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Alisa Starks

Leisure entrepreneur Alisa A. Starks helped launch the country's first African American-owned chain of movie theaters. Born in Chicago on September 14, 1960, Starks grew up on Chicago's South Side.

Starks graduated from Aquinas Dominican High School in 1978, enrolling at Northwestern University. She received her B.S. in journalism in 1982 and her M.S. in 1983 from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. From 1984 to 1989, Starks worked in advertising for Burrell Communications Group in Chicago. She and her husband, Donzell, lived in Los Angeles for two years before returning to Chicago. Starks returned to Burrell, where she became a vice president.

Deciding to take the entrepreneurial plunge, the Starkses began to explore partnerships to build new theater complexes in minority neighborhoods-areas that major movie chains had been historically neglected. In 1997, they beat out Magic Johnson to win financial support from the city of Chicago to build three multiplexes on Chicago's South and West sides. The new theaters were hailed for their aesthetic beauty and their ability to bring jobs to otherwise neglected and rundown areas. By 1999, the Starkses expanded their theater empire, building a new cinema in Charlotte, North Carolina, and setting their sights on other inner-city neighborhoods around the country. The same year, their company partnered to create the Meridian Entertainment Group, which began by opening a chain of Meridian Theaters and by acquiring eight existing Chicago movie theaters. In just two years, the Starkses had gone from just three multiplexes to controlling 20 percent of Chicago's movie screens. A downturn in the market and other problems forced the Starks to cut back to their original investments, which they operate today. They see their movie theaters as community centers.

Alisa Starks has been an active leader in several community and civic organizations. She has served on the boards of the Muntu Dance Theatre, the Metropolitan Pier of Exposition Authority, the Ancona School and the Chicago International Film Festival. Starks and her high school sweetheart, Donzell, married in 1988. They have one child, Ahmad, and live on Chicago's South Side.

Alisa Starks was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on August 27, 2003.

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St. Philip Neri Catholic School

St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic High School

Northwestern University

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Leisure entrepreneur Alisa Starks (1960 - ) is co-owner of the country's first African American owned chain of movie theaters, Inner-City Entertainment. She later founded Meridian Entertainment Group, and gained control of twenty percent of Chicago's movie screens.


Burrell Communications Group

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<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Alisa Starks' interview</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Alisa Starks lists her favorites</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Alisa Starks talks about her maternal family history</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Alisa Starks talks about her mother's upbringing and career as a school teacher in Chicago, Illinois</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Alisa Starks describes her parents' marriage and her home life as a child</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Alisa Starks describes her paternal family history</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Alisa Starks talks about her father's upbringing, career, and personality</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Alisa Starks remembers how her parents fought for her admittance to St. Philip Neri Catholic School in Chicago, Illinois</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Alisa Starks recalls celebrating black history at age eight</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Alisa Starks talks about her grade school years</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Alisa Starks describes the sights, smells, and sounds of her childhood in Chicago, Illinois</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Alisa Starks talks about her militancy as a youth and why she stopped speaking out</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Alisa Starks describes her experience at St. Philip Neri Catholic School in Chicago, Illinois</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Alisa Starks describes the role of religion in her childhood and her parents' value for education</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Alisa Starks talks about her decision to major in journalism as a senior at Aquinas Dominican High School in Chicago, Illinois</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Alisa Starks talks about her undergraduate experience at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Alisa Starks talks about the beginning of her career at Burrell Advertising, pt.1</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Alisa Starks talks about the beginning of her career at Burrell Advertising, pt.2</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Alisa Starks talks about dating relationship and marriage to HistoryMaker Donzell Starks</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Alisa Starks reminisces about meeting her husband, HistoryMaker Donzell Starks and their mutual interest in business entrepreneurship</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Alisa Starks describes her experience living in Los Angeles, California</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Alisa Starks explains the beginning of her dream to open a black-owned movie theater</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Alisa Starks talks about an opportunity to open a movie theater in Los Angeles, California</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Alisa Starks describes an opportunity to open a movie theater in Atlanta, Georgia</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Alisa Starks talks about acquiring the land in Chicago, Illinois to build Inner City Entertainment Theaters</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Alisa Starks recounts an important partnership with Cineplex Odeon</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Alisa Starks talks about the changes in Lawndale and Chatham, neighborhoods on Chicago, Illinois's South and West sides</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Alisa Starks describes her understanding of the influence of community relationships on the longevity of businesses</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Alisa Starks describes catering to her clientele</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Alisa Starks talks about how the theaters engage African American communities</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Alisa Starks describes the "hat controversy" at one of her movie theaters</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Alisa Starks talks about the reception of different films amongst black audiences</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Alisa Starks reflects upon black independent filmmaking</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Alisa Starks describes marketing independent films</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Alisa Starks talks about providing entry-level jobs in the community</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Alisa Starks shares her hopes and concerns for the black community</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Alisa Starks considers her legacy</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Alisa Starks talks about how she would like to be remembered</a>







Alisa Starks talks about the beginning of her career at Burrell Advertising, pt.2
Alisa Starks talks about the changes in Lawndale and Chatham, neighborhoods on Chicago, Illinois's South and West sides
But I called Shirley [Searcy] and I said, "I need to, you know, to set up an appointment with Tom Burrell [HM Thomas J. Burrell]." "Okay, I've heard your name and I'll see what I can do." And so she calls me back later, and she says, "Well, you know, he doesn't--you know, he thinks there is really nothing we can do right now." I said, "You need to make this happen," you know. And she goes, "Maybe I can get him on the phone." She gets Tom Burrell on the phone and we start talking. I don't know what I said, but I had the next morning I had a breakfast interview with Tom Burrell. And I had already prepared for what I was going to present him with. And what I did, I created--even though I wasn't on the creative side, I was applying for a job on the account management side--I had a book created, like a portfolio, like art directors because I knew that was his background, was in art direction. And so, the book told the story of me and my accomplishments, and why Alisa Starks--I was then Alisa King--and Burrell should work together. And it also included in this book, like, some of the old ads from when the agency first opened--stuff that he hadn't seen in ten years that I had gotten from old issues of Ebony and Jet and stuff like that. And he was like, "Okay, you know, I think you got to meet one more person." I was like, "I thought you were it. Aren't you Tom Burrell?" (Laughter). You know, and he said--and now I know why he wanted me to meet this person; this person was Sarah Burroughs, who would ultimately become president of Burrell Communications Group when he would become chairman. And he had me interview with her, and she just fooled me to death. I knew when Julius liked me, Gene Morris [HM Eugene Morris] liked me, Tom Burrell I could read it. "Okay, I'm in like Flynn, right now." But with Sarah Burroughs, I could not read her at all. And she you know, I said, "Okay, so you'll get back to me?" And she said, "Yes." And the next thing I knew I had the job. But so, there are stories that they can tell you, of who this persistent person is. Gene will even tell you, "Her mother ran into me one day. (Laughter). "I didn't know her mother." And just how I was persistent in getting the job. So, that was kind of the trail through advertising.$Now they've been successful. I mean, the people go to the show there.$$They go to the show. Well, and interestingly enough, the most successful site is the [E.] 87th [Street] and the Dan Ryan [Expressway], our site. And it's the homerun site; it takes care of the other two. We knew when they gave us the other sites that they would trail Chatham [Chicago, Illinois]. Lawndale [Chicago, Illinois] each of the three communities that we went in were very different African American communities. Lawndale was the most challenged of the three communities. The site that we were on was empty and hadn't been developed since the riots in the 1960's. This was bare land. We were really being trailblazers at that site. But that was also the site the mayor was aggressively wanting done by one of these exhibitors. And that's how they got them, because the mayor wanted something to happen in those communities that would bring these kinds of jobs, entry level jobs, into that community. And there was nothing over there. I mean, Dominick's came in after us. All these people that are you know; they benefit from us being trailblazers there. But you go there today and you see an entire shopping center. You know, the Bank of Lawndale was there. Then there's us, then now there's Dominick's, there's Payless, there's Blockbuster, there's all of that. There's only one out-lot that isn't the out-lot that's there. But it's due to a contract that they couldn't bring in the tenant right away. And now that, well, what happened is McDonald's had an exclusive. They're on one side on one out-lot, and this other out-lot is designed for another fast food chain. And McDonald's kind of just prohibited that other chain from coming in until a certain period of time. That time has expired. So, that will be completely--if you look at that now, they've got market rate housing. The community is drastically changing right now. You can't even get into some of the new homes for less than $200,000, $300,000, for some of the new developments that they're building over there. You look at the other site at [W.] 62nd [Street] and [S.] Western [Avenue]. It was kind of like the middle of the road between Chatham and Lawndale, literally and figuratively. Western Avenue, a strip that runs from the furthest point north of the city to the furthest point south. I mean, known for car dealerships, known for business, but nothing really shopping mall kind of deal. We put our theater at 62nd and Western. More development comes in there, Pep Boys, Aldi's. K-Mart was supposed to come right next to us until it went bankrupt. And then you look at Chatham. Chatham, of the three communities, most developed. The household incomes are larger. The, you know, these are more homeownership in that community. All of that, you know, a stable community.$$It's more black home ownership there than any other place in the city.$$Yeah. So, and then you look at the numbers, the dynamics, the whole nine yards. The two malls were almost, they were more than fifty percent vacant when we went in--both sides of the street. After a week, Home Depot comes in. Now, you've got Marshalls' first inner city store. You know, you've got Bally's. You've got all that kind of stuff. Cub Foods came in after us. That mall is like, what, ninety-nine percent full of You know, on one side, one store big store I think that always keeps changing hands is that Ames on the other side. But in every community that we went in, there was development, which was something that we kept preaching to the banks. They knew how important that getting us in was to each of those communities. And all we were doing was using the model that was very similar to the way that governments have developed the suburban communities. You get in your large acre tenants and create a shopping center, and voila! And a lot of times it was a theater. Where are most of the movie theaters? In these shopping centers in suburban communities. They helped build that, because the other people will come if there's a movie theater. So we got, after these theaters were built--oh, every city, every local official was like calling us all over, "Please come." The problem is I can't be everywhere. And if you've got a theater here, I can't have another one two blocks down the road. But we've been interviewed a lot from like when they a lot of people interviewing us about, well, coming to see the theaters, and seeing the change in all three.