Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Uptown Theatre: Polishing An Old Jewel

By Mark Caro, Tribune Reporter
The front doors are boarded up in shades of gray and beige, while the weathered marquee, propped up by four poles anchored near the street, displays empty light-bulb sockets and the rusty white letters out front spelling “UPTOWN.” Stragglers in this diverse, ever-struggling neighborhood might lean against the boards for a smoke or cellphone chat, but nothing's going on here. Hasn't been, really, for almost 30 years.

Here's a classic photo of urban blight.

Here's the crumpled paper wrapping around a diamond.

Remove the padlocks from the makeshift wooden doors, step through the entryway into Uptown Theatre's main lobby, however, and you're in gasp city. What you see makes the Chicago Theatre's grand entrance look like a guesthouse foyer.

"Your jaw drops," said Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose support for this crumbling, 86-year-old theater has triggered renewed hopes for a revitalized Uptown neighborhood. "It's stunning." Continue Reading

Update:  From Ald. Cappleman's latest newsletter -- "Yesterday I met with Ald. Osterman, individuals from various city departments, members of the mayor's staff, Uptown United and Jerry Michelson from JAM Productions to discuss our vision for the Uptown Entertainment District. We received updated information about the Uptown Theater and discussed how we can all work together to make this a destination stop in the city. I am encouraged by the support from the Mayor that we will make the Entertainment District dream a reality. We will continue to work out a plan and implementation over the coming months."


  1. The more attention the Uptown Theatre gets the better. I have been wondering since the mid-ninties atleast about when this place was going to get fixed up.

    It sure helps that Rahm lives close by. I calculated that his house is less than a mile and a half away. That REALLY helps.

    If Rahm didnt accomplish anything in his term as mayor and ONLY fixed up this building I would consider his tenure a success. This is THE KEY BUILDING in chicago right now.

    Ofcourse its the source for the namesake for this blog too.

    Go Uptown!

  2. I laugh when they say in the article that there isnt 70 million dollars in the whole country. Thats ridiculous.

    Didnt we bail out the banks?
    The banks have it and so do the corporations and the US government.
    Where better to spend the money? This shouldve been an Obama project.

  3. Interesting. We spend $150 million to build Wilson Yard, but can't find $70 million for the renovation of the Uptown, for which I doubt anyone would object to using tax money.

  4. What happened to the guy who took 1 million dollars to set up the save Uptown theater and spent it on vacations and a fancy car. I have forgotten the donors name....and the name of the alleged thief

  5. The Goodman Family (of Goodman Theatre fame) donated a million or two million bucks to kickstart the fundraising for the Uptown.

    Michael Morrison, the president of the preservation group, embezzled some of the money and bought a Jaguar. Some local folks tried to raffle off the Jaguar to recoup some of it. I'm not sure if that ever worked out. It was such a pity.

  6. I still think the best course of action is to stage the renovation.

    As it said in the article the multiple lobbies can hold the full attendence, over 4000.

    Why not restore the lobby first and make it available for weddings, fundraisers and the like. It would raise funds, awareness and interest.

    &0 million is a lot of money for a venue these days, it may be a good idea to narrow the focus, get the ball rolling and breath some life into the Uptown.

    I know at one mural restoration expert (no not me) dying to get in there, the place is a work of art as much as architecture.

    I remember the Jaguar story, wonder where that sweet set of wheels is now....?

    @ Jeffo

    Its hard to imagine having a north-side Mayor for a change isn't a positive for the Uptown. It would surprise me if Daley even knew it still exists.

  7. I love the idea of using the lobbies to gain momentum. I think that people seeing the inside would increase exposure online and with the media; thus increasing support for renovation. It could cause a snowball effect. However, there may be a significant portion of the $70MM price tag to achieve only this. They cannot allow public access until the building is deemed safe by the Department of Buildings. The article mentions $55MM just to open the doors. Opening the lobbies is kinda the same thing. Spending $55MM to raise $15MM seems unlikely. Not to mention, phased construction is usually more expensive overall than one fell swoop.

    Jeffo, sorry but I cannot agree that this is the most important building in Chicago right now. Have you driven down congress parkway to I-290 recently and seen all the construction going on there? It is massive and awe-inspiring and not even out of the ground yet! I have an idea of the work going on immediately west of the loop and believe this is the most important region for the city today.

    The Uptown will certainly revitalize the neighborhoods and improve sales tax revenues for the wards. Unfortunately, so much needs to be done and it will take so long to finance it all, The Uptown is not really on the 'construction radar' yet.

  8. Occupy Wall Street people. Occupy. Then we will get our money.

  9. @UptownUnity: What building are you talking about at I-290 and Congress Parkway? If you're talking about Congress and the river, that's just part of the Revive Wacker Drive project redoing the interchange there in conjunction with IDOT redoing the bridge and CDOT streetscaping Congress. I walk that way three times a week.

    Back on topic, EVERY photo I've seen of the Uptown lobby is amazing! I do like the idea of opening the lobby to special events, but also understand that if it's $55M just to open it to the public, is the last $15 really all that much to just do it at once?

    This reminds me of another theatre in central Illinois. It's now a children's museum in Champaign, IL called the Orpheum. It was a former theatre that was renovated in stages. First was the storefront space in the front to get SOME museum space going. Then they did the main lobby next door. After that was the center lobby and upstairs atrium. All those stages were to raise funding for the main auditorium. While nowhere close to the size or fanciness of the Uptown, I think it could be a good case study for restoring such venues. Here's a before photo: (anything look familiar?) and an after:


  10. One can dream. Wish we had the $150 million from Wilson Yard. This the one project that could bring this hood back. I have been in there it is amazing.

    No comments from IP. Maybe he is at home polishing his old Jewels.....

  11. JL.. the lobby idea is a good one..however, you cannot use the lobby until everything is brought up to, emergency exits,electrical, plumbing, structurally, water, gas, etc etc.... that is where the biggest money has to be spent. Having a little experience in major commercial rehabs... I would give an educated guess that 75% or more if the money spent is just to do the basic mechanicals of the building before you spend a dime on decor...just my guess...

  12. Well I will disagree with you Uptownunity, I still think this is the most important building in Chicago to fix up right now.

    There are tons of new buidings being constructed in Chicago, thats true. IMHO I believe that none compare with this one. Its a different one of a kind building, a cultural icon.

    And would really bring people back to Uptown that havent given it a fair shake.

    @Jeff Littleton I agree obviously that its great for a change to have a northside mayor. I am in favor of keeping some low income housing, BUT I still am in favor of converting L House into a hotel so that out of towners could stay for a show at either the aragon/riviera/and..... UPTOWN theatres.....

  13. Brainbobcat: yes, that's the area I am talking about. Have you seen the preliminary plans for the new post office development? I was incorrect in assuming the work you so-concisely described was more linked to the new plans, apparently not. Thanks for clearing that up for me. Nevertheless, big stuff headed to that area.

    UptownSuperHero: you're right on with your comment. I believe the feasibility study most likely allocated most of the funds for structural rehab, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, fire protection, emergency systems and professional fees. The latter 15MM sounds like finishes to make the place sparkle.

    Jeffo: I certainly agree that The Uptown is the most unique and therefore, a class-apart from all other developments in the city. From the historic preservation and architectural-purist viewpoint, the Uptown takes the cake! My comments were more economically focused. It's tough to raise money for a project like this in good times (like say 1980-1990 or the early 2000's when everyone was going gang-busters and money was easy to acquire) and nearly impossible in today's lousy environment.

  14. While I would be supportive of some TIF money being spent towards renovation of the Uptown Theater, I believe JAM productions the owner should at least raise the majority of the money.

    Just like the public paying zillions of dollars to build sports arenas and stadiums for privately owned sports teams, as a taxpayer, I'd like to see the privately owned firms that will benefit at least put major investment into this.

    And yes, people will argue that consumers will spend money and that justifies major government expenditures, but, if the dollar is not spent at the Uptown, it does not mean it will not be spent elsewhere.

  15. Take some time to watch this, simply amazing:

  16. I hate to be repetitive, but I'll retell this story.

    We almost got the Uptown renovated completely with private money, but Hizzoner Mayor Daley, who I believe hated the north side and exerted himself to blight our north lake front nabes, railroaded the project because he did not want the competition for the downtown theater district. That was when the Goodman was established down there and three other old theaters were renovated to become major venues.

    Well, the Ilich family of Detroit, founders of Little Ceaser's Pizza, bought the Uptown and was prepared to shovel however much money was necessary into restoring the old beauty to its former glory. That would have been about $10M back then. But Daley wasn't having it.

    So the theater has sat empty and has been allowed to fall into a much more advanced state of deterioration, which of course means that it's going to require much more money to restore it.

    What I want to know is how we can pretend to be a free country, let alone a free economy in any sense, when a politician can legally prevent you from improving a property that you bought and paid for, and aren't asking for a single dime of tax revenues to renovate. And how can a mayor say that he is working to improve his city and deliberately obstruct the improvement of a major building when it isn't costing the city anything at all?

    If we could recover the tax money spent on blighting these north side nabes with badly conceived TIF projects and badly run subsidized housing, we'd have enough money to restore this place many times over.

    But the sick part is that it wasn't really necessary to tap the taxpayers for this project. I'm personally happy to see it done and think it's a much better use of public money than other projects that have cost 5X as much to produce ugliness, but it could have been done differently were it not for the obstruction and strange emotional makeup and sheer stupidity of our former mayor, who should never have had the power to do it.

  17. The North Coast - lets not re-write history. The Ilitch family was interested, but NEVER bought the Uptown. True, Daley killed their plans to buy and renovate, but I believe JAM was against the renovation plan as well.

  18. Great comments.

    I believe the cost to open the lobby in this case would be far below 75% of the estimated 70 million $'s

    I say this because:

    The Uptown is already divided, the "L" shape of the foot print, they have separate roofing systems. The lobby and the BIG room are not in the same "envelope" as most theaters are.

    For the same reason it would be easier to stage the mechanicals.

    Practically all of the exterior work could be deferred. The marquee should be restored.
    (I would personally prefer the original design. but the current one is pretty cool too.

    The exterior has been tightened up already in regards to waterproofing. It ain't pretty but it is functional.

    Temporary firewalls could be installed between the lobby and big room.

    Subtract any work on the big room and the exterior and I (not an expert) am thinking about a third of the estimate...or $25 million.

    On another note.

    A very dear and late great friend of my family Frank Sorenson was with JAM from those early days, in fact his daughter still does security at the Aragon and the Riv.

    He had some crazy stories of those final days at the Uptown but one sticks out in my mind now.

    During one of the last concerts, I think it was the Grateful Dead the balcony started moving in a way that scared the crap out of Frank and the crew. A helicopter gunner in Viet Nam he did not scare easily.

    I have a feeling part of that estimate is related to the condition of the wide and sweeping balcony which may or may not need complete reconstruction.

    I am just relating the story I can't say for sure.

    I've never been in there but feel like I have, so many stories..... My mother loved it as a kid, grandma took her there to see Jerry Lewis among others.....

    The Uptown will rise again!

  19. The Uptown lobby was in fact used for several years as a separate venue. When Chicago still hosted a gay “circuit party” called variously the “Hearts Party” because it was held close to Valentine’s Day, and later “Fireball.” the lobby area was transformed into an almost surreal space, lighting highlighted the architectural detail; it was filled with throbbing dance music, not to mention a brigade of hot shirtless men. When the fog machines kicked in, it was a modern bacchanalia. I remember standing on the second level and looking down and thinking “enjoy it now, it’s all going away soon.” That’s pretty much all I remember, it was the 90’s

    The lobby was deemed unsafe at a point and the party moved to other venues including the Union Station waiting room and the old Finkelman Steelworks. Fireball was extinguished when a board member embezzled thousands of dollars and fled to Costa Rica.