Holiday show helps theater get back in business

Sarah Roberts

Nearly one year after it abruptly closed, the former New American Theater’s stage lights went up again.

NAT founder J.R. Sullivan and a cast of local performers staged the 14th annual production of Sullivan’s “Hometown Holiday” at the intimate 280-seat downtown Rockford theater.

It marks a celebratory debut for the reincarnated venue and its backers, who are still feeling out exactly how the former theater will become the multipurpose facility they envision.

NAT closed Dec. 15, 2006, in the midst of its 35th season, citing financial hardships. In the ensuing months, various community members and groups tried to find ways to revive the theater. Businessman Richard Nordlof eventually purchased the building at 118 N. Main St. with the intent that it would be available to any group that wanted to rent it.

Nordlof, who Nov. 29 won the Register Star’s annual community-service Excalibur Award largely for his NAT intervention, said he and business partner LoRayne Logan will have more to announce about the building’s future after the first of the year.

Meanwhile, having Sullivan and Charlotte’s Web for the Performing Arts back in the building they made famous is encouraging to local art patrons.

“It’s like a Christmas gift to the city and a sign that we can continue our faith in what’s going to happen with that building,” said Anne O’Keefe, executive director of the Rockford Area Arts Council, who served on a task force that was formed after NAT closed. “This is certainly the shining star that we all need as we look to what the future of that building holds.”

If there were concerns that wooing people back to the former theater for the first time in nearly a year would be difficult, they were quickly put to rest by brisk ticket sales for “Hometown Holiday,” Sullivan’s annual variety show in the vein of National Public Radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion.”

“Everyone is just so excited to have Jim (Sullivan) back in town,” said Karen Howard, executive director of Charlotte’s Web for the Performing Arts, whose history is closely intertwined with the former NAT.

Neighbor reaction

Sullivan founded NAT in 1972 when he was 21 and fresh out of college. The theater group bounced around to a few locations in its early years before settling in 1986 at 118 N. Main St., where it built a national reputation as a quality theater and regularly drew guest actors from Chicago and Milwaukee.

NAT’s closure last year came as a shock to many in the artistic community, even though the theater had posted a profit only once in the previous 14 years. The impact of its loss on downtown seems, at least anecdotally, to be more psychological than monetary.

Neighboring businesses, such as Octane, Paragon on State and the J.R. Kortman Gallery, haven’t reported significant financial losses, said Kim Wheeler, who heads the River District Association of downtown businesses.

“But whenever anything closes that’s been here for a long time, it does impact the community in a negative way,” said Jerry Kortman, whose gallery is kitty-corner from the former NAT building on the downtown pedestrian mall. “It’s just one of those things where the more people you have in an area, the more business it spawns. Without the theater being open, we have fewer people who come into our business and others. Part of what makes downtown businesses work is feeding off of and benefiting from each other.”

Community moves on

As 2007 passed and various groups expressed interest in the NAT building, the local theater community began to regroup. 

In late May, the Riverfront Theatre Company debuted, driven partly by the loss of NAT. The company’s two vice presidents — Alan Williams and Michael Stanton Kelly — had long-standing ties to NAT, though the group is adamant it has no plans to mimic the former theater troupe.

Riverfront, which is using the theater at the Clock Tower Resort, is in the midst of its inaugural season; its first show, “Leaving Iowa,” wrapped in November.

The group plans to stage its second show, the musical “The Water Coolers,” in January, President Mark Kann said. Half the “Leaving Iowa” cast was from Chicago, Kann said, and Riverfront is in talks to have the director of the Chicago version of “The Water Coolers” helm the Rockford show as well.

Any hard feelings from Chicago actors who weren’t paid for “Oliver,” which was in midrun when NAT shut its doors, seem to have been buried, Kann said.

“Nothing that happened at NAT has been detrimental to us getting outside actors,” Kann said.

Nor did NAT season-ticket holders, who were not reimbursed when the theater closed, stage a public outcry, O’Keefe said. Other arts institutions, such as the Coronado Performing Arts Center, Rockford Dance Company, Pec Playhouse Theatre, Charlotte’s Web for the Performing Arts, Rockford College theaters and Mendelssohn Performing Arts Center, honored NAT tickets at their respective shows for the remainder of the season.

“I think season-ticket holders are the type of people who really understand the importance of arts and what a great loss NAT was and that it was unexpected,” O’Keefe said. “There was a nice effort on the part of other arts organizations to step up and try to help.”

Former NAT patrons like Marilan Jaegar turned to Rock Valley College and the Artists’ Ensemble Theater to help fill the void left by NAT.

“It left a big hole in my heart when (NAT) closed,” said Jaegar, who got involved with NAT 25 years ago and was one of the “Dirty Dozen,” a group of actors and volunteers who did everything from organize fundraisers to scrub toilets to keep the theater alive.

“It was a terrific thing for this city, and I hated to see it go, but I guess it’s one of those things that happens and you have to move on. If there’s a way to make (that building) viable for the whole city, it would be fantastic to get it going again.”

Breaking bad karma

One of the major undertakings in the past year was cleaning out the theater and making minor repairs. Costumes, props, furniture and other memorabilia intended for Rock Valley College’s theater department were shipped via 38 cargo trucks and 18 semitrailers this summer to a temporary warehouse, said Mike Webb, director of RVC’s Starlight Theatre. The college is in the process of moving the items to a storage space on campus, where they will be cataloged and used however the theater department sees fit. Webb also is working with Midway Village & Museum Center in Rockford, which may take some of the NAT memorabilia for its collections.

Nordlof and Logan have also enlisted Jay Graham of Graham Spencer Strategic Communications in Rockford to come up with a name for the building that will encompass the wide spectrum of its potential uses. In recent weeks, the former theater has been called the “118 Center” and “118 Building.” Logan said she began calling the former theater those names to “break the bad karma” associated with NAT’s closure.

It’s highly unlikely the new name will contain the word “theater,” Logan said, though the only stipulation she and Nordlof gave Graham was to find something “very inclusive and comprehensive” that will “denote a place for people to come together.”

In addition to the U-shaped theater, the three-story building contains dozens of offices and storage spaces, lending itself to smaller, multiuse events such as lectures, business dinners, wedding parties and children’s theater groups.

“People come to me all the time looking for different venues, and I can refer them to that building now,” said Wheeler of the River District Association. “It really fits a niche with the size that it is and has the potential to be used by so many different people and organizations in our community. It’ll be good to have some life back in the theater.”

Optimism for arts

For Sullivan, his annual homecoming is a bit bittersweet this year.

“To be in an old space where I spent so many years of my life staging shows and to be working with friends on this production for my hometown is really quite gratifying,” said Sullivan, who left NAT in 1994 to test larger theater waters and is now based in New York.

On the other hand, as he surveyed the names of NAT volunteers and donors listed in the former theater’s lobby in between rehearsals last week, he couldn’t help but feel a twinge of regret that the theater no longer exists for them. His “Hometown Holiday” is the first of what he hopes is many performances that breathe life back into the building.

“It’s my hope that for friends departed and friends still with us, this is a sign of optimism for the future, not necessarily a theater company like NAT was, but for the sheer vitality of the performing arts,” Sullivan said. “Any use of that building that involves poetry or music or people going in there for any of those things makes for a building of life and vitality that’s good for downtown Rockford. If that can happen, it’s an opportunity to be celebrated.”

Staff writer Sarah Roberts can be reached at 815-987-1352 or

NAT timeline

James R. Sullivan, 21 and fresh out of college, had an idea. He wanted to create a professional yet intimate theater in Rockford where contemporary plays would be performed. With help from his college friends, Sullivan’s idea became a reality. New American Theater opened its doors in 1972.

A brief look at NAT’s history:

1974: NAT incorporates as a nonprofit theater.

1975: NAT moves to 118 S. Main St., its home for the next 10 years.

1986: NAT moves to storefront at 118 N. Main St.

1993: Sullivan announces completion of a $300,000 “burn the mortgage” fundraising campaign.

1994: Sullivan leaves NAT to pursue acting, writing and producing opportunities in Chicago and New York. William Gregg, artistic director for TheatreVirginia in Richmond, Va., is hired to replace Sullivan.

1995: Gregg defends himself against a slew of resignations during his first year.

1999: NAT launches the “silent” phase of a $2 million fundraising campaign.

May 24, 2000: Gregg announces his plans to take a job at a theater in North Carolina.

August 2000: Retired Beloit College professor Carl Balson is named interim artistic director.

November 2000: Balson resigns from NAT, citing confusion over his role at the theater. A few days later, NAT Board President Judy Shields resigns as well, citing her inability to lead.

December 2000: Richard Raether is named artistic director, Mary Beaver administrative director. Charlie Granneman becomes board president.

July 2003: Artistic Director Richard Raether is fired.

October 2003: NAT borrows $100,000 to finish season.

November 2003: Chief Financial Officer Mary Beaver resigns.

December 2003: “Italian American Reconciliation” and “Moon Over the Brewery” canceled in cost-saving measure.

April 2004: Raether bands with other local actors to create Artists’ Ensemble Theater company.

August 2004: Tony Vezner, a veteran of Chicagoland stage plays who served as artistic director for six seasons with a suburban theater group, starts as artistic director.

March 2006: New American Theater announces that its 35th season will offer six plays, one more than the previous season.

December 2006: New American Theater closes because of financial difficulties.

February 2007: Anne O’Keefe, executive director of the Rockford Area Arts Council, and Cyndie Hall, director of the Mayor’s Office of Tourism, Culture and Special Events, start an ad hoc task force to examine ways to revive the theater.

April 2007: Arts leaders announce that a group of local, anonymous donors have pooled money to buy the New American Theater building, with the intent of using it as a multi-purpose facility.

May 2007: Riverfront Theatre Company debuts as the area’s new equity theater troupe and expresses an interest in the NAT building.

July 2007: Local businessman Richard Nordlof is publicly identified as the new owner and says he would like to donate the building to Rockford.

November 2007: Nordlof wins the Register Star’s Excalibur Award for his work on NAT. He and business partner LoRayne Logan say they will have more to announce about the building’s future in early 2008.

December 2007: Sullivan returns to Rockford to stage his 14th annual “Hometown Holiday” musical variety show. It is the first major production in the former NAT building in a year.