North Shore Center for the Performing Arts celebrates 20 years in Skokie

Michael Pauken, general manager of the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, appears inside the main theater. (Mike Isaacs / Pioneer Press)
Michael Pauken, general manager of the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, appears inside the main theater. (Mike Isaacs / Pioneer Press)


If the late Marvin Hamlisch performed at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts today — just as he did 20 years ago as its first act — his rendition of the “The Way We Were” might make for timely nostalgia for the center itself.

To mark its 20th anniversary in Skokie, the North Shore Center has scheduled special community events and performances including a free open house, a Klezmer brunch, an educational blues camp, a sing-a-long movie event with Disney’s “Frozen” and a North Shore Center Foundation benefit in conjunction with an Art Garfunkel concert.

The open house is scheduled for 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Oct. 16 in the lobby of the center, 9501 Skokie Blvd. A complete anniversary event listing is available at

Michael Pauken, general manager of the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, was not around at the center’s start but has led the performing arts facility for the last 14 years.

Skokie has been a partner since the facility’s inception.

“You just can’t make real money with more modest size theaters like this one,” he said. “If you could make money doing this, Disney would be opening them all over the country.”

But the center has been able to stay afloat and even make a profit – unlike some, he said.

Skokie and the operator of the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts extended their long-standing operating agreement not long ago.

Skokie Director of Marketing and Communications Ann Tennes, a member of the center’s authority board, called the venue “not only an important community amenity, but an important component of the Old Orchard corridor and the economic engine that it serves for the community.”

Village leaders have viewed the performing arts center, Westfield Old Orchard and the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center — all located close together — as regional rather than just local draws.

Tennes said industry standards indicate between 70 and 80 percent of theater attendees dine in the area when they’re seeing a show.

“Every single year, they have had a very profitable and popular series at the venue. We’re gaining stature in the area for being a quality performing arts center,” she said.

The venue was an outgrowth, of sorts, from the old Centre East theater once housed on Lincoln Avenue, former home to Niles East High School. Once Oakton Community College moved to the property, a movement to find a new home for Centre East emerged, Pauken said.

“That was the initiating factor in getting this building built,” he said. “It just took a long time.”

Former Centre East Executive Director Dorothy Litwin applied to the state for funding under the “Build Illinois Program.”

According to the North Shore Center, the facility was then constructed at a cost of $18 million; contributions included $13.2 million from the state, $3.4 million from the village and the remainder from the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Foundation and other private donors. Northlight Theatre also raised funds.

Since 1996, the center says, more than $3.2 million in major capital improvements have been made to the facility. They have included new carpeting; a new concessions service and catering service area; replacement of the old Centre East seats; catwalks and dressing rooms for Northlight; upgraded theatrical lighting for the main theater; a new marquee at Golf Road and Skokie Boulevard and more.

North Shore Center underwent a facility studies need in 2013. It recently upgraded its orchestra shell for classical music performances, its green and star dressing rooms and its assistant listening system. It currently is undergoing a heating and cooling system replacement and has plans for lobby bathroom remodeling and even roof replacement, Pauken said.

But Pauken said the biggest reason for the venue’s success — which included surviving a brutal recession when some arts venues didn’t — has been due to popular programming.

It eventually did away with the more traditional yearly “subscription model” for a season of shows, which Pauken said has made a big difference.

“There are other performing arts centers including ones in the Chicago area that still have that model,” he said. “Our biggest problem with it was that it locks you into appealing to the same group of people over and over again.”

By abandoning a subscription model and by scheduling “eclectic and diverse” shows, Pauken said, the center began drawing new audiences. North Shore Center also continues to be a popular home to important rentals as well as community events from Taste of Skokie Valley to an annual local student art show.

That’s why North Shore Center officials say they want the 20th anniversary of the venue to be a community celebration.

The Oct. 16 open house will include backstage theater tours and children’s activities, storytelling by Linda Gotham, a theater master class with Northlight, a dance workshop with Kaleidoscope Dance and Movement Center, arts and crafts stations and an instrument petting zoo from the Skokie Valley Symphony Orchestra.

“We know (the center) is absolutely an important part of the village’s image of itself,” Pauken said. “This building attracts people from beyond the borders of Skokie, but we also service this community and hold an important place here. We want our celebration to reflect that, too.”

Twitter: @SKReview_Mike