Uptown Theatre: Polishing an old jewel

Venue has sat empty for nearly 30 years, but its owners see it as the anchor of a revitalized music district on the North Side, a vision supported by Mayor Rahm Emanuel

Uptown TheatreThe Uptown Theatre along Broadway in Uptown. (Brian Cassella/ Chicago Tribune) 
By Mark CaroTribune reporter5:04 p.m. CDT, October 11, 2011

The front doors are boarded up in shades of gray and beige, while the weathered marquee, propped up by four poles anchored near the street, displays empty light-bulb sockets and the rusty white letters out front spelling “UPTOWN.” Stragglers in this diverse, ever-struggling neighborhood might lean against the boards for a smoke or cellphone chat, but nothing’s going on here. Hasn’t been, really, for almost 30 years.

Here’s a classic photo of urban blight.

Here’s the crumpled paper wrapping around a diamond.

Remove the padlocks from the makeshift wooden doors, step through the entryway into Uptown Theatre’s main lobby, however, and you’re in gasp city. What you see makes the Chicago Theatre’s grand entrance look like a guesthouse foyer.

“Your jaw drops,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose support for this crumbling, 86-year-old theater has triggered renewed hopes for a revitalized Uptown neighborhood. “It’s stunning.”

The space is big enough for Chicago Bears scrimmages and elegant enough for a royal ball. The almost pristine gray and black marble floor leads to a pair of curved, majestic, red-carpeted staircases and is flanked by ornate pillars, figurines, grates, gargoyles, carvings, frescoes and other ornamentations so intricate and beautifully rendered that it would take weeks to admire them all. One floor-to-ceiling slice of column and wall shines brighter than the others, its 24-carat gold and silver leaf designs restored 20 years ago to show how this jewel used to gleam.

That’s just the main lobby. Pass through numerous other spaces, all designed contrastingly and painstakingly, and eventually you reach the Uptown Theatre’s sprawling, gracefully raked, dramatically domed auditorium, which boasts what was billed on the theater’s 1925 opening-night marquee as “an acre of seats in a magic city.”

Jerry Mickelson said he has been in awe of this place since he first passed through its doors in 1974. On Oct. 31, 1975, his company, Jam Productions, produced its first concert there: the Tubes. On Dec. 19, 1981, it produced the Uptown’s last show: the J. Geils Band.

“There was no heat,” the 60-year-old promoter recalled. “The bathrooms were barely functioning. Things were starting to deteriorate then, and that’s when I said to the owner, ‘You can’t open this anymore.’ Because he hadn’t put money in it. So we said, ‘We’re out. You’ve got to close it.'”

Almost 30 years later, the Uptown Theatre remains shuttered, an oversized symbol of the teasing promise and ongoing dilapidation of the Uptown neighborhood. Every few years there’s a flurry of talk about restoring the theater and giving the neighborhood back its long-ago bustle — all while those wooden planks outside keep serving as a barrier between the public and its magnificent lobby.

Yet despite a continued economic downturn that has dried up public and private funding sources, a newfound sense of optimism is gathering around the prospect of eventually reopening Uptown Theatre as an anchor to an Uptown entertainment district. Mickelson has been pushing for such a development since he and his Jam partner Arny Granat (and their spinoff company, UTA II) bought the theater out of bankruptcy in 2008 for a reported $3.2 million, but Emanuel has moved the issue to the front burner with his recent declarations of support for a music hub in the neighborhood.

“It can happen now because people are finally seeing the intertwined connection between culture and economic development,” the mayor said in an interview Monday.

The two new aldermen who represent the quirkily divided neighborhood — Harry Osterman of the 48th Ward (which includes the Uptown Theatre and Green Mill Jazz Club a few doors south) and James Cappleman of the 46th (which includes the nearby Riviera Theatre and Aragon Ballroom) — are encouraging the effort, as are various city departments. Mickelson also recently signed on Phil Tagami, an Oakland-based developer who spearheaded the pricey but neighborhood-transforming restoration of that city’s historic Fox Theater, as a consultant. Tagami is in town this week for meetings with Mickelson, the aldermen, city officials and community representatives.

“It’s like the stars are all in alignment,” said Michelle Boone, the city’s Cultural Affairs and Special Events commissioner.

Of course, the stars are one thing. Money is another. Mickelson’s estimated price tag for restoring the Uptown to its former glory?

$70 million.

“There’s going to be some problems with that,” said Danny Bell, a retired Chicago History Museum security guard waiting for the bus at Lawrence Avenue and Broadway last week, laughing upon hearing the figure. “I don’t think there’s $70 million in cash in the whole country.”

But, Mickelson likes to point out, the Uptown’s architects created it “not for today but for all time,” and he intends to renew that promise.

“Just look at this building,” Mickelson said as he stood in the balcony inside the arching front window with a panoramic view of the lobby and a city block’s worth of theater. “We can’t lose this thing. You’ll never see something like this again.”

Decline of a true original

The Balaban & Katz company already was operating such movie palaces as the Loop‘s Chicago Theatre, the South Side’s Tivoli, the West Side’s Central Park and the North Side’s Riviera when it set out to build its most lavish theater yet. The Uptown, like those other venues, was designed by the renowned architecture firm Rapp and Rapp, which aimed to top itself in designing a theater that, at 46,000 square feet was thought to be the country’s largest-ever traditional movie palace.

Others, such as Radio City Music Hall, surpassed Uptown’s 4,381 seats, but the Uptown building is like a little city. The multiple lobbies could hold the auditorium’s entire capacity, so, current Uptown caretaker Dave Syfczak said, the theater could completely turn over the house between shows in a mere 16 minutes.

Part of the building — Spanish Baroque with other influences incorporated in different spaces — was constructed on what had been the outdoor gardens of the Green Mill, which opened in 1907. At the time, silent movie presentations often were accompanied by live stage shows, and Balaban & Katz was seeking to elevate the theater experience beyond vaudeville, through the lobbies’ luxurious details and fine-art displays, as well as the vast auditorium and stage.

“The Chicago Theatre downtown has a proscenium opening that’s 70 feet wide,” said Syfczak, a Chicago police officer who has been voluntarily caring for the Uptown since 1996. “When they built this building, they wanted their ad copy to say ‘the widest stage in Chicago,’ so they had Rapp and Rapp design the stage proscenium opening 70 feet and 1 inch.”

For decades the theater and neighborhood thrived, with the Uptown presenting movies and shows and hosting such events as Standard Oil of New Jersey shareholder meetings and live broadcasts of the TV game show “Queen for a Day.”

“This intersection was like Times Square,” Syfczak said. “You had the Aragon Ballroom across the street, the Riviera Theatre, this place operating, a lot of (other) clubs; there was a lot of activity in this neighborhood. But when the neighborhood declined in the late ’60s and early ’70s, it of course contributed to the decline of the theater also.”

The Uptown had been showing second-run movies when Jam began booking rock shows there. The list of performers is impressive: The Grateful Dead for six three-night stands between 1978 and 1981; Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band for three shows in 1978 and 1980; Bob Marley and the Wailers for dates in 1976, 1978 and 1979; Frank Zappa for four visits (and five shows) between 1977 and 1981; Cheap Trick opening for the Kinks in 1977; Genesis and Peter Gabriel playing six days apart in October 1978; and Prince opening for Rick James in early 1980 and headlining later that year.

Even now, one of the well-worn seat backs in the dusty auditorium boasts a Grateful Dead bumper sticker that reads, “Warning, I Brake for Hallucinations.” In the oval ladies lounge, these words remain scrawled: “Springsteen is God.”

But the rock bookings and movie screenings couldn’t keep the theater — owned by the Plitt movie theater chain and, for much of Jam’s time there, a local theater operator named Rene Rabiela — from falling into disrepair and eventual insolvency. The heat was shut off, and in winter 1982 the pipes burst, flooding the basement and causing extensive damage to ceilings, walls and staircases that has yet to be repaired.

“There was a glacier of ice coming down this grand staircase that was about 14-18 inches thick,” said Jimmy Wiggins, Jam’s venue operations manager overseeing the Riviera, Vic and Uptown. In the lower-level men’s lounge, with its Knights of the Round Table feel, Wiggins pointed to a waist-level line on the wall. “This is how much water sat in this building for over a year.”

Since that final 1981 concert, the Uptown has passed through a multitude of owners, some more savory than others, who couldn’t get it running again, all while volunteer groups such as Friends of the Uptown fought to stave off the wrecking ball. Parts of Ron Howard‘s 1991 firefighter movie “Backdraft” and the 1994 Julia Roberts/Nick Nolte comedy “I Love Trouble” were filmed there, and the main lobby doubled as the FAO Schwarz-like toy store in the John Hughes/Chris Columbus sequel “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” (1992). Syfczak said a wedding took place in the lobby years ago as well, though the building no longer is fit for such events.

Wiggins said when he checked in on the building during the winter of 1993-1994, he came upon a startling sight: “There were homeless people building fires on the grand floor there, on the marble floor, and they had broken these grates up with sledgehammers and were carting them off for scrap money.”

At another point, Syfczak discovered that a tower of pigeon dung had accumulated inside the broken front window, and as he jammed his shovel into the pile, mice scattered from within. The since-repaired window now is covered by a large curtain taken from the stage.

Steps have been taken to stem the deterioration and to preserve what’s there. Several years ago chunks of the glazed terra cotta facade were removed, cataloged and stored inside the building, and Mickelson said he and Granat have been putting six figures (he wouldn’t say high or low) into the place annually to keep it repaired, heated, cooled and at proper moisture levels.

But that’s all just maintenance. Mickelson’s plans go far beyond that.

2 needs: Time and money

In 2000, the Urban Land Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit research and education organization, issued a 48-page advisory report on how to transform the Uptown Entertainment District. The recommendations are as specific as what new street lamps should look like, but the broader stroke is that Uptown Theatre is the area’s “crown jewel” and “one of the most outstanding theaters in the United States … a major historic and aesthetic treasure that must be maintained.”

The economic picture has changed since the institute’s report, but an Uptown neighborhood flush with new development and activities remains the vision being chased by Mickelson and the city.

“This could make the Uptown area a great entertainment district that could drive the economy of that area with more restaurants and more other types of retail and commercial life that would really take off,” Emanuel said, citing the Old Town School of Folk Music‘s impact on Lincoln Square.

Mickelson and Granat hired the local architecture firm Booth Hansen, which restored the Loop’s Bank of America Theatre (formerly known as the LaSalle Bank Theatre, the Shubert and the Majestic), to draw up a feasibility study, which was issued in fall 2009. The firm presented three options, ranging from a plan that would make the building merely operational again (about $55 million) to one that would restore the theater completely ($70.8 million).

“You can go in and fix the structural problems — make the exiting work, put in more bathrooms — and it will be functional,” Booth Hansen principal/director George Halik said. “I think the real challenge is to get enough support and money to make it a real jewel, which it is, and not just a big space.”

Due largely to the water damage, Halik said, the Uptown is in worse shape than the much smaller Shubert/Bank of America Theatre building was before its reported $14 million renovation. But Tagami, the Oakland-based developer, said he was surprised to see how well-preserved the Uptown was when he first visited. Tagami had told Mickelson he wouldn’t take on this project unless he fell in love with the building.

“It’s an amazing building with a great history and a great story, and quite frankly it’s in a wonderful community,” Tagami said. “You can’t spend enough time there. I’m used to seeing historic structures that are in far worse condition. The building has very good bones.”

Still, a ton of money must be raised from sources both private (corporate naming rights are being discussed) and public. Tagami said Oakland’s Fox Theater project, which included an addition built for a new performing-arts school, drew its almost-$90 million budget from more than 20 sources. Now he and Mickelson are trying to line up a network of potential incentives and programs to help finance the Uptown, including city tax increment financing, federal new market tax credits (to spur investments in low-income communities) and historic preservation tax incentives (rebates for work on buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which the Uptown is).

Emanuel said the developers shouldn’t count on getting most of their funding from the public realm. “It has to be mostly private because that’s going to be where a lot of the gain’s going to be, and that’s how it should be,” he said. “But I’m pushing it as a champion for it.”

Given that commercial entities such as Jam also don’t tend to be at the center of large fundraising campaigns, Mickelson said one possibility is the creation of a not-for-profit entity that might take over the theater’s operations while Jam booked the acts. What’s most important, Mickelson said, is to get the place open again. Ric Addy, owner of the used books and records store Shake, Rattle & Read next door, said a restored Uptown would cement the veteran promoter’s legacy.

“This would be the jewel in his crown if he could make it happen,” he said.

Mickelson said the next 12 months will be key to laying out a plan, and the theater’s restoration would take another two years following that. To set any timetable now, Tagami said — or even to estimate costs — would be jumping the gun. He noted that for the Fox, which had been shuttered since 1966, he wrote his first proposal in 1997, and it hosted its first shows in February 2009.

“It’s completely transformed the neighborhood,” Tagami said.

Because the Uptown’s stage, like that of the Chicago Theatre, lacks the size to accommodate major theatrical productions, Mickelson said concerts will be its bread and butter. “Concerts, rentals, meetings, dinners — we’ll rent this space out because this is just so exquisite for whatever anybody wants to use it for,” he said.

He’d like to remove the floor-level seats and tier the main floor a la the Riviera, raising the capacity to about 5,000. Rene Rabiela Jr., who tried to spearhead a restoration effort before Mickelson took over — and whose father previously owned the Uptown— said he’s rooting for Mickelson but would prefer to see the seats maintained.

With the largest outdoor amphitheaters and arenas struggling in the current rock concert climate, Mickelson said he could see booking 80-100 shows a year at the Uptown. To what extent such bookings might take business from other theaters remains an open question, though Mickelson said the Uptown would attract different types of shows than the all-general-admission Aragon, with its capacity of 4,900.

“We want to maximize the performances and performing opportunities citywide,” said Marj Halperin, a communications and strategic management consultant as well as vice chair of the mayor’s advisory council on arts and culture. “We don’t want to just transfer them from one venue to another.”

Still, Halperin stressed, “I think there isn’t anyone involved in this who doesn’t want it to happen.”

‘Energy sure feels different’

Boone emphasized that the city and developers still need significant input from the community. But at this point the most common negative sentiment seems to be skepticism.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Green Mill owner Dave Jemilo said. “They’ve been talking about it for 25 years. … It’s a hard thing these days to make any dough with something that size. It’s going to be millions and millions and millions of dollars to get it up and going, and you’ve got to make that money back somehow. But if it can happen, I’m all for it. The more the merrier, man.”

StoryStudio Chicago director Jill Pollack counted herself among those Uptown residents disappointed that years of talk about the theater hasn’t yielded results, but now, she said, “the energy sure feels different.”

Now residing on the same block as the Uptown are the Annoyance Theatre, the upscale Indian restaurant Marigold, the popular gay sports bar/grill Crew, the recently arrived Middle Eastern restaurant Caravan, a high-end home-theater store plus Shake, Rattle & Read and the Green Mill. The Black Ensemble Theater is set to move into its new $19 million home at the southwest edge of the neighborhood next month, and the busy year-old Target store a half-mile south of the Uptown on Broadway has spurred hopes that the vacant storefronts in between may someday be filled.

“People are walking up and down Broadway again, and with Mayor Emanuel talking about Uptown becoming an arts district, what’s not to be excited about?” Pollack said.

The public will have a rare opportunity to step into the Uptown Theatre as part of an Oct. 26 fundraiser for Uptown United, the area’s business-boosting organization. A $100 ticket buys cocktails in the Bridgeview Bank rotunda, dinner at an Argyle Street restaurant and a tour of the Uptown Theatre lobby.

Boone said when she recently set foot inside the building for the first time, she was blown away by how misleading that shabby exterior is.

“When you walk into the lobby, it’s so majestic,” she said. “It’s a beautiful, beautiful space, and I can’t wait to go to the first concert when they reopen the doors.”

She added: “It’ll happen.”