Linksomania: Whither Music Row and Uptown Theater?

December 2, 2011

We’re long overdue to catch up on some links of interest, so let’s dive right in, starting with a flurry of stories in recent weeks that, while essentially just wishful thinking to date, hint at the possibilities of what could be if the city worked to create two landmark music districts, one in the South Loop and one in Uptown.

My ol’ pal and former Sun-Times colleague Dave Hoekstra first reported on the ambitions of Ald. Robert Fioretti (2nd) to at long last involve the city in the restoration of the Chess Studio at 2120 S. Michigan, site some of the most important and influential blues and rock recordings of the 20th Century, and to create a museum at the Vee-Jay/Brunswick building nearby at 1449 S. Michigan. (The Chess building is owned by Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation, which never has had the cash to properly restore it or even regularly open the doors, while nothing at all is happening at the Vee-Jay/Brunswick locale. The neglect for both landmarks is a sorry contrast to, say, the way Memphis treats Sun Studio, or Detroit lauds Motown.)

As is typical for the Sun-Times’ dicey web site, Hoekstra’s original piece is nowhere to be found online, though this link to an impassioned editorial that followed notes that, “ideally, Chess would become a fully equipped recording studio again, just as Sun is, and the strip as a whole might be reminiscent of Beale Street in Memphis, where tourists hop from club to club.”

It seemed as if the actualization of this worthy goal hadn’t gotten far beyond Fioretti forming an advisory panel until Hoekstra reported last month that those power-pop giants and favorite sons of Rockford, Cheap Trick, have agreed to “‘curate’ a museum and music venue in a former Buick dealership at 2245 S. Michigan,” stocking it with the legendary guitar and drum collections of Rick Nielsen and Bun E. Carlos and also offering, according to the band’s ever-hustling manager Dave Frey, “a one-of-a-kind eatery… radio station, and performance space.”

Granted, this sounds dangerously close to a Hard Rock Café, and the last thing Chicago needs is another joint like that in this historic neighborhood or anywhere else. On the other hand, Nielsen helped create a pretty cool and mighty tasty eatery with Piece Pizza in Wicker Park, and if the Cheap Trick slice of the South Loop is closer in spirit to that than some tourist trap, we all could heartily applaud.

Meanwhile, quite a ways to the north, optimism continues to build regarding restoration of the Uptown Theater and, with it, the creation of an Uptown Music District, even if bona fide concrete plans for either remain scarce or sketchy at best.

In the most in-depth piece of reporting on the Uptown since this blogger’s 2008 piece about the epic fight for control of the historic theater between Jam Productions and Live Nation, the Tribune’s Mark Caro toured the majestic venue in early October with its current owner, Jam’s Jerry Mickelson, recounting the history, and reporting that a serious renovation could cost as much as $70 million.

Where would this substantial pile of cash come from? No one really says, but Caro quoted the new mayor’s enthusiasm for the building—“It’s stunning,” Emanuel told him—as well as repeating his talk of an Uptown Music District centered on the Uptown and Riviera theaters, the Aragon Ballroom, and the Green Mill. “It can happen now because people are finally seeing the intertwined connection between culture and economic development,” the mayor said, and his Cultural Affairs and Special Events Commissioner Michelle Boone readily seconded: “It’s like the stars are all in alignment.”

“Of course, the stars are one thing,” Caro concluded. “Money is another.”

Indeed, and with the new administration and the council just beginning to hear from residents about living with the ramifications of approving one of the most onerous budgets in Chicago history, the story to watch in coming months is whether Emanuel offers more than just encouragement for both Uptown and Music Row… and what schemes are hatched to make any of these noble dreams a reality absent an infusion of public funds.