Lawrence: After Three Decades, Will the Uptown Theatre Return?
By Rachel Hartz and Celeste
The Red Line Project
Updated: Nov. 25, 2012
Friends, fans, and volunteers, such as Andy Pierce, are patiently waiting for the Uptown Theatre to throw open its doors to the people of Chicago -- a wait that has lasted three decades
“The project, when it begins, will take a year or more,” Pierce said. “So we all will have plenty of time to pick out what we are going to wear to the grand opening.”
The historical building has sat empty since 1981, but with new ownership, some people question whether they will be able to restore the theater while maintaining its historical value.
According to Pierce, the intention of the present owners, Jam Productions, is to restore the building and use it for ticketed performances such as concerts and special events.
Jam Productions bought the building for $3.2 million at a forced judicial sale in 2008. According to Kathy McLeister of the Theatre Historical Society of America, the 46,000-square-foot building needs a lot of work before it could ever reopen.
McLeister says the building is a hard hat zone. The terra cotta decoration on the outside of the theatre had to be taken down as the owners were afraid it would fall and hit pedestrians on the sidewalk.
With the excitement of the Uptown Theatre lighting up their neon sign once again, the buzz around the community is whether or not the new owners will rip out the original seats to make it a general admission.
The current auditorium hold 4,000 seats, all with very ornate siding.
“Personally, I would not be wild about that kind of concept but almost all theatres change with times to attempt to be successful in the market,” Pierce said. “No matter what, the Uptown will always be the Uptown.”
The removal or exchanging of the old seats for new ones might be necessary. As McLeister pointed out, seats made in the 1920’s were both shorter and narrower than seats concert goers are used to.
Besides the communities feelings toward the original seats versus new seats or no seats, Pierce added that the concept seems to have the support of local leaders and there’s been no recorded opposition.
The facade of the Uptown Theatre. (Photo by Celeste Piraino)
Jerry Mickelson, of Jam Productions, told the Chicago Tribune he is currently trying to find a way to fund the kind of renovations that the building will need which he estimates to be $70 million.
“No private entity could afford to put that amount of money into a theatre”, he told the Tribune. “The Uptown can only reopen with the necessary funding from the city.”
Public funding could be a possibility with Emanuel’s support of the project.
“If you look at it from the big picture perspective, which is what I think [Mayor] Rahm Emanuel and a lot of people are doing, that seventy million dollars translates to millions of other dollars that are going to be invested in the Uptown area,” Jorge said.
Although the front doors may be boarded and the giant marquee is left with only rusty letters and empty light-bulb sockets, according to the Chicago Tribune, the new owners and Emanuel see the Uptown Theatre as a way to rejuvenate the city's North Side. Eventually, it could turn Uptown into an entertainment district, some locals say.
In the past, the Uptown area has been considered a “rough” neighborhood. But, according to Aragon Ballroom event coordinator Alex Jorge, the view of Uptown has improved over the years because live music is getting more attention, which draws an audience to the area.
Located on the corner of Broadway and Lawrence, the Uptown Theatre was once considered to be the best place in Chicago to see a movie. When it opened in August 1925, it was the place to see and be seen.
After its role as a movie and stage venue for fifty years, the theater became the spot to see concerts in the 1970s. Uptown Theatre hosted everyone from classical performers in its prime to cultural icons such as Frank Zappa and the Grateful Dead in the 70s.
It was a walk through memory lane for Mike Rytie, an employee at Shake, Rattle, and Read, as he reminisced about his experience at the Uptown Theatre.
“I use to see concerts there,” he said. “I saw Bruce Springstein, Prince, and Bob Marley and the Wailers. I always had the best times at Uptown.”
But in 1981, after the owners were unable to afford to sustain the theatre, the pipes froze and busted leaving nothing but years of maintenance and vandalism. The only thing the owners could do was shut the theater down completely.
Since the theater closed in 1981, it has been used as a location for scenes in movies such as Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. The interior for the “Duncan’s Toy Chest” was actually shot inside the Uptown Theatre's lobby.
Interactive map: Key locations in the Uptown neighborhood.
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