Sunday, December 18, 2011

On the 30th anniversary of its closing, Andy Pierce reminds us what's so magical about the Uptown Theatre

click images for larger view
Today, December 19th, marks the 30th anniversary of the day Chicago's famed Uptown Theatre closed its doors.  By the time I got around to it in the 1960's, the 4,300 seat former movie palace designed by Rapp & Rapp was past its prime.  Apart from the John Frankenheimer masterpiece, The Train, most of the films I saw there were unmemorable - The Ballad of Josie?  The Dave Clark Five in Having a Wild Weekend? - but I was always blown away by the grandeur, beauty, and sheer scale of the place.

 Since its closing, the Uptown has suffered the indignities of being owned by some of the city's most infamous slumlords, leaks, floods, freezes, neglect and decay.  In 2008, it was acquired by Jam Productions, which already books the Riviera across the street.  Last October, representatives from JAM, mayor Rahm Emanuel's office and freshman Chicago alderman Harry Osterman and James Cappleman met to discuss how a revived Uptown could anchor a new vision for an Uptown Entertainment Center.

In 2006, the price tag bandied about for fully restoring the Uptown was $30 to $40 million.  Today, it's more like $70 million.  If hope is to be had, it might be found in the examples of two New York City theaters, the 1929, 2800 seat Beacon, designed by Walter Ahlschalger, which withstood bad times and attempts to "improve" it into a disco to emerge as a beloved and active concert venue, despite being far from the Mid- Manhattan Theatre district.  Even more striking is the comparison to the 3,200 seat Loew's Kings Theater in Brooklyn, designed by the fame Chicago movie palace architects Rapp & Rapp, left to rot ever since it's 1977 closing.  Like the Uptown, those who cherished the theater battled to keep it alive for revival, and their efforts were rewarded in a project, launched last year for a 2014 completion, to restore the Loew's Kings to its former glory as the centerpiece of the renewal of the Flatbush shopping district.  The city of New York has committed $50 million to the project's expected $70 million cost.

This week's edition of Time Out Chicago has an excellent article by Andy Pierce, one of the people most instrumental in Friends of the Uptown. who have been tireless in championing saving the theater.  We're privileged to have Andy provide us his overview of the history, importance and future potential of the Uptown . . .

What makes a theater a movie palace?
At some point, almost any surviving vintage theater is referred to by fans or reporters as a “movie palace.”
photograph: Theatre Historical Society of America
 The long-closed Uptown Theater, 4816 N. Broadway, is truly an early example of the very large movie palaces of the mid-to-late 1920s. It is also one of the last great movie palaces to not yet be restored, renovated, radically altered or demolished.
Chicago’s remaining open and operating movie palaces -- used for live performances -- are the Riviera, Chicago, Congress and Oriental theaters. The Central Park has survived as a church since 1971 and the restored New Regal (originally Avalon) has been closed intermittently since 2003. [Note: Our Palace Theater was not a movie palace. Rather, it was built for Big-Time Orpheum Vaudeville.] 

Arguably the most profitable themed entertainment of the day, Balaban & Katz “presentation houses,” such as the Uptown, featured continuous performance of three or more shows daily; stage shows with themes, costumes and sets planned in consideration of the feature film; a full orchestra rising and falling on multiple stage lifts, with a conductor at the helm of projector speeds and tempos to keep on schedule and massive theatre organs to accompany the orchestra and provide the aural environments and voices for the early and yet-still-silent stars of the screen. 

In B&K’s deluxe presentation houses such as the Uptown, a system of colored cove lights controlled the accent lighting of the auditorium such that the audience was entirely encapsulated in the mood of the moment on screen; for example yellow for sunrise, red for war, blue for night, purple for love. 

Most of America’s movie palaces carried a Neo-Classical theme cohesively throughout their public spaces and were lavishly decorated not only with plaster relief but also with fanciful polychrome paint schemes, damask, drapes, elaborate chandeliers, antique oil paintings, marble sculpture groups and fountains. Patron comfort and service were augmented in the Uptown for example with amenities such as hat racks beneath seats, a parcel check, luxurious men’s and women’s lounges and a fanciful playroom with storybook themes for children. 

Grand entrance lobbies gave standees a place to wait behind ropes while the previous audience exited through other lobbies and ambulatories. A full, working stage with scenery, a theater pipe organ, and multiple thousands of seats in floor, mezzanine and balcony areas completed the movie palace formula over tens of thousands of square feet of real estate. 

By Popular Demand
Closed 30 Years, the Uptown is Ready for Revival 

Baptized in oil, labor and love, friends of Chicago’s historic Uptown Theater, 4816 N. Broadway, are recognizing a peculiar anniversary for one of the world’s largest and most lavish surviving movie palaces today, Monday, Dec. 19, with a letter-writing campaign. Please see the Uptown Theatre, Chicago, Facebook page for details: 
photograph:  Theatre Historical Society of America

While the Uptown has been closed for 30 of its 86 years, demolition by neglect was held at bay largely through the work of volunteers who kept the theater graffiti free as high as they could reach, who stoked her shopworn boiler and who kept the landmark interior as dry as possible, using patches upon patches of hydraulic cement to seal cracks in steel roof drains that had been pushed open by ice. Uptown’s 12 different roof surfaces drain through this system of pipes. The failure of this system in the arctic winters of the early 1980s allowed water to damage to some interior areas of ornate plaster ceilings and walls.

This less-than-glamorous anniversary comes as both Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) are avowed boosters of the Uptown Square business and entertainment district and have voiced their cooperation and support for renovating the Uptown. 


The theater was built at a cost of $4 million between 1924 and 1925 by the local, family-owned company of Balaban & Katz, following the success of their Central Park, Riviera, Tivoli and Chicago theaters.  “Built For All Time,” its over-the-top, neo-Spanish Baroque design by the Chicago architectural firm of C.W. and George L. Rapp was touted as “An Acre of Seats in a Magic City.” The Uptown has a marquee bigger than a yacht, three lobbies as big as train stations, and boasts more than 4,300 seats in its vast floor, mezzanine and balcony. 
The opening of the Uptown was commemorated in the August 17, 1925 edition of Balaban & Katz's weekly magazine.  It's a fascinating snapshot of both the Uptown and 1920's Chicago.  You can download the entire issue courtesy of the Compass Rose Cultural Crossroads website.
Many historians note how the popularity of television in American homes curtailed the tremendous number of movie patrons. However, the late Bro. Andrew Corsini Fowler was quick to remind me that our fascination with radio programs took the first cut out of movie palace receipts. [Note: Bro. Andrew was a cofounder of Theatre Historical Society of America in 1969 alongside impresario and theater organ enthusiast Ben Hall, the Time-Life Editor and author of “The Best Remaining Seats."

As entertainment tastes and choices changed through the years, the Uptown was operated by successors to B&K before it was leased by the local Rabiela family in the late 1970s for Spanish-language films and special ticketed events. Interestingly, Jerry Mickelson, of Jam Productions, the Chicago music promoter who booked the Uptown for years and staged the last public concert there in 1981, is part of the LLC that owns the Uptown today.

“It was a very sad day for me on Dec. 19, 1981, when I told Rene Rabiela Sr. after Jam’s concert with the J. Geils Band that the theater was uninhabitable for the public use without repairs,” Mickelson recalled in an interview. “The washrooms were barely functioning and Jam had to pay for the oil to heat the theater.” 

Mickelson credits local officials and longtime volunteers for the Uptown surviving decades of deferred maintenance and neglect through a succession of owners and receivership. Also, the City of Chicago invested in more than $1 million in court-ordered stabilization work and repairs, which removed and stored decorative terra cotta and replaced the system of pipes through which the rain and snow melt from 12 roof surfaces drains. It was this system’s failure in the arctic winters of the early 1980s which caused water damage to some interior areas of ornate plaster ceilings and walls. 
While there is no shortage of public sentiment for the theater, the riddle of the Uptown is how to fund a restoration in the tens of millions of dollars such that the historic, block-filling movie palace will serve the entertainment and special events needs of the ticket-buying public of today. 

“There is a new energy that has been infused by Mayor Emanuel, whose vision is to create an entertainment district that will provide an unprecedented economic and cultural development opportunity for this great neighborhood,” Mickelson said. He added that both Ald. Osterman and Ald. James Cappleman (46th) are also working hard to see the Uptown reopen and be a catalyst for enlivening the district. 

Being closed 30 years means that most of the Uptown’s friends onFacebook, its persistent advocates and its letter-writing activists are not old enough to have seen a show there. 
photograph: Theatre Historical Society of America
This 40-year-old writer became attuned to the dedication and resolve of Uptown’s volunteers during a frigid winter day sometime in 1998. We were getting the theater ready for a special event rental such as the Hearts Party, a commitment ceremony or a chamber of commerce dinner. I recall pulling down a rotten 1950s curtain that was hanging in shreds from its hoisted frame atop the grand lobby window facing Broadway and asking if it we should save it. “No. It will be replaced when the restoration happens,” Mangel said matter-of-factly without a hint of “if” in his tone. 

At first, it struck me as very sad to think of how he and other volunteers would feel crushed if the building were not saved. Then, after seeing the entire building and working until I was exhausted and could no longer feel my feet or hands, I knew in my heart that the Uptown was too valuable and too extraordinarily beautiful to not save for some future use. 

There was a time during my early work for the Uptown when I was ushering on alternate nights for the Auditorium, Chicago and Oriental theaters. I would come and go at times from their carpeted and well-lit spaces to the almost-forgotten Uptown. The disparity of attention and investment was palpable.
photograph: Theatre Historical Society of America
I also have a clear memory of sweeping the Uptown’s basement one day in preparation for a tour, listening to the President Bill Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky hearings being broadcast from Capitol Hill. I thought: What if we had the money being spent on this ridiculousness? Turns out the $30 million Kenneth Starr spent on the investigation could have renovated the Uptown at that time.

Preparing for working within the Uptown was like going on a long, winter hike in the woods. I dressed in layers and packed water, snacks and flashlights. Aside from doing a good deed for the sake of preserving the building, the reward for a day's work was usually a big, hot meal at Fiesta Mexicana Restaurant or a cocktail at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, both of which are on this historic block.

During rare special events -- banner days, really, for the Uptown, I've heard the Uptown pulse with incredible dance music for events and seen every Spanish Baroque detail lit up in brilliant color by the industry's best rented lights, disco balls and lasers. I also had a glimpse of a lost era when I saw the Uptown lit by candles and caressed in the music of a jazz trio. These are precious memories that make the work worthwhile. Together with the two community portraits I have organized in front of the theater for the 75th and 80th opening day anniversaries, I feel as if I have done everything I can do within my means and abilities as a volunteer for and with the Uptown.

On most days, the only performance one can hear in the Uptown is a small jam box tuned to WDCB or WFMT, the distant rhythm of the "L," and the occasional shrill call of the resident peregrine falcon aerie. Time is at a standstill and the countless griffins, maidens, fascia brutes and laughing kings who populate the Uptown's walls are simply waiting mutely for their next audience. 

photograph: Theatre Historical Society of America

Some of the Uptown's many friends who have said to me "I hope to live to see it restored" over the past 18 years have since passed away. I too had hope that they would be here to celebrate its reopening day. We stay positive as volunteers and have faith that the project will happen. 
photograph: Theatre Historical Society of America
My trusted friend and mentor Joe DuciBella, the noted theatre historian and designer who succumbed to cancer in 2007, was one of the Uptown’s most tactful and respected advocates. Late at night following Theatre Historical Society of America events, our heady conversations in Joe’s National Register home on Caton Street in Wicker Park would always drift to the Uptown and its chances for revival. Deep down inside, Joe hoped that the Uptown would be restored in her entirety. However, he was a realist and would concede that perhaps it would survive in some repurposed form. Privately, the closest Joe would come to how he truly felt about the Uptown’s odds was to say the matter was “soft territory.” 

In addition to DuciBella, who gave countless tours and chronicled its importance in Marquee magazine, the Uptown’s patron saints include Don Lampert, who had the building listed on the National Register and designated as a City of Chicago landmark; Bob Boin, who stored its bronze and crystal chandeliers and is his in his third decade of volunteering; Curt Mangel, the restoration consultant who gained the confidence of owners Ken Goldberg and Lou Wolf (notorious tax-sale buyers) so that he could go in, thaw out, dry out and revive the Uptown’s systems in the 1980s; David Syfczak, the volunteer security guard since 1996, who checks all 110 doors and who does plaster repairs, paints and sweeps miles of floors and sidewalks; Jimmy Wiggins, manager of the Riviera Theatre, who oversees operations, maintenance and repairs; and many more unsung friends. 
Despite being dark for three decades, the Uptown still has several mature professionals in its corner that did experience it alive with music and audiences. Time will tell if Chicago’s powerbrokers, elected officials, financiers and entertainment industry leaders will find a creative, collaborative and altruistic way to re-lamp the nation’s best closed theater.  


Andy Pierce, a volunteer who helped found Friends of the Uptown in 1998, is a member of the Theatre Historical Society of America

 weblinks: 

Friends of the Uptown

Theatre Historical Society of America

3 comments:

BW Des Plaines said...

Rapp & Rapp, not Ahlschlager. You may be thinking of NYC's Roxy.

Lynn Becker said...

Thanks for the catch. Correction made.

Anonymous said...

I saw a few concerts there during high school and college -- it was always a good venue even in it's run-down state.

I would imagine it could probably fill the same niche as the Chicago and Rosemont Theaters now.

It could also possibly host a few of the bigger jazz shows that are now held at Symphony Center, which would fit with Rahm's hopes to make Uptown a music district.

In any case, I have a lot more hope for the Uptown area with the recent change in Aldermen.