Whither Chicago’s historic theaters?

The latest on the Congress, the Uptown and the Portage

June 3, 2014

Chicago may be on the cusp of outdoor festival season, but as this blog has noted many times, the “sweet spot” on the local music scene—as well as the level with the most intense competition among concert promoters—remains the 2,000- to 4,000-seat theater. And questions continue to hang over the futures of three of the city’s grand old palaces: the Congress, the Uptown, and the Portage.

The 88-year-old Congress Theater on Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square has been shuttered for nearly a year, since controversial venue owner Erineo “Eddie” Carranza lost his liquor license amid a torrent of safety concerns centered on security woes and building code violations. Industry sources have said the building requires upwards of $20 million in repairs.

As this blog reported in January, a potential savior has emerged in the person of local theater scene mainstay Michael Moyer, best known for restoring to its full 1920s glory the Loop showplace now known as the Cadillac Palace Theatre. Documents on file with the city reveal that Moyer has paid Carranza $500,000 in earnest money since August 2013 to purchase the Congress.

The sale is being blocked, however, by a lawsuit filed in Cook County Circuit Court by Ontario Management, a group associated with local electronic dance music promoters React Presents, who now are owned by SFX Entertainment, the giant international EDM promotion company started by former Clear Channel/Live Nation mastermind Robert F.X. Sillerman. Fanatically publicity-shy for a publicly traded company, SFX has the stated goal of dominating live dance events in the U.S., and it needs a venue the size of the Congress in Chicago.

Ontario/React/SFX claims it has the right of first refusal to purchase the theater. But local concert promoters Jam Productions had an earlier agreement to buy the place if or when Carranza decided to sell, and Jam also is named in the SFX lawsuit. The result is a legal quagmire that is leaving the potentially gorgeous theater, long seen as a lynchpin of neighborhood development, sad and dark.

“I am under contract and still working toward closing,” Moyer said last week. He remains optimistic and hopes to have news to share in the next few weeks. “[But] the litigation thing is arduous.”

Jam traditionally has done its best to thwart the sale of any theater the size of the Congress to bigger national concert rivals such as SFX or Live Nation. But it supports the sale to Moyer because his vision for the Congress is more in line with Broadway in Chicago, not live music, and because it has its hands more than full with the Uptown Theater, which it purchased (amid fierce competition with Live Nation) in the summer of 2008.

Jam co-founder Jerry Mickelson has been struggling to raise the estimated $60 to $80 million to renovate the 89-year-old Uptown ever since. Like the Congress, its restoration is seen as key to neighborhood development, and the Illinois House said as much when it approved $10 million for repairs to the venue last Thursday—though by anyone’s math, that’s still just a drop in the bucket.

“It was a step in the right direction,” Mickelson said yesterday. Next he hopes to win another $30 million in new market and historic preservation credits. But that still leaves a gap of as much as $40 million, and the major question remains whether the city will pony up any development funds.

Though Mayor Rahm Emmanuel speaks often and enthusiastically of creating an Uptown Music District centered around the theater, no concrete plans—much less any funding—have been forthcoming. The mayor dodged questions about the city’s commitment to the Uptown on Monday when he was pressed by reporter Ted Cox of DNAinfo.

Mickelson notes that for a similar restoration project at the Loew’s Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, the city of New York contributed $50 million of the $90 million price tag. “I hope the city will come through [here], but I just don’t know,” Mickelson says. (Emmanuel told Cox he is sorting “priorities” before committing money to Uptown.)

Finally, questions linger over whether Carranza is or is not trying to get back in the game at the second troubled old theater that he owns, the Portage at Six Corners. That 94-year-old venue also has been dark for months because of his troubles with the city, and Carranza let its liquor license lapse last August. Like the other theaters, it’s seen as vital to development of the area around the intersections of Milwaukee, Cicero, and Irving.

Now, Charlie Burns, a social media entrepreneur who served for a time as building manager at the Congress, is renting the Portage from Carranza and reopening—complete with a liquor license.

Someone, and it’s unclear whether it was Carranza or Burns, applied for a late renewal of the liquor license in February. Ald. John Arena (45th) and local watchdogs strongly opposed the renewal to anyone connected with Carranza. But last week, the city gave its okay. Now the key words from all of Carranza’s foes are “cautiously optimistic” but “watching closely,” lest Burns (and maybe Carranza) attempt to turn the Portage into the Congress Northwest.

For his part, Burns told DNAinfo’s Heather Cherone and Chicagoist’s Chuck Sudo that EDM won’t be on the agenda, and he’s planning a lineup starting June 14 of comedy shows, silent movies, and classic-rock tribute bands.

Follow me on Twitter @JimDeRogatis, join me on Facebook, and podcast Sound Opinions and Jim + Carmel’s TV + Dinner.