Chi walks down Lane

Curtain opens for Drury theater

CHICAGO — The Windy City has a new $8 million proscenium theater right on the Magnificent Mile, replete with 549 seats and, it seems, almost as many crystal chandeliers. Tony De Santis, the indefatigable developer and owner, is a sprightly 92 years old.

“I’m just happy to be alive,” De Santis said a couple of days before his theater bowed. It’s a phrase he likes to repeat.

The for-profit Drury Lane Water Tower Place opened for business May 20 on the corner of famed Michigan Avenue. It’s located in the same building as the Water Tower vertical mall and the Ritz-Carlton hotel. Most of Chi’s other primo lodging — along with the John Hancock building and a slew of other residential high-rises — are in easy walking distance.

Although hardly breaking new artistic ground, the debut show was a sprightly and highly enjoyable production of “The Full Monty” that compared favorably to the ill-fated national tour and offered a look at the goods in a more intimate setting.

And De Santis, who long has believed in keeping the prices low and the titles familiar, is topping out his downtown tix at $48. That’s little more than half the usual prices at the Broadway in Chicago chain in the Loop.

De Santis is a local legend in Chi, having helmed a once-powerful chain of suburban dinner theaters (under the Drury Lane moniker) that operated on the star system from the 1950s to the 1980s. His empire once ran to five separate Drury Lanes in and around Chi.

De Santis also helped develop the suburban Chi musical house known as the Marriott Theater in Lincolnshire, which still has one of the largest subscriber bases in the country.

He retrenched in later years, but still operates the Drury Lane Oakbrook, a resort-based musical theater.

The new Drury Lane Water Tower operates on the same footprint of De Santis’ old Drury Lane Water Tower, a theater-in-the-round that shuttered in 1984. For the last 20 years, it has been a movie theater.

According to Michael Weber, the new theater’s artistic director, the reborn Drury Lane Water Tower will offer a subscription-based diet of musicals, family fare and revivals “appropriate for a downtown audience.” In coming months, the theater will produce “Grand Hotel” and a production of “Mornings at Seven,” probably with a star in the lead.

Still, external producers also may be able to use the new theater — which has an incomparable location when it comes to snagging Chi tourists.

The proprietor says he is open to suggestions.

“We’ll do anything to make a buck,” De Santis says.

He knows a thing a two about that. Aside from a couple million bucks from the owners of the next-door mall, he came up with the other $6 million for his new theater all by himself.

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