The Portage Theater: What’s Eddie up to?

September 11, 2012

It’s official: As of a week ago Friday, Erineo “Eddie” Carranza, owner and operator of the embattled Congress Theater in Logan Square, now also owns the Portage Theater, that 1,325-seat gem of a 1920s movie palace at Six Corners on the city’s Northwest Side.

But what does he want to do with it? And, given the many complaints from the community and city officials about the way he’s running the Congress, what can his new neighbors and fans of the Portage expect?

Carranza was typically uncommunicative when I traded emails with him yesterday. Though this blogger has done five stories totaling more than 10,000 words about the Congress since March, he started by asking what media organization I worked for. (Um, that would be WBEZ/Chicago Public Media.)

“Have you ever been to Portage Theater?” Carranza responded.

Sure, many times. I used to live at Six Corners.

“What do you want to report on the condition of the theater?” Carranza asked.

“Eddie: I am interested in what you hope to accomplish with the theater, either physically or in terms of the kind of programming you hope to do there,” I wrote at 4 p.m. Monday. I wrote again a few hours later to reiterate that I’d like a comment. So far, no response.

Some background: The first theater in the area built specifically for movies rather than vaudeville, the Portage opened in December 1920 with 1,938 seats, and a grand place it was for several decades. Like many venues of its vintage, however, it has become increasingly expensive to maintain in recent years. Though it’s in much better shape than the Congress, it needs a significant amount of work, including extensive repairs to the roof.

Partnering with hardcore film buffs in organizations such as the Silent Film Society of Chicago and the Northwest Chicago Film Society, David Dziedzic and the management team currently in place have for years offered a rich calendar of eclectic film programming. Their lease runs through 2015, but they owe some back rent, according to The Chicago Tribune.

Earlier this year, the Chicago Tabernacle bid $2.5 million to buy the venue and turn it into a church, but that plan was opposed by community groups and Ald. John Arena (45th). Dziedzic and his group thought they had placed a winning bid to replace that one, according to press accounts, but they were edged out by Carranza.

Dziedzic told Chicagoist that when he spoke last week with the new owner, “Carranza put forth a plan that would transform the Portage into a music venue and rip out the seats, but [it] would still be able to screen films.”

In a statement released via Chicago EveryBlock, Carranza said, “We are BIG fans of movie and film programming… There are no immediate formal plans for our own entertainment programming as the current tenant maintains the venue’s event calendar. However, we will seek opportunities and will put forth ideas to further add diverse entertainment programming and live music events.”

In other words, at least in part, Carranza would eventually like the Portage to become a smaller version of the now-music-exclusive Congress (capacity 3,500), a little less than four miles south and east on Milwaukee Avenue. But there are several obstacles in his path to making that happen.

For one, the Congress is in the midst of a series of high-pressure “Deleterious Impact/Public Nuisance” hearings with the city that could result in the venue losing its liquor license if concerns about security, the condition of the building and noise are not abated. City officials say some progress has been made, but there still is a long way to go: Police reported 16 calls to the theater in the first half of August alone. (The next hearing takes place on Oct. 31, and an account of hearing number three on Aug. 16 can be found on Chicago Pipeline.com.)

For another, converting the Portage into a general admission music venue like the Congress would require both a liquor and a public place of amusement license, and neither is likely to be granted to Carranza soon, one city official said.

Finally, though Carranza recently partnered with the digital marketing agency Doejo to redevelop the streetfront at the Congress, the venue owner has frequently and spiritedly complained about a shortage of cash to make the many improvements there that the city and community are demanding.

Putting aside the question of how he financed the Portage deal, one might naturally ask that if Carranza doesn’t have the money to fix the theater he’s owned for seven years in Logan Square, where will he get the money to fix the one he just bought at Six Corners?

Though he offered them as few specifics about his plans for the Portage as he gave this blogger, Carranza has been talking with Ald. Arena, and he met with a community group on Monday. Arena says he is “cautiously optimistic.” (He also has posted some comments on his ward-office Web site.)

“I’m just happy to finally have somebody who owns the building that I can talk with and have these conversations with,” Arena told me. “The previous owners were on their way out for years,” and they showed little interest in improving the building, a cornerstone of a neighborhood that has seen significant redevelopment.

(Have you been to the wonderfully old-school City News lately? You can hardly recognize the place. It has now expanded to include a — gulp! — bona fide yuppie-friendly cafĂ©!)

One thing community groups, city officials and Carranza agree on: With all due respect to its rich history, the Portage remains a key to the future of Six Corners — though what the Portage itself will become remains to be seen.

 

Earlier reports in this blog about the Congress and Portage theaters:

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!