How did things turn so bad so fast at the Portage Theater?

September 23, 2012

It took more than three years for controversial venue owner Erineo “Eddie” Carranza to frustrate Ald. Proco “Joe” Moreno and anger Logan Square residents to the point where they have dragged the troubled Congress Theater into “Deleterious Impact/Public Nuisance” hearings with the city.

It took only three weeks from the time Carranza bought the Portage Theater to similarly turn residents of Six Corners and Ald. John Arena against him.

On Friday, Carranza served a five-day eviction notice to the much-loved current operators of the Portage, who have for years offered an eclectic bill of independent films at the 1920s-vintage theater. In the process, however, they have fallen $103,000 behind in rent payments while making what their supporters say were costly repairs to the venue that should have been done by the former owner but which were urgently needed to keep the venue viable and open to the public.

Supporting a group of admired local businessmen and eager for the Portage to continue presenting the sort of fare it has been showcasing, the powerful Old Irving Park Association and Ald. Arena already fought a bitter public battle earlier this year with one prospective buyer, the Chicago Tabernacle, successfully convincing the church to withdraw its bid for the venue.

Current Portage manager Dennis Wolkowicz and his business partner Dave Dziedzic then put in their own bid to buy the theater—but they lost out to Congress owner Carranza, who paid some $3 million for the venue, closing on the deal on Sept. 1.

Wolkowicz and Dziedzic have a lease that runs through 2015. But on Friday, Carranza and his attorney Thomas Raines sent the eviction notice that they’re out unless they pay the back rent within five days. This came only two days after a meeting on Wednesday where Raines repeatedly assured the venue managers and Arena that Carranza would not pursue an eviction.

The rapid about-face prompted Arena to lash out in a strongly worded statement to the community Saturday evening saying that “Carranza lied to me, and he lied to the community… He is not a man of his word.”

The statement further indicated that Arena would attempt to block any move by Carranza to secure a liquor or public place of amusement license—the city approvals necessary to continue doing what the Portage has been doing, or to host live music at the venue—because of Carranza’s record at the Congress. At the Congress, the alderman claims, Carranza has a “documented history of deferred maintenance, rowdy crowds, and underage drinking [that is] not welcome at Six Corners.”

Since this blog broke the news of the eviction notice Saturday evening, public outcry from area residents and Chicago cinema buffs against Carranza has been vociferous, with dozens of comments on Twitter, Facebook, and many corners of the Internet.

What happened between Wednesday and Friday that made things unravel?

“Something happened in that meeting [Wednesday] that changed all this, and it was something the Alderman said a few times and something he did,” Raines said Sunday morning. “I know that’s not much for you and I know it’s kind of cryptic and it doesn’t do much to change your story or make us look any better. But right this minute, I can’t get into it, what he did. But he did something that made us change our position.”

Pressed several times to be more specific, Raines maintained that more details would come out “in a bigger publication” soon.

“I have no idea what ‘troubling’ thing happened and no idea what [Raines] is talking about,” said Owen Brugh, Arena’s chief of staff in the 45th Ward office. Brugh said Arena called the meeting to facilitate communications between Wolkowicz and Dziedzic and the new owner of the theater in a contentious situation where everybody had different but compatible goals.

Wolkowicz and Dziedzic want to continue offerings films at the Portage and have the liquor and PPA licenses to do so. Carranza now owns the Portage but is unlikely to get city licenses given his current troubles at the Congress. Arena wants the Portage to continue as a cultural center contributing to the vitality of the Six Corners redevelopment. “It seems like all of these people should be able to work together,” Brugh said.

Nevertheless, the five-day eviction notice went out, and Carranza now has a fight on his hands with another city alderman and another set of neighbors four miles northwest on Milwaukee Avenue from the battle he’s fighting at the Congress.

 “Eddie wants to keep the cinema aspect there, and he wants to keep Dennis there,” Raines said. “I can give you all kinds of business and financial reasons why they need to be evicted, but I won’t get into it because I’m sure you can figure those out. They owe a ton of money in back rent. But there were a few things that happened in the meeting Wednesday that make it impossible for us to deal with this alderman. It’s not, ‘Oh, we don’t like the way he looks’ or ‘We don’t like the way he acts.’ It’s way beyond that and we just can’t do it.

“No matter what happens, if they get evicted or for as long as they stay, there’s always going to be the cinema aspect at that theater,” Raines added. “At this point, [Arena] is more of a hindrance than a help to that. He’d rather see the theater go dark. He wants to take his ball and go home.”

Arena’s statement to the community indicated that, to the contrary, “I will encourage the current operators to explore their legal options [and] I expect they will operate in the theater until all those legal options are exhausted... We still have options as a community, and my office will continue to explore all available avenues to ensure that the Portage Theater meets its potential as an economic engine at Six Corners.

“The Portage Theater is one of the cultural, economic, and historic icons of our community. I will continue to be its ceaseless advocate.”

Wolkowicz and Dziedzic could not be reached for comment.

UPDATE: The troubles the Congress Theater has in its city hearings, which could result in the loss of its liquor license, are far from over. The next hearing takes place on Oct. 31, and the word from Ald. Moreno as of Sunday afternoon is that “The Congress has made strides forward, but we still face challenges and will continue with the Deleterious Impact Hearings until all issues are resolved to the community’s satisfaction.”

And no, Carranza replacing Doejo with chef Nick Lacasse for his partner on the foodie/storefront development end of things (here is Chicagoist on that) probably is not enough to make the hearing process turn in his favor.

Earlier reports about Carranza, the Congress and the Portage:

Sept. 22: New Owner of the Portage Theater moves to evict current operators

Sept. 16: Congress Theater splits with development partner

Sept. 11: The Portage Theater: What’s Eddie up to?

July 26: Congress Theater partners up… and looks to expand

April 14: More trouble at the Congress Theater

March 28: Critical of Congress security, headliner brings his own

March 25: Congress Theater responds to complaints

March 22: City to Congress Theater: Clean up your act!