JOLIET – How did it come to this?
How did a $350,000 donation for a new Rialto Square Theatre marquee announced with fanfare in late November not only disappear, but leave the Rialto in a deep financial hole?
Ed Czerkies’ decision Thursday to pull his donation came after the Rialto board tabled a resolution guaranteeing his parents’ names would stay on the marquee for the sign’s expected life of 25 years.
“I should have terminated it before then,” Czerkies said the next day. “This went on and on and on.”
Czerkies had grown tired of what had become a public debate. The Rialto board, which traditionally gets little public attention, had come under intense scrutiny. Citizens upset with the changes planned for the theater commonly called the “Jewel of Joliet” began taking a close look at how the Rialto does its business.
The Rialto board, getting a first look at the new resolution at the meeting where it was asked to give approval, became wary of saying yes too quickly and tabled the matter.
After that, Czerkies said, he saw no end to the debate and decided it was time to get out.
“I made a big commitment,” Czerkies said. “For them to drag their feet on this, I think is wrong.”
But delaying the decision was right, according to the “Rialto Belongs to the People” group put together through Facebook soon after the future marquee design was unveiled.
“I was actually glad that they did table it,” said Michael Morgan, one of several administrators for the “Rialto Belongs to the People” Facebook page. “They finally seem like they are listening to the public.”
One thing that appears to have gone wrong with the marquee plan is that too many people who did not like the design saw it only after the sign was being built.
The Rialto has spent about $118,000 of Czerkies’ money on the unfinished marquee. Now the theater will have to give $350,000 back to Czerkies. Rialto officials also will have to decide whether to go ahead with the marquee and how to pay for it.
The modern marquee redesign hit a nerve. Many people objected to the “In Memory of Michael and Mary Czerkies” tribute added to the marquee. But the scrapping of the 1920s style of the current marquee galvanized people, Morgan said.
“We just have a history of destroying things in Joliet,” he said. “I think that’s why people are so passionate. They’re tired of losing Joliet history, and they see the Rialto marquee as part of Joliet history.”
By the time Czerkies’ donation was announced at a Nov. 24 gala opening of the Rialto’s annual Festival of Trees fundraiser, money was already being spent on the marquee. Czerkies’ donation was made in September.
Joliet Councilman Jim McFarland said he was in Florida the night of the Rialto unveiling and saw the marquee design in emails sent by people at the event. They were not enthusiastic, he said.
“There was opposition from people at the event held to honor it,” McFarland said.
Just how much opposition was out there has never been clear.
Czerkies said the Rialto board appeared rattled by opponents who showed up at the Thursday meeting, many of whom spoke before the decision to table the resolution.
“Those people [on the board] were baffled by the group of people at the meeting just hammering away at them and claiming mismanagement,” Czerkies said.
Attempts on Friday to reach five of the six board members to discuss the decision were unsuccessful. Rialto board members typically defer to Chairman James Smith to talk to the media.
Smith said Friday he knew Czerkies wanted the resolution approved Thursday and said he tried to convey that message to board members.
Smith said he believes the Czerkies marquee design fell victim to a “small, very vocal minority. Many of them had honorable intentions. What we didn’t have were [people] publicly speaking for the marquee project.”
Smith and Rialto General Manager Randy Green said they believed there was a “silent majority” pleased with the marquee proposal.
“Ultimately, when the project was done and the marquee was up ... people would say that was a great thing you did for the Rialto,” Green said. “I’m still confident that would have happened.”
Morgan said he believes the opponents were more numerous than Smith and Green seem to think. The Rialto for the People Facebook group has 900 members, he said: “For each of us, there are probably a thousand people in the area who agree with us.”
He had no way of showing those numbers. But, Morgan noted, there has been no proof that the anti-marquee people were a vocal minority.
“I don’t see a vocal majority coming forward,” he said.
Czerkies noted while Mayor Tom Giarrante expressed approval for the marquee plan, he did not hear any support from members of the City Council.
“It wasn’t just an investment in the Rialto. It was an investment in the Rialto and Joliet,” Czerkies said. “I don’t think they grasped that.”
Smith, when asked if public expressions of support would have helped the cause, kept his answer simple: “Yes.”