Lawrence: Uptown Theatre Restorations Livens Up Community

The Uptown Theatre

Photo by: Celeste Piraino

Listen to an excert from our interview with Alex Jorge here.

Friends, fans, and volunteers, such as Andy Pierce, are patiently waiting for the Uptown Theatre to throw open their doors to the people of Chicago.

“The project, when it begins, will take a year or more,” he said. “So we all will have plenty of time to pick out what we are going to wear to the grand opening.”

The historical building has sat empty since 1981, almost three decades ago. But with new ownership, some people question whether or not they will be able to restore the Uptown Theatre while still keeping its historical value.

According to Pierce, the intention of the present owners, Jam Productions, is to restore the building and use it for ticketed performances such as concerts and special events.

THE PRESENT

Jam Productions bought the building for $3.2 million at a forced judicial sale in 2008. According to Kathy McLeister of the Theatre Historical Society of America, the 46,000 square foot building needs a lot of work before it could ever reopen.

McLeister says the building is a hard hat zone. The terra cotta decoration on the outside of the theatre had to be taken down as the owners were afraid it would fall and hit pedestrians on the sidewalk.

With the excitement of the Uptown Theatre lighting up their neon sign once again, the buzz around the community is whether or not the new owners will rip out the original seats to make it a general admission.

The current auditorium hold 4,000 seats, all with very ornate siding.

“Personally, I would not be wild about that kind of concept but almost all theatres change with times to attempt to be successful in the market,” Pierce said. “No matter what, the Uptown will always be the Uptown.”

The removal or exchanging of the old seats for new ones might be necessary. As McLeister pointed out, seats made in the 1920’s were both shorter and narrower than seats concert goers are used to.

Besides the communities feelings towards the original seats versus new seats or no seats, Pierce goes on to say that the concept seems to have the support of local leaders and there’s been no recorded opposition.

Jerry Mickelson, of Jam Productions, told the Chicago Tribune he is currently trying to find a way to fund the kind of renovations that the building will need which he estimates to be $70 million dollars.

“No private entity could afford to put that amount of money into a theatre”, he told the Chicago Tribune. “The Uptown can only reopen with the necessary funding from the city.”

Public funding could be a possibility with Emanuel’s support of the project.

“If you look at it from the big picture perspective, which is what I think Rahm Emanuel and a lot of people are doing, that seventy million dollars translates to millions of other dollars that are going to be invested in the Uptown area,” Jorge said.

THE FUTURE

Although the front doors may be boarded and the giant marquee is left with only rusty letters and empty light-bulb sockets, according to the Chicago Tribune, the new owners and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel see the Uptown Theatre as a way to rejuvenate the north side of the city. Eventually, turning Uptown into Chicago’s entertainment district.

In the past, the Uptown area has been considered a “rough” neighborhood. But, according to the Aragon Ballroom event coordinator, Alex Jorge, the view of Uptown has gotten better over the years because live music is getting more attention, which draws an audience to the area.

THE PAST

Located on the corner of Broadway and Lawrence, the Uptown Theatre was once considered to be the best place in Chicago to see a movie. When it opened in August 1925, it was the place to see and be seen.

After its role as a movie and stage venue for fifty years, the theater became the spot to see concerts in the 1970’s. Uptown theater hosted everyone from classical performers in its prime to cultural icons such as Frank Zappa and the Grateful Dead in the seventies.

It was a walk through memory lane for Mike Rytie, an employee at Shake, Rattle, and Read, as he reminisced about his experience at the Uptown Theatre.

“I use to see concerts there,” he said. “I saw Bruce Springstein, Prince, and Bob Marley and the Wailers. I always had the best times at Uptown.”

But in 1981, after the owners were unable to afford to sustain the theatre, the pipes froze and busted leaving nothing but years of maintenance and vandalism. The only thing the owners could do was shut the theatre down completely.

Since the theater closed in 1981, it has been used as a location for scenes in movies such as Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. The interior for the “Duncan’s Toy Chest” was actually shot inside the Uptown Theaters lobby.

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12 responses to “Lawrence: Uptown Theatre Restorations Livens Up Community

  1. The Uptown should be renovated and whether it be done slowly, in stages, or all it once is a difficult question to answer for most people as there is no real basis to determine which way is the most feasible. Either way however, the theatre needs to be preserved. It is like having a great European Palace in our midst. They don’t make them anymore and there is tremendous historical and architectural significance to preserving a theatre like the Uptown.

  2. Pingback: Cast Your Vote for the Uptown Theatre/Chicago IL | Theatre Historical Society Readerboard

  3. Having been born, raised, and lived in Phila. for most of my life I have fond memories of going to the Sedgwick Theatre on Germantown Ave. in the Mt. Airy section of Phila. as a kId for the Saturday matinees .
    As I grew older I witnessed the destruction or unconventional re-use of many other theatres, both downtown and in the neighboorhoods.
    The Fox, Stanton, Stanley, Midtown, Orpheum, Erlanger, State, Logan, Locust, Commodore, Midway, Circle, etc., etc., etc. All gone.
    The three greatest places in Phila. were the Mastbaum (demolished in 1958), the Earle (demolished several years earlier) and Met Opera House (later used as a church and now abandoned).
    One downtown theatre remains; the Boyd. Long closed and shuttered, hoping for a saviour.
    It would be a tremendous loss to the “windy city” , its local community and to the historic and architectorial worlds if the Uptown were to join the theatre “ghosts” that once graced Philadelphia, San Francisco, New York City and many more places.
    PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE DO NOT LET THAT HAPPEN!!
    Restoration is most certainly not inexpensive, but replacement is impossible.
    Cherish what you have, hold onto it tightly, protect it, and look to its future.

  4. S. Bradley Gillaugh

    It may be our last chance to preserve this epic theatre, one of Chicago’s grandest landmarks. We should not let it slip by.

  5. I believe all grand old theatres should be preserved or we will lose that wonderful glimpse into out past

  6. As a former Chicagoan for the first 50 years of my existence and spending many an afternoon watching films there it is very important to save this theater for future generations. The ” 70 million” dollar ammount to restore this building seems way inflated, but with the cost overruns that Grant Park had with CLOUDGATE and the city funding the redo of Soldier Field as well, there is nothing wrong with giving bucks to restoring the Uptown. We give way too much for the sports teams. Let’s give some bucks to the arts!

  7. I remember wandering around the Uptown theater, exploring every wondrous nook-and-cranny, on one of my many visits to see movies there in the 1950s. This theater, larger in square footage than Rockefeller Center, is one of the country’s finest cinema palaces, and when restored, a centerpiece for the city of Chicago. Restored, it would no doubt rejuvenate the Uptown area and the city as whole; beyond that, it is an historical, artistic treasure that deserves to be saved.

  8. The Uptown absolutely should be restored. Yes, it’s an historic structure. More important, with the theater sitting on Broadway in its present state gives the silent message that our neighborhood isn’t very viable, and the efforts of citizens to make it so are just wasted effort.

  9. If it’s not restored think of what will be lost. If you’ve ever been inside the Uptown you know what I’m talking about.

  10. I grew up there–first at movies and then live shows (Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa, others). What a remarkably beautiful place–with great sound and viewing. Bring it back. It is an architectural treasure.

  11. a multi-facility Uptown… Cinema/Stage/Concerts… would make this South Sider head North every day!! let’s make this happen!!

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