Column

Executive Profile: Lou Raizin

November 4, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 04--Broadway in Chicago President Lou Raizin, who prefers to work behind the scenes, has one academic milestone he's happy to tout: getting tossed out of high school.

As technical director for a student production of "Sweet Charity," he and the show's director broke the rules by sneaking into their suburban Detroit school one night to finish the set for the next day's rehearsal. They toiled through the night, only to be busted in the morning by the theater teacher, who found them asleep in the orchestra pit. The principal, none too amused, sent them home for a day.

"It's one of the things I joke with my wife about," Raizin said. "Growing up as a kid, you always hear there's a 'permanent record' ... so I don't know, it might be out there somewhere."

Seated in the company's wine-red conference room, its walls lined with stage show posters, he laughs at the memory. A few minutes later, the theater executive acknowledges that the incident offers a glimpse of who he is: "I don't let anything go. I will work on projects until they get done."

Raizin's impatience to accomplish goals quickly, a knack for savvy real estate plays, an aggressive style of negotiation and an ability to navigate the halls of political power have left an indelible imprint downtown. The 13-year-old Broadway in Chicago that he leads is not only a dominant player in the theater scene, but Raizin himself is a force in the city's tourism efforts.

"I take no prisoners," Raizin said, describing the negotiating skills he sharpened when he was in the scrappy outdoor concert business. He has put those skills to use in assembling five downtown theaters as venues for shows, and in establishing the city as a market for long-running productions rather than just a quick tour stop.

Broadway in Chicago brings a wide array of offerings to the city, from Broadway hits to shows preparing to run in New York, the latter representing a growing slice of its business. Shows such as "Wicked," "Book of Mormon" and "Kinky Boots" take the stage in its ornate historic theaters. The company is one of the enterprises of New York's Nederlander family.

The company does not share financial results, but its scale is evident in its attendance numbers. On behalf of various show producers, it sells up to 1.7 million tickets a year -- close to the 2.2 million attendees at McCormick Place last year -- and draws tourists from across the Midwest to an increasingly vibrant downtown, where they book 640,000 hotel rooms a year.

"Wicked," which drew 2.9 million patrons on its last long run here, returned for another stint Wednesday, just ahead of Halloween. Three shows are expected to have tryouts here next year before heading to Broadway, including "The Last Ship," starring Sting, and "Houdini," with Hugh Jackman.

The organization continues to face criticism that its omnipresence in the media and its 2011 success in winning state tax breaks to bring in pre-Broadway tryouts and long runs can make it difficult for smaller Chicago theaters and their homegrown projects to gain recognition.

"It's great for audiences to be able to see a lot of the shows they bring in ... but it can be problematic at times when Broadway in Chicago drowns out the rest of what's going on in Chicago," said Tony Adams, artistic director at Halcyon Theatre in the Albany Park neighborhood.

Raizin sees it differently: "We may be the guys who make a lot of noise and stand there and beat the drum. At the same time, we'll support a lot of the work that takes place in the city in any way we can."

He cites Broadway in Chicago's sponsorship of the League of Chicago Theatres' annual Emerging Theater Award, which provides financial and consulting assistance to the winner.

Roche Schulfer, executive director of the Goodman Theatre, the nonprofit powerhouse that competes downtown with Broadway in Chicago, sees its rival as a "gateway for producing new theatergoers."

"'Wicked' created a whole new generation by virtue of getting teenagers to the show," he said.

A number of competitors and associates also say Raizin's commitment to civic involvement has helped the organization garner good will within Chicago's theater world, which has grown to more than 250 League of Theatres members from about 150 in 1999.

"They are really good citizens, and you don't see that with road presenters in other communities," said David Hawkanson, executive director of Steppenwolf Theatre Co. on the Near North Side.

Going rogue

Raizin is a major backstage player in Mayor Rahm Emanuel's push to increase tourism, especially among big-spending international visitors. Tourists buy 42 percent of Broadway in Chicago tickets, with long-run shows pulling from a five-state region.

The growth potential is significant: Tourists buy more than 60 percent of Broadway tickets in New York, a much bigger destination for foreign visitors.

"That's one of those opportunities for us that I think is a huge opportunity," said Raizin, who serves on the executive committees of tourism agency Choose Chicago, the Chicago Central Area Committee and the Chicago Loop Alliance. Broadway in Chicago also has been a regular donor to local and state political campaigns, giving more than $80,000 since its founding in 2000, according to state records.

In his civic roles, Raizin, 58, does more than attend the occasional meeting, observers say.

"I can't think of a board member or anyone in the business community who I've had more contact with than Lou," said Choose Chicago CEO Don Welsh, adding that they speak or meet two to three times a week. "He spent no less than 10 hours reviewing our business projections and budgets -- he's very free with his time."

He's also part of a coterie of Choose Chicago board members who have gone a bit rogue, brainstorming among themselves about private investments that could heighten the city's profile, from airborne glass cable cars running along the riverfront to designated luxury cars on the transit line to O'Hare.

"There are a couple of us that are out there ... by ourselves doing this work, and we'll see where it goes," Raizin said.

Veteran hotel investor Laurence Geller, one of the Choose Chicago board members involved in this effort -- one of the "crazies," as he puts it -- recalls trying to hash out a tourism issue during a phone call with Raizin one Saturday last fall.

"He says: 'I'll meet you at the Bloomingdale's building in two hours to figure it out,'" Geller said, noting Raizin, an avid bicyclist, showed up in full biking attire, having pedaled in from his home in Lincolnshire, ruminating on solutions along the way.

"The fact that he'd jump on his bike on a Saturday or Sunday is craziness ... it was bloody freezing out," Geller said. "Whatever he does, it's that kind of compulsive passion."

Longtime friend Mark Campana, co-president of North American concerts for Live Nation, said Raizin is driven by more than a desire to sell more theater tickets: "He has a very deep-rooted love for the city."

Poplar Creek's opening act

Raizin has spent his entire career working for interests connected to the Nederlander family, whose longtime beachhead in Chicago was the Shubert Theater, now Bank of America Theatre. The New York theatrical clan was an innovator in the outdoor amphitheater business in the 1970s and '80s, and has produced more than 100 Broadway and touring shows.

Raizin, the son of a podiatrist and a nurse, was 18 when he took a summer job in 1973 as an usher at the Nederlander Organization's Pine Knob Music Theatre in Clarkston, Mich. He worked at concerts by such performers as James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Neil Diamond and Santana.

An analytical type, he began to think about what the experience was like for the performers and the audience, and about how the enterprise made money, he said.

"By the end of that initial season, I was in charge of the ushers," he said. He continued working for the venue during summer breaks from Michigan State, where he received a degree in finance and psychology, and became Pine Knob's general manager.

At age 22, the organization sent him to Chicago to open its Poplar Creek Music Theater in Hoffman Estates. Campana was one of his first hires.

"We all thought Lou was much older than he was," said Campana, hired to handle subscriptions. "He was a young man who carried himself as an elder."

At the same time, "Lou, quite frankly, threw the best staff parties," he said, recalling one in which Lou sat on a dunk tank perch, in full scuba gear, while revelers threw balls to try to knock him down. "Summer amphitheater was like summer camp. You can imagine what the parties were like after the audience leaves."

Nederlander later sold the Poplar Creek property to Sears, Roebuck & Co. for its headquarters-anchored business park, and Raizin helped Nederlander take ownership positions in the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in southern Wisconsin and World Music Theatre in Tinley Park.

The Tinley Park deal forced a partnership between Nederlander and its archrival, Chicago's Jam Productions, which was booking the venue.

Jerry Mickelson, a partner in Jam Productions, likened the situation to putting boxers Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson in the same room after Tyson bit off part of Holyfield's ear in their famed 1997 bout. "It could have turned into a bad marriage, but rather than making it miserable or difficult, Lou went out of his way to make sure we were all on the same page," Mickelson said. "I credit him, and thank him, for being a gentleman."

In 1999, the Nederlander family sold its interest in seven concert venues, including World Music Theatre and Alpine Valley, for $94 million to SFX Entertainment.

The Nederlanders, with Raizin's assistance, turned their gaze to Chicago's fledgling Loop theater district, which had been launched with public subsidies during former Mayor Richard M. Daley's administration. At various points during the past 13 years, some key players foundered, opening the door for Broadway in Chicago to gradually increase its holdings.

In addition to the former Shubert, Broadway in Chicago owns the Cadillac Palace, the Oriental Theatre and the Broadway Playhouse, formerly the Drury Lane Theatre at Water Tower Place. The company also has a partnership with Roosevelt University's Auditorium Theatre.

Its only commercial competition downtown is the Chicago Theatre, owned by Madison Square Garden Co.

It's a very different situation than in New York, where there is genuine competition.

James Nederlander, president of the Nederlander Organization, where Raizin is senior vice president, describes Raizin's role within the family enterprises as a behind-the-scenes powerhouse. "He is very smart, very tenacious, and he's able to figure things out when there is any kind of gridlock in negotiations."

Ticket prices at shows presented by Broadway in Chicago vary greatly, but the best seats at blockbuster productions such as "Wicked" command prices of more than $300.

Broadway in Chicago earns money from show producers and theatergoers. Depending on the production, the company is the landlord to the shows, the presenting organization and sometimes an investor.

Asked if the company was profitable, Raizin quipped: "It's a profitable venture, he says with a smile."

Lessons, ideas

Raizin, an accomplished photographer, is always casting about for breakthrough ideas, according to friends and associates.

"I was on a flight with him ... expecting to go through the work we had going at the time," recalls Suzanne Bizer, one of his key lieutenants. "Instead, he pulled out a legal pad and said: 'What are the things we should be doing or should consider doing.'"

He attends shows at many smaller theaters and was especially mesmerized by an Australian company's "en route," an audio-guided solo journey through Chicago's streets and alleys, brought here in 2011 by Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

"You really start thinking about where do we live and what's around us," he said. "I love spending time thinking about those pieces."

Broadway in Chicago pushes its boundaries at times, he said, citing "Fuerza Bruta: Look Up," a primal, clublike experience by Argentina's De La Guarda company, staged in the elegant Auditorium in 2010.

The show closed early and was a big money-loser for Broadway in Chicago, but it provided lessons for how to branch out, perhaps by presenting edgier projects without the umbrella branding and in rougher-hewn spaces, Raizin said.

"We were your parents' venue ... and that's not who we were marketing to," Raizin said. "There are shows like this, I'm convinced, that are magical and can bring a whole new audience into theater."

Tribune reporter Chris Jones contributed.

kbergen@tribune.com

Twitter @kathy_bergen

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Lou Raizin

Age: 58

Lives: Divides time between Lincolnshire home and Gold Coast condo

Family: Married to Jill Myers, a painter and co-owner of a gallery. Their daughter, Alexandra, 27, is an engineer at Apple in San Francisco; and their son, Joshua, 25, is studying for his MBA at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business.

Another talent: An accomplished photographer, he built his first darkroom at age 13. His parents "didn't discourage it, and that's helped me in a lot of ways," he said. "I was given a long enough leash to be able to do what I wanted to do and find a path that was meaningful for me." His work is on display in five galleries.

Early plans: As a young man, he planned to go to law school. "That's really where I was headed at one point in time and wound up making a hard left turn, saying that I can finish up school at any time. ... I'm still in that mode," he said, joking. "I'm in a rut."

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