Across America, small business is actually winning the race over behemoth corporate “Goliaths” when it comes to growth, accounting for a staggering 70 percent of all new businesses according to the Small Business Administration.
Given its importance to the economy, the nation’s bottom line, and local communities, it stands to wonder why anyone would deliberately try to shut down Chicago’s only small, thriving African-American and family‐operated theater chain. That’s what it appears investor and businessman Michael Silver is trying to do to entrepreneurs Donzell and Alisa Starks.
Fifteen years ago, the husband and wife team made Black movie theater ownership a reality with ICE (Inner City Entertainment). For the Starks, owning ICE is not just about entertainment. “ICE represents our cultural, educational and economic contributions to the Black community, along with outstanding entertainment,” said the Starks. Although the economic benefits small business brings to cities is important, what’s often more important to Black America is that Black small businesses offer struggling communities intangibles that corporations and general businesses simply can’t – a connectedness, renewed sense of pride, community and accomplishment.
“What the Starks have done from the beginning and continue to do for the African-American community and the City of Chicago is irreplaceable,” said Dr. Carol Adams, president of DuSable Museum of African American History.
“They’ve built a legacy of employing our youth; hiring Black service providers and suppliers; providing a platform to showcase independent films; as well as opening their theaters to groups and organizations for community events such as screening the presidential debates. What movie theater do you know that’s making such a meaningful, socially-conscious investment like this?”
Today, the couple remains the sole owner and operator of ICE Lawndale 10 Theaters as well as a closed theater at 62nd and Western. In 2007, Silver became
a managing partner in their ICE Chatham 14 Theaters.
Requests from the Starks for digital conversion and other capital improvements from the capital account were never funded and, therefore, never happened.
It soon became clear to the Starks that they would have to buy their Investor out in order for the theater to become what they wanted and worked hard for it to be.
On Oct. 19, Alisa and Donzell were preparing for what had all the makings of a blockbuster weekend with the opening of Tyler Perry’s “Alex Cross” and were only
30 days away from buying out their partner.
Instead, the Starks’ operating company was evicted from the Chatham theater. “Our
Lawyers were working on the details of a buyout, which Silver was in agreement with, and were shocked that a change in attitude left us without a clue, without access to our
Personal belongings, without any warning. Furthermore, explanations or the eviction given to the media were out-and-out lies,” said the Starks.
It was reported that the Starks were in legal battles with film distributors and were delinquent with city amusement taxes.
Despite the untruths and misrepresentations, the couple did not counter-attack.
“Our lawyers were working it out, and we were fine leaving it their hands,” said Donzell Starks.
They were taken aback when they learned that Silver had hired a Black PR firm to announce the re-‐opening of the theater.
The announcement gave the impression that the Starks had a hand in the re-‐opening.
They did not and currently do not have any control of or input on how the Chatham theater is operated. After hearing reports from patrons that on the first day the theater re-‐opened under Silver’s management there was flooding in the bathrooms and lobby, machines malfunctioning, and lights out, the Starks decided to speak out. “We always have strived to maintain clean and functioning theaters. And now, to have someone come in practically overnight and do this kind of damage is unbelievable. Our customers don’t
Deserve this kind of shoddy treatment,” said the Starks.
In Chicago, where violence is one of the main topics of conversation, ICE Theaters provides more than a convenient and safe place, but a family escape and evidence that Black business ownership works.
The Starks have earned the trust and ultimate respect from the community. Residents take pride in supporting something of their own, which is a discussion that often took place in the theater and in the community.
“This appears to be more than just a hostile takeover relative to corporate interests, but it also entails small business interests, which is not the same. These actions are creating a situation where they (the Starks) could lose ownership of the theater; a very unique business that is an entertainment and communications outlet, a media entity that allows us to tell our stories,” laments attorney, media and social justice advocate Jeannette Foreman.
“These actions and the time it will take to resolve these issues are destroying the potential profitability for a theater we have cared for and invested the past 15 years of our life,” said the Starks. “We could not let this happen without informing the public.”