Checkerboard, Meridian not ready for Hyde Park music and arts enthusiasts

By Usman Ahmed

The T-shirts have it wrong: Fun doesn’t come to die at the University of Chicago, it just takes longer to be born. Hyde Parkers will have to hold out for just a few more weeks before the Checkerboard Lounge opens, and the fate of the Meridian Theater is decided.

The Checkerboard Lounge remains unopened, more than two years since University officials signed a letter of intent with L.C. Thurman to relocate his historic and renowned blues club to Hyde Park. The University attracted Thurman with a steeply discounted lease rate and the promise to help renovate the space, which was once the site of Women’s Workout World on 5201 South Harper Avenue.

The blues club, which once hosted musical legends such as the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Willie Dixon, began construction of its new space at Harper Court last year. Groundbreaking came amid protests from Bronzeville residents and University students, who objected that the University unfairly used its muscle to relocate the club from its previous Bronzeville location.

Construction on the blues and jazz club is now complete, according to Jim Wagner, chair of the Committee to Restore Jazz to Hyde Park. “Everything is in place,” he said. “All of the work that was necessary has been done.”

Jo Reizner, director of the University’s real estate operations, said that the lounge is still waiting to receive liquor and public space amusement licenses. Once these licenses are obtained, Reizner indicated, the club will be ready to open its doors.

Wagner provided some details on what University and Hyde Park communities can expect from the new lounge. According to Wagner, Thurman plans on keeping the Checkerboard Lounge open seven days a week, from evening till early morning. The club will have a full bar and a no-smoking policy. A minimum age policy has not yet been discussed.

The Checkerboard Lounge, once only a blues club, will reopen playing both jazz and blues. “There is more enthusiasm among University students for blues,” Wagner said. “Older residents of Hyde Park, who remembered the good old days of the neighborhood’s past, will probably have more enthusiasm for jazz.”

Wagner alluded to the fact that the Checkerboard Lounge’s opening will be the first of its kind in almost 20 years. “At one time, in the 1940s and ’50s, Hyde Park and Woodlawn were really the center of jazz not only in the city of Chicago, but in the entire Midwest,” he said. “But the University, in its wisdom, thought that the neighborhood was becoming ‘too interesting.’ It used its urban renewal policy to remove music clubs from Hyde Park. By the 1960’s, there was nothing in Hyde Park.”

The University is also busy at work on the Meridian Theater, another important space whose fate concerns the University and Hyde Park communities.

While Hank Webber, vice president of the Office of Community and Government Affairs, announced in March that the University would like to see the space restored as a live production or music theater, the Meridian Theater’s future as an entertainment venue remains less than certain.

The University contacted 37 theater operations, including Second City, six weeks ago, in efforts to restore the space as a live production or movie theater. Only one movie operation, according to Reizner, is still considering moving into the space, although it has not entered into serious talks with the University. Reizner added the University will wait six to eight more weeks before moving on to other plans for the theater.

Reizer, however, was not optimistic that the historic building will be restored as a theater.

“Economically, it doesn’t make sense,” she said, noting that renovation costs are almost $9 million dollars for the building. “It’s hard to turn a profit on such a small theater,” she added, observing that the Meridian Theater has only four screens, whereas the trend in the entertainment business is towards megaplexes with more than a dozen screens.

The likely outcome of the Meridan Theater, Reizner speculated, is that the theater will become a mixed-use property that will include retail and residence spaces. Reizner stressed that the University will work with the community in whatever future lies in store for the 90-year-old building.

“We want what works well for the community,” Reizer said. “Rest assured, whatever is planned will have the most consideration for the block, because it is a lovely block.”