Chicago - Uptown Theatre will be restored

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Donald Binks

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Chicago - Uptown Theatre will be restored

PostMon Jul 02, 2018 7:53 pm

(from "The Chicago Tribune", 2nd July, 2018)

After 35 years of stuttering starts, empty promises, a court-ordered sale and oft-reckless neglect, the 4,381-seat, 46,000-square-foot Uptown Theatre — once the gilded crown jewel of the Balaban & Katz theater chain, and among the most opulent and gorgeous movie palaces ever built in America — is finally to be restored to its 1925 glory.

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In other words, what long has seemed impossible to dogged, devoted preservationists, nostalgists and the tireless volunteer group known as the Friends of the Uptown is finally happening on Chicago’s North Side. And an eye-popping $75 million has been pieced together and set aside for the restoration of a dangerously decayed and decrepit theater that was boarded up after a J. Geils Band concert on Dec. 19, 1981, leaving aging Chicagoans only with their memories of once seeing Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley, Prince or the Grateful Dead inside its historic bones.

This is not just another plan for the 4816 N. Broadway flagship of the Uptown neighborhood, insists Mayor Rahm Emanuel. This time it’s for real. Assuming the plan passes the City Council and other regulatory hurdles, the restoration and redevelopment project is slated to begin this fall. Within two years, the boards should be off the windows, the venue open for business and a curious public careening once again down the grand lobby staircase.

“This is the fulfillment of a promise,” said Emanuel in an interview Thursday. “When I was still mayor-elect, I talked about creating an entertainment district in Uptown. Our investments in culture are one of our best drivers of economic growth and job creation in our neighborhoods.”

The new Uptown will be a joint and equal venture between the Chicago-based promoter Jam Productions (which gained ownership of the landmarked Uptown for $3.2 million in 2008) and Farpoint Development. A new partnership entity will be formed.

Relatively new to the Uptown party, Farpoint Development is led by Scott Goodman, who co-founded Sterling Bay and helped build that firm into one of Chicago’s biggest and best-known commercial real estate developers, with projects including McDonald’s headquarters’ move to the former site of Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios and Google’s Midwest headquarters in a former cold-storage warehouse. Goodman and three other longtime Sterling Bay executives left the company in 2016 to start Farpoint.

“The Uptown is an amazing asset in an amazing neighborhood,” Goodman said. “This was the rare opportunity to do something really cool.”

Goodman said the architect for the project has yet to be selected.

Jam’s specialty is concert promotion, but the plan is for the Uptown to feature a variety of live events.

“Concerts. Comedy. Dance. Special events. A whole multitude of things,” said Arny Granat, the co-founder and co-owner, with Jerry Mickelson, of Jam Productions. “This is a game changer for the city. It’s not just about concerts, it’s about the economic development that now will occur in the Uptown neighborhood”

Granat also said that, for some events, main-floor seats will be removed, allowing for an audience capacity as high as 5,800. Even with all-seated events, the Uptown’s size eclipses all other theaters in the city, including the 3,901-seat Auditorium Theatre and the 3,600-seat Chicago Theatre, both of which are about to experience some formidable new competition.

The mayor’s office said the piecemeal financing for the Uptown Theatre comes from an array of public and private sources: $14 million in financing through the State of Illinois’ Property Assessed Clean Energy Act; $13 million in tax-increment financing; $10 million in Build Illinois bond funding; $8.7 million in federal tax credits; and $3.7 million in the City of Chicago’s Adopt-a-Landmark funds. Jam and Farpoint are kicking in the remaining $26 million in a yet-to-be-determined mix of debt and equity. The restoration scheme also includes $6 million in streetscape improvements to portions of North Broadway, and Lawrence and Wilson avenues and Argyle Street, including a new pedestrian plaza and public stage, located just south of Lawrence and Broadway.

The byzantine road to restoration — and the campaigns to avoid the wrecking ball — have been as melodramatic as one of the movies the Uptown showcased in the 1920s.

Back in 2002, politicians and arts supporters, including Ivar Albert Goodman, held a news conference announcing an impending restoration. But the nonprofit group calling itself the Uptown Theatre and Center for the Arts did not have the money to acquire the building. And Goodman’s $1 million donation quickly was spent with nothing concrete to show. In a civil complaint, the Illinois attorney general’s office alleged the money had been spent on purchases at luxury hotels, restaurants and clothing stores.

“This theater,” said then-Ald. Mary Ann Smith, 48th, to the Tribune, “tends to attract people with stars in their eyes.”

Indeed it did. All kinds of people with all kinds of fantasies.

But as early as 2000, a report by the Urban Land Institute of Washington, D.C., had laid out the essential, irrefutable argument for the Uptown: "Future generations will not forgive those who do not attend to this obligation."

For Chicago politicians, the Uptown has been a major quandary for decades. Restoration was jaw-droppingly expensive and thus beyond the reach of most private owners, especially since success in the highly competitive entertainment business was far from assured. But what mayor or alderman would want to be associated for life with the demolition of such a treasured and unique beauty?

Designed by the famed team of C.W. and Geo. L. Rapp (known as Rapp and Rapp) and touted on opening as containing “an acre of seats in a magic city” behind its Spanish Baroque facade, the huge six-story lobbies and extra-wide staircases of the Uptown could get 4,300 people out the doors, and another 4,300 inside, all within 16 minutes. In its first five years of operation in the 1920s, more than 20 million Chicagoans went through its portals into a fantastical world apart, one that Rapp and Rapp had wanted to resemble such creations as the Palace of Versailles.

There were floating “clouds,” tiny twinkling lights in the ceiling and even a perfuming system under the seats.

It was a far cry from Al Capone’s Chicago.

Had the Uptown Theatre been in the Loop, it likely would have been restored long ago, alongside the busy, historic theaters now owned or operated by Broadway in Chicago and Madison Square Garden Entertainment. But the Uptown’s massive size — too big for many concerts and most Broadway musicals — and its location in a neighborhood with significant economic challenges presented the dilemma of how to attract suburban and tourist audiences to an address that’s about 8 miles from the corner of State and Madison streets. Especially given the relative lack of parking and the large number of competing venues in the city.

By 2002, the alarmed Friends of the Uptown group was calling reporters with stories of falling plaster and pooling rainwater. Some in the group suspected that the endangered theater was being intentionally allowed to rot and soon would be condemned for good (or, their minds, bad). Others were pushing for the city to acquire the building through eminent domain. By the summer of 2008, there had been a court-ordered foreclosure sale and competing bids, leading to Jam Productions taking control of the building through a spinoff company, UTA II, controlled by Mickelson and Granat.

Jam’s winning bid was widely seen at the time as a defensive move to counter the incursions into the city by such rivals as Live Nation and MSG Entertainment. But taking control and reopening were two very different things. The Uptown could not just be reopened to the public: At the time, Jam argued that no restoration would be possible without public money, which was not then forthcoming. And thus, although Jam invested in and stabilized the Uptown, and averted the building’s worst problems, the theater remained on the endangered lists.

A look at the current state of three of Chicago's most beautiful, shuttered movie palaces: the Central Park Theatre, the New Regal Theater and Uptown Theatre. (John Owens, Chicago Tribune)
A few reporters, documentarians and artists found their way inside. In Chicago’s 2012 Cultural Plan, the Uptown Theatre got a hopeful mention. And in 2017, a music video was made by Regina Spektor inside the ghostly but atmospheric building, revealing to a new, younger generation what was hidden behind the barriers to entry.

But those who have fought for — and reported on — the theater have grown old while the Uptown has languished, its keepers fearing every severe storm.

So what changed? The construction boom in the city has certainly been a factor, as has the revival of urban entertainment venues and the urban economic momentum in general, often coming at the expense of the suburbs.

Farpoint is among the developers looking to capitalize on the nationwide urbanization trend. Its largest initiative is the proposed redevelopment of the 49-acre former Michael Reese Hospital site and other land south of McCormick Place into residential and commercial buildings. The project, called the Burnham Lakefront, was one of five Chicago sites that Amazon visited in March as the e-commerce giant scouted sites for its planned second headquarters.

This isn’t Farpoint’s first foray into cultural development: Goodman recently was involved with an unsuccessful attempt to build a new home for the Northlight Theatre in downtown Evanston. But that was potential new construction with vociferous local opposition. The Uptown is a fulfillment of a neighborhood’s dream.

“This is not unlike asking kids if they want another Christmas, or Chicagoans if they want another World Championship,” said Andy Pierce, the co-founder of the Friends of the Uptown, an organization with a 20-year history of campaigns and agitation, and now with results to show. “You just don’t meet anyone who doesn’t want the Uptown saved.”

Tribune reporter Ryan Ori contributed to this story.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
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Mike Gebert

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Re: Chicago - Uptown Theatre will be restored

PostMon Jul 02, 2018 8:28 pm

Thank you for mentioning that, I meant to and forgot. This is walking distance from my house and one of the largest movie theaters left in the country (over 2/3 the size of Radio City, to give you an idea, so pretty damn big). If it happens, it will be a great thing for the area and for the city.
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Re: Chicago - Uptown Theatre will be restored

PostMon Jul 02, 2018 8:33 pm

Mike Gebert wrote:Thank you for mentioning that, I meant to and forgot. This is walking distance from my house and one of the largest movie theaters left in the country (over 2/3 the size of Radio City, to give you an idea, so pretty damn big). If it happens, it will be a great thing for the area and for the city.


Hope I haven't stolen your thunder Mike. It came off the wire to me here in Oz from my theatre organ connections in the States. I am really pleased for you that you are getting your theatre back there in Chicago - you'll again be able to go to the pictures in style! Great to see these wonderful edifices being returned to their former glory.
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Re: Chicago - Uptown Theatre will be restored

PostMon Jul 02, 2018 8:45 pm

Not at all. Here's a nice documentary about it which I embedded before in a thread on old theaters.



They won't be showing movies, but hopefully there will be a concert worth seeing there. All the really big ones become performing arts centers, but I do have the wonderful Music Box within an even shorter walking distance, still showing films (and on some occasions, 35mm and 70mm film to boot).
“I'm in favor of plagiarism. If we are to create a new Renaissance, the government should encourage plagiarism. When convinced that someone is a true plagiarist, we should immediately award them the Legion of Honor.” —Jean Renoir
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Re: Chicago - Uptown Theatre will be restored

PostMon Jul 02, 2018 8:49 pm

It's the same with the Regent Theatre in Melbourne which was totally restored back in 1996. Since then it has been home to musicals nearly non-stop. Sometimes, in between bumping them in and out, we may get the opportunity for a film or theatre organ concert, but not often.
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Uptown, Riviera, & the Essanay/Capone Bar

PostTue Jul 03, 2018 9:33 am

The Uptown....The Riviera...
The Green MIll
Green Mill + Uptown- Facing West, Right Side is North
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Green Mill, a noirish close-up
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Walking from Green Mill+Uptown To Riviera or Essanay
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Mike Gebert wrote: This is walking distance from my house....
1. Hooray! Nitratevillers on a pilgrimage will now have a friendly home at which to stop for free parking and meals.
2. The Mayor has announced that, in homage to the nearby Green Mill- and in the tradition of Grauman’s Chinese- the Uptown’s courtyard will have retired Chicago mobsters' footprints set in cement (with the rest of their bodies, head-first, beneath).

Last edited by JFK on Wed Jul 04, 2018 7:48 pm, edited 4 times in total.
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Re: Chicago - Uptown Theatre will be restored

PostTue Jul 03, 2018 11:01 am

This is great news.I remember visitng this cinema with the CTA from England,around 14 years ago.It has stuck in my memory ever since.Such a beautiful building left to rot,apart from the volunteers who kept it alive.I hope i may get to visit this building when it is restored.

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