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Art, dining feel sting of winter in degrees

Some clubs, theaters, restaurants feel more chill than others

Mark Caro

6:24 PM EST, February 5, 2014

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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."

At the movies, January's North American box-office total of $893 million, according to Rentrak, was the highest since 2010, though it's hard to distinguish between the weather's impact and films' popularity.

If you don't mind the elements, it's been a relatively good time to grab a gourmet dog at Hot Doug's, where lines otherwise often stretch down the sidewalk. Owner Doug Sohn said the Monday and Tuesday business last week turned out to be "way better than I thought," though the ever-present line "was never out the door." But when freezing rain joined the mix for a couple of Fridays, Sohn said, that usually robust day took more of a hit. "I wouldn't have left my house either," he said.

January and February tend to be the toughest months for restaurants anyway — there's a reason Restaurant Week and its discounted menus arrive in the dead of winter — and Hot Doug's is far from the only popular destination feeling particular pain this season.

"Most of the people I talk to in the business, especially in fine dining, business has been down," said Michael Kornick, chef/owner of mk restaurant and County Barbeque. "You have to account in your budget for some snow days, but there's been probably twice as many bad snow and cold days than usual. At mk, we have a lot of affluent customers, and a lot of them have chosen Palm Springs (Calif.) or Florida for a good portion of the winter."

On Jan. 21, Frontera/Topolobampo Grill chef Rick Bayless tweeted: "What happened to my fellow Chicagoans? Half our resos cancelled for tonight ... Because it's cold outside?!?! Um, we live in Chicago, folks."

Frontera/Topolobampo managing partner Carlos Alferez said business has been down slightly, though the second brutally cold spell deterred fewer customers than the first. "People are getting used to this weather, and now they're braving it no matter what," he said.

Iliana Regan, chef/owner of Elizabeth restaurant in Lincoln Square, recently took to her email database to offer a cold-weather deal to plug some holes on her calendar: $65 for a weeknight seating that would usually cost $100 or more. Twelve hours after she offered the deal, Regan said 90 percent of those seats were sold.

"I'd rather fill the seats even if we're probably breaking even at that price," she said. "There's just a better energy with a full room."

The Shedd Aquarium and many other Chicago museums and institutions closed during January's two Monday-Tuesday bitter cold snaps, but Brookfield Zoo, which has outdoor and indoor display areas, decided to stay open during the second subzero spell.

Joe Couceiro, the zoo's vice president of marketing and communications, said snow added to that first cold stretch's hazard factor, but the Jan. 27-28 temperature plunge came under sunnier, less treacherous conditions. Plus, many employees had to care for the animals anyway, such as the folks hand-rearing a 3-month-old dolphin who required 24/7 attention.

So the zoo drew 50 visitors that Monday and 48 Tuesday, compared with 353 and 389 employees on duty, respectively.

"If 48 folks showed up, we made a difference in 48 lives that day," Couceiro said. "We'd rather stay open and provide an opportunity for guests to get out of the house and do other things than stare at four walls."

The bigger picture shows that Brookfield Zoo drew 10,218 guests during January's first 29 days, compared with 26,610 last year.

But, hey, spring gets closer day by day, with Thursday's temperatures predicted to reach … um … 7 degrees, with a low of minus 6 … and more snow expected Saturday.

Never mind.

Tribune reporters Kevin Pang, Steve Johnson and Luis Gomez contributed.

mcaro@tribune.com

kpang@tribune.com

sajohnson@tribune.com

Twitter @MarkCaro, @pang, @StevenKJohnson