Art, dining feel sting of winter in degrees

Some clubs, theaters, restaurants feel more chill than others

Snowy food truck

Gina Spiteri operates the Doughnut Vault food truck five days a week but was told by her boss to take the day off because of the snow and cold temperatures. (John J. Kim, Chicago Tribune / January 2, 2014)

Let's start with the obvious: This has been a harsh, crummy winter, and at times just about everyone has preferred to stay indoors rather than to deal with extreme cold, snow and dicey walking or driving conditions.

So it stands to follow that Netflix, for instance, would be having a relatively strong season as its subscribers give in to their nesting instincts. Indeed, CEO Reed Hastings posted a haiku on his Facebook page Saturday referring to 2 billion hours having streamed on Netflix in January, seen as a record for any online service. When asked to comment on the weather factor, a Netflix spokesman responded: "We typically see increased viewing in inclement weather, but I don't have any specific data for you beyond that."

Well, OK, then.

Let's move to the less obvious: This nasty weather has had an impact on the local, and national, cultural scenes, but not always in predictable ways. People haven't wanted to go out — except when they have.

So the Evanston music club SPACE reported its best January ever, with sellouts for every weekend performance throughout the month and only one weather-related postponement (guitarist Larry Coryell), talent buyer Jake Samuels said. The lineup wasn't even studded with big national acts but rather local artists such as Shemekia Copeland, Eddie Clearwater, Otis Clay and Liquid Soul, all of whom sold out.

Samuels said Liquid Soul had not sold out previous SPACE performances and "more than doubled their numbers from the last show they did." Beatles tribute band American English also sold out its Jan. 26 show in advance, even though "our last shows with them have not come close to selling out," Samuels said. "Call it cabin fever, I guess."

Chicago's notoriously unpleasant winter weather is a key reason that relatively few big national acts visit the city over these months in the first place. Who wants to be driving tour buses and gear trucks in whiteout conditions?

"It's a pretty rough road for a lot of these guys: show up in freezing weather and unload your truck," said Andy Cirzan, Jam Productions' vice president of concerts.

Yet when concerts scheduled over the next few months have been going on sale, they've been "selling very well," Cirzan said. "The absence of a lot of entertainment stuff in the market and the cabin-fever effect is fueling very strong sales with the kind of stuff we do. The rock and pop consumers are ready to start making commitments to start seeing stuff once the weather breaks."

At the same time, though, Cirzan sees "global weather chaos" — as represented by a wave of such equilibrium-shattering events as the polar vortices and that freak Atlanta snowstorm, as well as the summer storm here that prompted the evacuation of simultaneous outdoor Pearl Jam, Bjork and Phish concerts — as a wake-up call for the entertainment industry.

"I don't really have answers yet because I think this whole conversation is in its infancy, and I guarantee it's going to be discussed more in the future," he said. "You've got to get smarter about it. Do you buy cancellation insurance when you're booking outside events? I'm way more up for the idea of doing it and biting the bullet, even though it's more expensive now than it's ever been."

If there was a bright side, culturally, to the polar vortices that closed schools and some public facilities on Jan. 6 and 7 and again on Jan. 27 and 28, it was that they hit hardest on Mondays and Tuesdays, when many theaters and restaurants were dark or expecting relatively light business.

Laughs don't snowball in an empty comedy club, so Bert Haas shut down Zanies' Old Town location (the only one that's open both Monday and Tuesday nights) during the Jan. 6 and 7 cold. But for Jan. 27, "pride kept me open," the clubs' executive vice president said. "We got hammered. I probably should have shut down." He said attendance was a mere 13, when usually "we would never do less than 60."

Second City Executive Vice President Kelly Leonard said business was way up during the previous two mild winters but has returned to earth this season.

"Fifty-four winters in Chicago have taught us to expect smaller houses in January and February, so we plan for that," Leonard said. "Luckily, we haven't had to cancel any shows, but the nights when the cold or snow hit have definitely been more intimate."

Although Paris Club's upstairs club, Studio Paris, and American Junkie's upstairs club, The Attic, opted not to open Jan. 2 and Jan. 6, respectively, due to harsh conditions, many nightclubs are calling this winter business as usual.

"We still have girls with no coats lined up outside," The Underground spokeswoman Victoria Kent said.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra had the good fortune of leaving for a European tour the week of the first polar vortex, and Symphony Center was mostly dark for two weeks. The orchestra, music director Riccardo Muti and soloist Yo-Yo Ma returned to the stage Jan. 30 after the second severe cold front passed.

"We did everything to get out of town in January, and it just so happens it was a horrible January," CSO Association President Deborah Rutter said. "We have not been affected by weather yet the way everybody else has been affected."

Goodman Theatre Executive Director Roche Schulfer said in an email that "while it is impossible to accurately measure, we believe that the harsh winter has an impact on sales." Broadway in Chicago would not comment except to note in a statement that the weather has been "challenging."

CHICAGO

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