Doug Bragan (1943-2023)
Veteran and much-loved Chicago theater producer Doug Bragan has passed away from thyroid cancer at the age of 79. Known most widely as the owner/operator of the famed Ivanhoe Theater and founder of the A.R.T. League, Doug is remembered as a ferocious champion of small and mid-sized theaters and theater companies throughout the 1980s, '90s and 2000s.
Doug bought the Ivanhoe Theater in 1982, putting $500,000 into the purchase and renovation. (He would later sell the theater in 2001 for a reported $1.6 million.) His renovation transformed the auditorium into a traditional proscenium stage, suitable for concerts as well as theatrical productions. He also carved out two additional studio theaters in the space, one on the main floor next to the mainstage and the other in the basement. Many productions by local producers and theater companies found a home at the Ivanhoe, including the long-running "Late Nite Catechism," the original 1992 Lookingglass Theatre Company production of Mary Zimmerman’s "Metamorphoses" (for which the stage was outfitted with a wading pool), Pegasus Players’ revival of the Gershwin musical "Strike Up the Band," Famous Door’s long-running "Hellcab," the Chicago premiere of Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart" (a transfer from Evanston's Next Theatre), and productions by ImprovOlympic (now iO Chicago), Wisdom Bridge Theatre (after it left its longtime home on Howard Street), City Lit Theater, the Free Associates improv troupe, the Midnight Circus, and many more. The Ivanhoe is known for playing an important role in developing the city’s off-Loop theater scene. Under Doug’s ownership, the Ivanhoe presented stars including Ellen Burstyn and Loretta Swit (in “Shirley Valentine”), songwriting great Sammy Cahn (in a one-man retrospective of his career) and “Mary Tyler Moore Show” cast member Georgia Engel (in “Nonsense”). Doug also produced the Off-Off-Loop Theatre Festival at the Theatre Building (later Stage 773).
Always on the lookout for a better way to support Chicago theaters and their work, Doug went on to create the A.R.T. League, which brokered discount-rate ad packages in the Chicago Reader. Vicki Quade recalls: “If anybody ever saw the paid listings in the Chicago Tribune, the Reader, and elsewhere, Doug put those together himself. He would buy half a page of advertising space, then sell theater companies a one-inch or two-inch listing. It was brilliant and helped promote so many shows that couldn’t afford a full-sized ad in those publications but could afford an inch in a specially designed box.”
Vicki Quade whose hit show “Late Nite Catechism” had a long run at the Ivanhoe, offered generous insight into the magic behind Doug’s strategy as theater producer: “Doug wanted to keep theater alive and develop and promote and watch little theater companies succeed… What mattered is what was in his heart and that was this really abiding love of theater and entertainment and actors, and he really wanted to help and foster that in Chicago … My own experiences are so numerous, but I can talk about how Doug gave a break to my company and so many others, charging a small weekly rent, plus a percentage of sales. He once said to me, ‘When you do good, I do good. When sales aren’t so good, at least you can keep going.’ “
Often eccentrically dressed in tattered shirts and a raincoat Columbo fans would appreciate, he had a mop of dark wiry hair that hadn’t seen a brush in a long time. He talked a mile a minute, always trying to urge the listener to work with him on his latest marketing brainstorm. Later in life, Doug married Sally Ann Hines, who had come to work in the Ivanhoe box office. Before becoming a theater owner, Doug volunteered with The Saints, a nonprofit group that helps with theater tasks ranging from box office duties to answering phones, stuffing envelopes and ushering.
Born in Baltimore, Doug’s love of theater could be called genetic. His mother, Shirley, and stepfather, William Howard, both worked in entertainment, performing on local Baltimore TV shows. The family name was Brager and, at some point, Doug changed the spelling for himself. He attended Louisiana Tech University, and later got his MBA at Northwestern University. Then he bought a seat as a commodities broker at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, working in its International Money Market area. He ultimately settled and lived for years at the Water Tower Residences, right off Michigan Avenue.