By Rosalind Cummings-Yeates
Bella Tronou exudes a warm, bubbly essence. Even as she attends to an unhappy customer at Hyde Park’s Harper Theater, her manner is unruffled and pleasant. By the time she hands the clamorous patron passes for a replacement movie, the woman is smiling and laughing, like she has been infected by Tronou’s easygoing spirit.
As general manager of Harper Theater, Tronou manages 13 employees and is in the theater six days a week. The 25-year-old enjoys all the responsibility, including dealing with unhappy customers. “I like helping out customers,” says Tronou. “If I can make them happy, I'm happy.”
Happiness and a better life were the ultimate goals for Tronou and her family when they moved from Togo, West Africa, to Chicago 15 years ago. As a fourth grader, Tronou was excited about making a new life. Some of the adjustments she made in her new country were easy. “We lived in Edgewater and I had a teacher who spoke French, and there were a lot of kids from different countries,” said Tronou, who speaks five languages, including French, Mena, Ewe, and Efon. “School had more freedom in America. In Africa, it was very serious. You couldn't say whatever you wanted to, to the teacher or not do your homework.”
After graduating from Sullivan High School, she enrolled in Everest College for the medical assistant program but quickly discovered that she wasn't cut out for medicine. Still, she earned her medical assistant diploma then enrolled at Devry for a business administration degree with a concentration in management. Working her way through college, she landed a part-time job as an usher at the 400 Theater in the Rogers Park neighborhood.
“I was working another job overnight at Misercordia as a direct service professional, trying to pay down my student loans,” she said. Even while juggling school and two jobs, Tronou was a hard worker and was quickly promoted from usher to shift supervisor at the theater. She quit the Misercordia job and was promoted again to assistant manager of the theater. “Within five months, I went from usher to assistant manager,” said Tronou. “I was in charge of the internal and external cleaning of the theater and I ended up sucking at that job,” she recalled. Her manager decided to fire her, but Tony Fox, the theater's owner, decided that Tronou’s work ethic made her worth another chance. So he demoted her instead.
“When she was twice demoted, I met with her and said, ‘Okay, Bella, you have two choices. You could feel sorry for yourself and quit, or improve on what you need improving on and re-earn another promotion,’” recalls Fox, who now also operates Harper Theater.
“He helped me understand what I needed to do,” Tronou said. “I was thrown into (the assistant manager) position without proper training. In 2012, I was promoted, demoted and almost fired all in one year,” she said. Rather than become discouraged, Tronou, back to being a regular shift supervisor, worked harder and harder. Soon, in 2013, she was promoted to assistant manager again, this time helping the general manager with day-to-day operations. She also helped with marketing, social media and events. Plus, this was her senior year at Devry, so she worked three days and went to school three days.
In 2014, she traveled to Bordeaux, France, for Devry's international studies program. When she returned, Fox asked her if she'd like to work at Harper Theater. “I thought I was going to help the manager. Then they fired all the managers, and I filled in while they were trying to find someone,” she said. “After two weeks, Tony said, 'I've seen how you work, the job is yours.' It was pretty scary and exciting at the same time.”
Taking her hard won success in stride, Tronou credits her father as motivation. “I look up to my dad,” she said. “He was in the military but went to school too. He earned the highest degree in Africa, equivalent to a PhD. He's pretty smart and I try to push myself like he did.”
After graduating last summer, Tronou has turned her focus toward the Hyde Park community. After living most of her life in Edgewater and Rogers Park, she's absorbing the neighborhood's characteristics and will move to Hyde Park this month. “The residents are more involved in their community here. They love walking down 53rd and hanging out. Hyde Park never disappoints.”
"Faces of 53rd Street" is a new twice-monthly series that profiles business owners, employees, and shoppers who contribute to the vibrancy and mix of activities in Hyde Park's 53rd Street commercial corridor. If you'd like to recommend a familiar face on 53rd Street for a profile, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.