The extra-alarm fire at 1034 Lake St. on Nov. 23 impacted more than one neighborhood institution. In addition to Delia’s Kitchen restaurant was the long-running Oak Park Festival Theatre, located just above Delia’s, which for 46 summers has brought live outdoor productions to Austin Gardens. The company had just finished its fall run of The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe at Pleasant Home a few days earlier. Several artifacts from that production were destroyed in the blaze. According to Festival Theatre managing director Bryan Wakefield, the loss was immense. While he is thankful that human lives were spared, he rues the destruction of precious relics and records.
“We were very fortunate to avoid the fire,” said Wakefield, “but we got all the smoke and water. We were underneath the unit that got all the fire, so we estimate our losses to be pretty near total. Water is not kind to electronic equipment, nor fabrics like costumes. Our summer season normally takes place outside, so we had speakers, soundboards, our sound stack, all of our lighting dimmers, computers, monitors, props, costumes [and] close to 50 years of historical documents.”
As expected with circumstances like this, many items are not replaceable. Nearly 50 years of operation translates to nearly 50 years of memories. Wakefield noted, “We are the oldest equity company, the oldest union outdoor Shakespeare company, in the Midwest.” Estimated losses include “a lot of memories and headshots from great Chicago actors, directors and designers who have worked with us … a ton of historical stuff. Things like the speakers, the soundboards, those things can be replaced. We had some older props and costumes that were gifted to us — they don’t make things like that anymore,” Wakefield said. “We had some custom-designed lighting equipment that was made by somebody out of other materials; we can’t replace those items.”
The company is currently trying to figure out how much it would cost to replace the less singular objects, which are all insured. “The insurance adjusters, and people evaluating the fire, they’re all doing their work right now to determine what the losses will be,” Wakefield said. “Once we pull things out of the unit and are able to test to see if anything does still happen to work, then we’ll be able to put together a list of things that we’ll need to replace.”
Despite the trauma, Wakefield insists this will be more of a new beginning than a final chapter. “The plan is to return to Austin Gardens in the summer,” he said. “The fall show tends to move around some. The current plan is to be able to be back at full strength by the summer.”
There is a way for the community can get involved. “As a nonprofit, we are funded by support from our community,” he said. “Ticket sales only pay for a small portion of our operating costs throughout the year. At the moment, if you want to help directly, you can go to oakparkfestival.com and donate to the page directly. If people know about equipment and things like that, or if somebody has something in a basement they’d be willing to donate to us, it’s a tax-deductible donation, and they can get in contact with us on our donation page as well.”