Entrepreneur envisions theater on Harrison

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By BEN MEYERSON

Jimmy Binns is hoping to add a little drama to the Oak Park Arts District.

Binns has set his sights on bringing a theater to Harrison Street, along with his four decades of theater experience. He's hoping to create an anchor for the burgeoning area, a fixture that will draw people from beyond the village and create more foot traffic.

Binns is looking at the old "Huskie Dome" space at 217 Harrison-best known as the orange garage door bearing a gigantic blue paw print. It sits between two recently renovated spaces: the new Trattoria 225 restaurant and the Brown Elephant resale shop. He wants two performance spaces in his proposed theater: a smaller gallery/cabaret setup in the front, with a larger theater space in the back.

Binns wants the front space to have something happening every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 52 weeks a year. Smaller productions, music, and poetry would be featured.

The back would be a larger theatrical space that would seat around 300 people. Subscriptions would be offered, providing an opportunity for more revenue over time.

But the theater would be more than just a resource for villagers. The accompanying increase of foot traffic would be a boon for the arts district, Binns said.

"Theater benefits area businesses more than it benefits itself. Every dollar spent at a theater means $10 for area businesses," he said, citing a study done by the League of Chicago Theaters.

Doris Weinbaum, owner of Bead in Hand and treasurer for the Harrison Street Business Association, embraces the notion.

"Anything that brings more traffic to this street will benefit all the businesses," said Weinbaum.

Val Camilletti, owner of recent Harrison transplant Val's halla Records, thinks the prospect of a theater would significantly increase the district's value as a destination.

"We want to say to people, 'Yeah, we know you come for Frank Lloyd Wright, we know you come for Hemingway. We think that, as long as you're here, you should visit the arts district. There's galleries to look at, there's places to eat, there's things to do, and now-potentially-there's a theater to explore.'"

When the village announced it would be building signs indicating the entrance to the arts district, "It scared me as an artist, that if the village is going to going to put up big archways, I don't want it to be an empty shell," said Binns, who himself lives on the corner of Harrison and Lombard, across from the Buzz Café.

Binns got his start working in theater in the 1960s when his father owned one. After attending New York University, he started working in improv in Chicago, where he built a theater for the Improv Institute.

But it was working on the Noble Fool Theater Company at State and Randolph in Chicago on "Block 37" that really showed him "what kind of maneuvering was necessary to make a project go."

That's mainly what Binns is concerned about on Harrison today: What will be necessary to make the project go?

Binns said theaters have difficulty paying rent because of the way attendance fluctuates. Instead, he wants to work out an arrangement where payment would be flexible over time, or to perhaps buy the property over time.

John Eckenroad, president of the Oak Park Development Corporation, says this is the main issue that the current owner of the Huskie Dome, Chris Kleronomos, has with the proposal: compensation.

"You've got to identify some sources of revenue, you've got to look at the reasonableness," said Eckenroad, who has been acting as a facilitator between Binns and Kleronomos. "Can [Kleronomos] count on people paying on time, with regularity?"

Still Weinbaum thinks there's plenty of potential.

"With Jimmy, you can see he's got that business sense," she said. "He's got the initiative to keep it going through that rough initial period."

Eckenroad, too is "hopeful that something cool will happen." Chris Kleronomos could not be reached for comment.

Camilletti believes an idea like Binns' just fits.

"Every type of art-whether it's music, painting, sculpture-belongs here on Harrison Street," Camilletti said. "A theater building, involving the arts, belongs here-it belongs in the arts district."

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