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Uptown in the News  

Web Posted 8/27/2008
Chicago Journal
The gray old lady is ready

For decades, the Uptown Theatre's loudest champions have watched a succession of owners mishandle the once "palace of enchantment" as if it were a shabby clown painting on velvet.

They remember the bad times, when sheens of ice covered the winding staircases in the Grande Lobby, of burst water pipes and investors that raised their hopes for building's restoration, only to walk away broke and defeated.

Since the announced sale of the Uptown Theatre to Jerry Mickelson of Jam Productions, the Uptown's champions are cautiously optimistic that the architectural landmark will finally get the makeover they've been waiting and fighting for. Mickelson's limited liability company, UTAII, purchased the theater in a court auction for $3.2 million last month.

Unlike past efforts to restore the Uptown, the transfer of deed to the new owners, finalized last week in Cook County foreclosure court, comes with a deadline. Mickelson's group has 90 days to submit a plan to bring the Uptown in compliance with the city's building code, and six months after that to obtain building permits to begin rehabbing the building.

"There have been many close calls to starting renovation," said Andy Pierce, a volunteer for the theater advocacy group, Friends of the Uptown Theatre. "She's been to the altar several times. I'd say the old gray lady is ready."

Next Thursday, Friends of the Uptown Theatre will toast its 83rd birthday at the Kinetic Playground, with a free, slide-show presentation of the legendary theater's storied history and a showing of the 2006 documentary, "Portrait of a Palace," by Northwestern University students John Pappas and Michael Bisberg. [Doors and cash bar at 5 p.m. Event 6 to 7 p.m.]

"I started going to the Uptown in college to see movies and I was blown away by its size. It had virtually every one of its original light fixtures that were still hanging and usable," said Bob Boin, a volunteer for the Friends of the Uptown Theatre. "The Northwestern students did a very good job (with the documentary), and it is one of the things that we are sure helped save it."

When the Uptown Theatre opened at "High Noon, 12 o'clock sharp" on Aug. 18, 1925, one reporter from the Chicago Evening Post described it as an "orgy of expenditure displayed on every side. Money seems to have been poured out like water to make the Uptown theater the last word in cinema palace gorgeousness."

"The architects did a very modern building for 1925," Pierce said. "Outside it looks like the castles of old Spain. The way the Uptown looks was age old. They gave it a patina on the inside and painted it to make it look like it's always been there. Today we might go to Dave and Buster's, or Dino World, but for themed entertainment of its day, the Uptown was as good as it got."

The 34-piece orchestra and lavish productions and orchestral concerts that outmatched Hollywood's prolific grind of westerns, comedies, dramas and musicals gave way to Spanish-language movies and close- circuit, televised boxing matches through the ensuing decades, when audiences barely filled (sic) the Uptown's "acre of seats." The immense costs associated with running the theater, caused one family who owned it to declare bankruptcy and walk away. It was the Uptown's 4,300-seat auditorium and expansive stage that first attracted Mickelson, who deemed it the perfect venue for Jam's rock concerts in the 1970s.

Except for brief moments when the Grand Lobby was lit for charitable events in the 1990s and as a set for "Home Alone 2," the Uptown has remained darkened and silent since 1981. Since then, Friends of the Uptown Theatre have tended to the building's wounds brought on by years of vacancy, when unpaid heating bills caused water pipes to burst in the theater's basement and pieces of its facade fell smashing on to Broadway (sic). The group gave tours, introducing younger generations who only heard stories of its magnificence from their parents and grandparents, and building support for its restoration.

"We brought people into it so they could see that the Uptown hadn't deteriorated. We cleaned the theater before every show," Boin said. The group stopped giving tours of the building after the city's building department declared the Uptown uninhabitable in the mid- 1990s (sic).

Ted Calhoun, who with his partner, Joanne Asala, started the non- profit publishing company Compass Rose Cultural Crossroads that specializes in folklore and history, organized a petition drive in 2004 that has since amassed 2,400 online signatures, and 800 handwritten signatures.

"When we first moved to Uptown six or seven years ago, we heard complaints and off-the-wall rumors," Calhoun said. "The owner of an antique shop mentioned that he had a relative that toured the theater with Mayor Daley and that it was going to be torn down. We heard things that had no basis in reality and it worried us."

Ald. Mary Ann Smith, 48th, who is featured in the "Portrait of a Palace" documentary, led efforts to establish the Lawrence and Broadway TIF District in 2001, specifically to set aside public monies for the Uptown's restoration, estimated at $40 million. The Lawrence-Broadway TIF District is an irregular shaped, geographic "L" bounded by Berwyn to Leland on Broadway, and from Magnolia to Sheridan along Lawrence, intersecting the 48th and 46th Wards.

"One of the goals of the TIF was to do the Uptown Theatre," said Doug Fraser, Smith's chief of staff. "Our office will talk to Ald. (Helen) Shiller's office to figure out what gets spent where. No one moves ahead without a formal conversation. It hasn't been an issue with us."

City receivership liens on the Uptown, originally reported at $1.7 million, have since been placed at $2.7 million. "At a certain point, a judge appointed a third-party receiver to manage the property," Department of Law spokeswoman Jenny Hoyle said. "The liens are associated with the cost of doing that."The new owners must file an appearance in court within seven days from transfer of tile on August 18, to resolve the ongoing housing court case with the city, which was separate from the foreclosure case.

Meanwhile, questions abound about the Uptown's pending restoration. In an earlier interview with News-Star, Mickelson said he wants to restore the Uptown as an entertainment venue.

"The biggest question that I have is how thorough a restoration (Mickelson) intends on pursuing," Calhoun said. "If public funds make the difference between an adequate restoration and something that's great, then I'm for opening the process." Mickelson says he plans on attending the Friends of the Uptown event on Sept. 4.

The group has marked the Uptown's milestone anniversaries by staging reenactments of the crowds lined up along Lawrence and Broadway on its opening day in 1925. This time, when supporters gather at the Kinetic Playground next Thursday, it will seem less like a vigil for a decaying palace, and more a question of when the Uptown will again light up the corner of Lawrence and Broadway.

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