A Second Act For The Uptown Theater?

A Second Act For The Uptown Theater?

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Editor’s note: The podcast version of this story includes an excerpt of a story about whose eyes inspired the iconic logo of the Chicago International Film Festival. Our archived story about the logo includes a full interview with CIFF founder and logo-designer Michael Kutza. Enjoy!

If you’ve been to Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood on the Far North Side, or even just sat on the CTA “L” as it passes the Lawrence Red Line stop, you can’t help but notice the ornate, enormous structure of the Uptown Theater. Once the crown jewel of Uptown’s entertainment district, the palatial theater has sat unused for more than 30 years. But it’s still standing thanks to its designation as a historic landmark. That led Illinois Institute of Technology architecture student Fariha Wajid to write us with the question:

How can we repurpose the Uptown Theater?

Fariha wanted to hear what outside-the-box ideas the Uptown community had. But before we start exploring the theater’s future, it helps to know about its past.

‘An Acre of Seats in a Magic City’

The Uptown opened August 18, 1925 as the fifth — and the most ambitious — of Balaban and Katz’s chain of entertainment houses. With 4,381 seats and three lobbies, it housed over 500 seats more than the duo’s Chicago Theater downtown. Outside, the Uptown’s marquee proudly proclaimed the theater “An Acre of Seats in a Magic City.”

“At that time an acre of seats told you there would be a seat for you,” explained Andy Pierce of Friends of the Uptown Theater, a group dedicated to preserving the Uptown.

The program on opening day began with the theater orchestra’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien, and culminated with the screening of the silent film “The Lady Who Lied.”

During its first decade or so, a typical program included an organ performance, orchestral interlude, live dance, comedy show and movie. At the time, there weren’t many competing sources of entertainment, so as long as the theater could keep a show on the stage, it could keep people coming in the doors.

“Balaban and Katz also came up with the idea of continuous performance,” said Pierce, “where the program would continue to play and revolve and audiences would come and go according to their schedule.”

For matinees, the theater also offered tea service. Eventually that stopped, but high quality acts kept coming through, such as musical performances from the likes of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Bing Crosby.

But as more people bought TVs in the 1950s, the Uptown struggled to gain audiences. For a time, the popular game show Queen for a Day filmed there for one week every year, hosting live audiences. The theater even showed occasional screenings of Chicago Bears football games.

By the 1970s, however, the single-screen theater model was dead — audiences expected more choices when they went to the movies. In 1975, there was a final push for major musical acts at the Uptown, including Bruce Springsteen, Prince, and The Grateful Dead. But the theater’s palatial interior was crumbling and became too expensive to maintain.  

Finally, the Uptown Theater hosted its final show in 1981: the J. Geils Band. It’s been vacant ever since but crowds of music lovers still flock to the neighborhood for other venues like the Riviera and the Aragon.

Chicago's Uptown Theater advertised itself as having an acre of seats. (Image courtesy of Theatre Historical Society of America)

A second act for the Uptown?

Fariha Wajid stumbled on the Uptown Theater just this year, while doing her final project for a class at IIT.

“During my architectural studio course last semester, I was assigned the Uptown neighborhood and the Uptown Theater kept coming up,” she said.

Wajid put together her own proposal to reuse the Uptown after some research. The main auditorium would still be used for concerts and theater, but she envisions turning the lobbies and other auxiliary spaces into a skills-sharing center.

Fariha Wajid, who asked this question. (Photo courtesy Fariha Wajid)

“Kind of like a community center,” she explained, “where anyone could teach any skill that they had to other people in the community and anyone can learn any other skill that they had in the community as well.”

For example, if Uptown residents want to teach each other cooking, painting or performance arts, the theater could be a common meeting space.

But she also wanted to hear what ideas the Uptown community would find useful. Together, we did an informal survey of passersby in front of the theater.

“Cinema or movie house,” suggested Massis Antranik Ohanesian, 44, an Uptown resident.

“I would love to see a winter farmer’s market here,” said Bryan McClaren, 29, a sous-chef at Crew Restaurant just a few doors down from the theater. “Concerts, movies, art,” he added.

“Keeping it as a theater of some sort,” offered Martha Weil, 22, a college student and relatively new resident of Uptown. “A movie theater, maybe still like a concert venue, something like that.”

We also solicited ideas online and got plenty of suggestions back. Some were a little off-the-wall, such as suggestions to turn the theater into a parking garage or an indoor paintball park.

But by far the most popular notion was to restore the Uptown for live events, or turn it into a movie house for classics, foreign and indie films. Lots of people suggested modeling it after Lakeview’s Music Box Theater.

Suggestions from our survey on how to best repurpose the Uptown Theater. Click to view all of them!

The economics of saving the Uptown Theater

But Dave Jennings, General Manager of the Music Box Theater, says what worked for his venue might not work for the Uptown.

“The Uptown is over five times the size of our main auditorium,” Jennings said. “I wish that I could say that today every screening that we have is sold out. But if you come to the Music Box on a Tuesday afternoon, you might  be one of a handful of people in the 750-seat auditorium.”

Jennings said audiences that small won’t cover the cost of lighting, heating and ventilating the enormous space of the Uptown Theater.

That’s why Andy Pierce from Friends of the Uptown says the focus should be on making the Uptown Theater space as flexible as possible.

“You start thinking about how could you zone it, where you use different areas for different uses at different times?” Pierce said. “How do you only turn the lights on and ventilation in this room, and not bring everything up to full operating capacity at the same time? How do you use different parts of it for different uses, for a variety of uses, at different times, or at the same time?”

Pierce said the best use will still be major, live, ticketed performances in the auditorium. But on days when there aren’t big shows, the three lobbies could be used for other activities: meetings, parties, private events, and weddings. Perhaps some space could be turned into a cafe or a brewery to bring people in throughout the day.

A photo from June 1990 shows the interior of the Uptown Theater. Click to enlarge. (Photo courtesy Bruce Sharp)

The idea to use the Uptown as a multipurpose space was popular among those who submitted and voted online in our survey. And it’s also a key suggestion of a 2000 commissioned study by the Urban Land Institute, which highlighted the Uptown Theater as a priority project for the neighborhood’s redevelopment.

“The restoration effort will need to be based on a realistic operational strategy” the report reads. “The restored theater probably will be required to accommodate more uses than were intended for the original theater.” It suggests flexible seating in the amphitheater to allow a variety of events; the ability to temporarily partition the main auditorium space to allow for smaller performances; and the ongoing use of lobbies and other auxiliary spaces for commercial purposes.

Of course, the person whose ideas matter most is Jerry Mickelson of JAM Productions, who owns the Uptown. But he didn’t want to talk to us for this story.

What to do with so many ideas?

After hearing all the suggestions, Wajid said she plans to tweak her original design proposal.

“I didn’t really see how much people really want the theater itself to be just a theater,” she said. “They want it to be back to what it was before, so I feel like I should emphasize more what the original use was, but also have these other elements that play on the sides.”

By some estimates it’ll take $70 to $100 million to restore and reopen the Uptown. The State of Illinois recently allocated $10 million, and the City of Chicago has funneled $1.37 million in TIF dollars to help stabilize the structure. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has said he wants the Uptown to some day anchor a vibrant entertainment district.

As we near the Uptown’s 90th anniversary next year, lots of folks hope they’ll be able to walk into that grand lobby soon, and maybe catch a show.

Odette Yousef is WBEZ’s North Side Bureau reporter. Follow her @oyousef and @WBEZoutloud.