When the ABC sitcom What About Joan premiered in March, there was a spurt of publicity about it being the first sitcom to be produced in Chicago. That may be true, but it’s not because the local resources haven’t been in place. Chicago Studio City, the facility where the Joan Cusack comedy vehicle is shot, has been hosting feature and television films and TV drama series for more than 20 years. Productions that have come through the studio doors include Ordinary People, The Untouchables, When Harry Met Sally, Home Alone, The Fugitive, and the Chicago units of both ER and Chicago Hope.

In addition to three soundstages, Chicago Studio City, a subsidiary of Studio Rentals, Inc., offers a $5 million inventory of lighting and grip equipment, a set construction mill, and office space on its 31-acre site. What About Joan, which is produced by Columbia TriStar Television, was fully serviced by the facility. "In addition to renting our stages, they rent their production offices here, their star trailers, and their lighting and rigging equipment," says Chicago Studio City vice president Ron DeRosa. "So it’s pretty much a one-stop shop for them."

He adds that a few adjustments needed to be made for the mutlicamera sitcom. "It’s our first foray into having a live audience and a control booth on the stage," says DeRosa. "They brought some seating for the audience and a control room into one of our stages that had been used for feature films. We also geared up substantially with the sophisticated dimming equipment the show requires. Normally, we have location equipment that dims six or seven lights; the system we bought for What About Joan dims 750 lights. It’s just a transitional thing–not much different equipment, it’s just in greater abundance and newer technology. It hasn’t been very difficult for us. It was probably more difficult on the labor people here, working the pedestal dollies, the different kind of cameras, and the different shot setups. Plus, doing this stuff in front of 200 people can be a little unnerving."

The majority of the show’s crew belongs to IATSE’s Chicago local 476. Production designer Gary Baugh, whose credits include the Chicago Studio City-shot TV series Early Edition and TV movie To Sir with Love 2, and who has worked in the art departments of Backdraft, Groundhog Day, Richie Rich, and Hoodlum, is a leading player in the local design community. His crew includes set decorator Lisa Wolff, prop master Dave Chamerski, and construction coordinator John McHugh, who supervised building at the studio mill. Most prominent among the series’ sets are the Cusack character’s Chicago apartment and the staff lounge of the high school where she teaches. The show is produced locally because Cusack is a Chicago native and resident, and did not want to move to Los Angeles.

On the photographic side, DP Alan Walker–one of the industry’s leading multicamera lighting designers--is an LA export, and camera coordinator Carl Lauten is from New York. Otherwise, it’s a Chicago lineup: gaffer Chris Carey, key grip John Hudecek, and camera operators Faires Anderson and Dan Simmon. Costume designer Sue Kaufmann is also locally based.

What About Joan is currently on hiatus, waiting to hear its fate for the 2001-02 season. "We’re building a new facility with a 30,000 sq. ft. stage, office space, workout rooms, cafeteria, conference rooms, executive offices, wardrobe area, greenrooms–the whole nine yards," says DeRosa. "It’s about four weeks away from construction completion. The show is contemplating moving into that next season, if it gets picked up." If not, the new space is unlikely to go empty.

Top three photos: Dean Williams/ABC.
Fourth photo: Chuck Hodes/ABC.
Bottom photo: Matt Dinerstein/ABC.