Uptown Theatre

4816 N. Broadway,
Chicago, IL 60640

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Uptown theatre

One of the last great movie palaces in Chicago, this fabulous theatre was built by Balaban & Katz Corp. in the Uptown neighborhood, north of Chicago in 1925. The Uptown Theatre was the largest movie palace in Chicago, larger than any in the entertainment hub within the Chicago downtown known as ‘The Loop’, and according to the Theatre Historical Society of America list, was the 12th largest movie palaces ever built in the U.S.A. It was opened August 18, 1925 with the world premiere of First National Pictures “The Lady Who Lied” with Lewis Stone and Virginia Valli plus a Balaban & Katz stage presentaion “Under Spanish Skies”. At opening the orchestra pit housed a 60-person orchestra and the theatre was equipped with a Wurlitzer Grande 4 manual 20 rank theatre organ with was opened by noted organist Jesse Crawford.

Changing times and the shift in population have not helped the Uptown Theatre and although it was a destination for moviegoers for several decades, it was closed December 19, 1981 with a concert by the J. Geils Band. In 1991 it was designated a Chicago Landmark. Unfortunately, the Uptown Theatre has succumbed to water damage, vandalism and the wear and tear of time. Every year its exterior stands stoically facing the cold winter while its interior slowly erodes.

The Uptown Theatre had become one of the last truly great movie palaces without a certain future. Preservationists and movie theatre enthusiasts enthused that the Uptown Theatre “must be saved before it is too late”. In 2014 the building was purchased by JAM Productions for $3.2 million. On June 29, 2018 it was announced that $75 million had been granted to restore the theatre, and it was approved by the Chicago Community Development Commission on November 13, 2018. Restoration work will begin in August 2019 with a completion planned for early-2021.

Recent comments (view all 492 comments)

BobbyS on December 1, 2018 at 8:05 pm

Hi Scott!!! I can hardly wait for the summer of 2019 to witness the beginning of the re-birth of the Uptown Theater. I will only see it from the outside. The removal and installing the new marquee and blade signage should be thrilling just by itself. I hope they will show a special movie sometime and really show this masterpiece off to people that used to patronize this movie palace!

Scott on December 2, 2018 at 3:35 pm

Yes Bobby, it should be exciting. Seems like a million years ago when I saw a movie there in the mid-60s. Only went there once when it was a movie theatre. At that time it was still in pretty good shape, still had most of its artwork and furnishings. I guess its history is similar to that of the Kings in Brooklyn, though I don’t believe the Kings had a run as a concern venue as did the Uptown. With respect to the North Side houses, as much as I love the Uptown, I was more taken with the Belmont. Went there once in the late 50s or early 60s. I thought that place was magical, and fun to roam around in. The North Side had some incredible venues.

BobbyS on December 2, 2018 at 11:07 pm

The Belmont was just as you say it was… My favorite was the Granada because it reminded me of my much loved Marbro on the west side.

Scott on December 3, 2018 at 3:23 pm

The Marbro was incredible indeed. The demise of its near-twin, the Granada, was particularly tragic, because that theater could have succeeded. It was in a good location (I thought) and was in decent condition before they purposely let it fall into ruin. Very similar to what happened in St. Louis to the Ambassador. Fortunately, the Uptown survived, or has to this point at least. I’m sure that its relatively high demolition cost helped fend off development.

BobbyS on December 10, 2018 at 4:39 pm

I know this is the Uptown site and we all love the Uptown and looking forward to the grand re-opening. This is for Scott: Can you just imagine if the Granada Theatre had the same fate. Can you imagine a restored original waterfall marquee & blade sign with LED lighting up the facade. It almost happened. Lou Wolf paid $200,000 to Plitt for the building only. New carpets for inner lobby & main floor. Re-covered main floor seats and a new bright red stage curtain. I saw it all.. It was the refusal for getting a liquor license approved that doomed the project. Something that all venues have today with multiple bars in place needed for the cash registers. That was a major loss for movie palace lovers!

Scott on December 14, 2018 at 12:33 pm

That is interesting Bobby. I wasn’t aware that a liquor license was involved. I walked by the Granada one Saturday afternoon in 1985 or 1986 and saw that one of the front doors was partially open, with a large hose running out of the building into the street. It was draining water out from somewhere in the theater. I tentatively went inside and looked around, expecting to get yelled at by someone for being in there. But I never saw anyone. I just walked around all over the first floor, not venturing up to the second level. It was spooky being in there, but it was really an amazing experience. The Granada was very much like the Marbro, and just as irreplaceable. I’m grateful this isn’t happening to the Uptown. I toured the Uptown in the late 80s with a THS group, and there was very little lighting once you got past the main lobby. That also got pretty spooky when we got to the upper levels.

LouRugani on January 15, 2019 at 9:35 pm

Bob Boin, Dave Syfczak and Jimmy Wiggins are volunteers who help take care of the Uptown Theatre. (Ryan Ori, Reporter; Chicago Tribune)

A 37-year intermission has not been kind to the Uptown Theatre. Fires, cascading rainwater, sheets of ice, broken pipes, frozen boilers, rodents, crumbling plaster, financial distress, vandals, thieves and squatters have all taken their shots since the last concert there. Yet the 4,381-seat theater, said to be one of the most spectacular movie palaces ever built, is on the verge of a long-dreamed-of restoration to return the towering structure on North Broadway back to its 1925 opulence. In large part, the Uptown stands ready for its $75 million makeover because of a few guardians who’ve protected it from irreparable harm. The Uptown’s protectors have lent a collective hand to historic properties ranging from Wrigley Field to the Chicago Theatre. But the Uptown stands out as a particularly enduring and demanding labor of love. “When you love a place like this, it’s in your heart,” said Jimmy Wiggins, one of the protectors. “They’ll never build anything like this again. I mean, just look at it.” The men have endured ownership changes, broken promises, false starts, late-night alarms, pigeon poop and oil fumes. They’ve teetered from I-beams several stories above the stage in order to repair roof drains, shooed away intruders, and sacrificed countless hours of their nights and weekends — and, in some instances, their retirements. “Very few people know about them, but they’ve been heroes,” said Jerry Mickelson, co-founder and co-owner of Jam Productions, which has owned the Uptown since 2008. “I don’t know that I could have bought the building without them, because it might not have been standing.” The Uptown Theatre is finally to be restored to its 1925 glory. Inside the shuttered movie palace, the guardians include three men who have helped protect the theater since the 1980s: restoration expert Curt Mangel, 68; retired civil engineer Bob Boin, 72, a longtime volunteer on Chicago theater restoration projects; and Jam’s facilities manager, Wiggins, 57, who also oversees the Vic and Riviera theaters on the North Side. Retired Chicago police officer Dave Syfczak, 66, who watched movies at the Uptown while growing up in the neighborhood, has been a volunteer security guard and handyman since the 1990s. Those four lead a larger list of people who have contributed to the Uptown’s survival. Most have worked as volunteers, with approval of the property’s various owners. “I always told the guys, ‘Just keep it alive and its time will come,’ ” said Mangel, who now lives in Philadelphia. “By the grace of God, the economy and everything else, the right things came together. We’re overjoyed that day has finally come. “The people of Chicago are not going to believe what they have when it’s done.” The Spanish Baroque structure at 4816 N. Broadway roared to life in 1925 as the flagship of a Balaban & Katz theater chain known for its breathtaking movie palaces. Much later, it became known for concerts by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley, the Grateful Dead, Prince and the Kinks. The last show was a J. Geils Band concert on Dec. 19, 1981. The property cycled through a series of owners who proposed but never executed plans to bring it back to life. Finally, in June, Mayor Rahm Emanuel unveiled plans for a $75 million renovation, backed by funding from several public and private sources. The joint venture of Jam and Chicago real estate firm Farpoint Development plans to begin the heavy lifting by the summer, with plans to reopen the Uptown as a live events venue in 2021. It is envisioned as the centerpiece of a broader entertainment district in Uptown, which is also home to venues such as the Aragon Ballroom, Riviera Theatre, Wilson Avenue Theater and Green Mill nightclub. Farpoint principal Scott Goodman credits the caretakers for the Uptown’s survival, and said their dedication demonstrates the strong pull many people feel toward it. “It’s that kind of building,” Goodman said. “I don’t think there’s another asset in Chicago where people have this kind of emotional attachment. It’s a magnificent structure with amazingly ornamental finishes, and it’s so instrumental to the success of the neighborhood. To get those things all in one bucket, there’s nothing else like it.” The group of Uptown watchers has endured, even years after Mangel eventually moved from Chicago. “It was years of backbreaking work and we had several (redevelopment) deals fall apart, which was heartbreaking,” Mangel said. “I don’t regret it one bit. I’m very proud of the guys for sticking with it and keeping the torch. I passed the torch and they kept it burning.” Mangel’s tinkering skills have led him to a broad range of projects, including once repairing the clock on Wrigley Field’s scoreboard — which he said led to an on-air shout-out from Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray, who had often complained about the clock’s neglected condition. Other restorations included the clocks in the Waveland Fieldhouse tower along Lake Michigan, just east of the ballpark, and chandeliers at the Chicago Theatre in the Loop. He’s moved around the country to lead other restorations, including Shea’s Performing Arts Center in Buffalo, N.Y., and Denver’s Paramount Theatre. Mangel now lives in Philadelphia, where he led the restoration of the Wanamaker Grand Court Organ, the largest functioning pipe organ in the world. The Uptown proved especially challenging, because of its sheer size and the building’s decades-long vacancy. To prevent pipes from freezing, the men burned thousands of gallons of gummy, low-quality motor oil in an old boiler. Firing up the system took hours of exhausting work, and the fumes frequently left people in the boiler room feeling sick. The process also sent black smoke pouring from the building, which would cause neighbors to call 911. “It got to the point where we had to call the Fire Department to let them know we were going to start the boiler at the Uptown,” Syfczak said. When firefighters were called on those instances, the Uptown guardians hustled to meet them out front. “Or else they’d use their key to come in,” Syfczak said. “And their key was an ax. So I repaired the doors three or four times too.” There also were real fires, including one time in the 1990s when on a late-night security check Wiggins discovered homeless people huddled around several campfires on the building’s marble floors. Other intruders, including metal scavengers, would set off the Uptown’s alarm. “When I lived a block away, I’d have to go scare the bejesus out of someone who was in the building,” Mangel said. Many of the Uptown’s unique and highly valuable light fixtures also were snatched. Looting led to the decision to pack up ornate chandeliers and other remaining fixtures. They were transported to the Sanfilippo Foundation’s Place de la Musique museum in Barrington and other Chicago-area locations, where they’ll remain stored until the late stages of the theater’s restoration. “That was painful for us, because part of the beauty of the building is the magnificent light fixtures,” Mangel said. “But we had to do it or they would all be gone.” Critters also have snuck in. Syfczak once decided to clean a wall of pigeon poop near the theater’s front windows, only to encounter something else. “As I put a shovel through it, a stench was released, and mice started jumped out of the pile of dung,” Syfczak siad. “That was one of my worst days here.” Better days are near, finally, because of a complex financing package that includes state and federal funds, as well as debt and equity secured by the development partners. Farpoint and Jam’s pending renovation is validation to those who thought the theater was worth saving, but it’s bittersweet for them as they move into the background. “There is a little tinge of almost depression when you’re no longer involved with it,” said Boin, who previously volunteered for eight years helping restore the Chicago Theatre’s organ. Although the Uptown has swallowed up their spare time, it’s also been a home away from home for the friends to gather, talk and tinker on other projects. “We have to give up our clubhouse,” Wiggins joked. Then he turned serious. “We’re overjoyed that the building is going to be restored and used again, because it really comes alive when there’s people in here,” Wiggins said. “This is fun. This has been our sanctuary. I think we’ve all enjoyed it. But when you see people here smiling and looking at it, and the building comes alive, that’s the best gift of all.” ( )

LouRugani on January 26, 2019 at 12:14 am

Artifacts from the Uptown Theatre in Chicago have over the years been removed and brought to the Sanfilippo Foundation’s Place de la Musique museum for safekeeping. Hidden away in boxes and barns — or merely hanging in sumptuous plain sight — the gorgeous chandeliers and fixtures of the Uptown Theatre have been vacationing these past few years in Barrington Hills. They have been cared for by an eccentric but loving crew of collectors, restorers and guardians, rescued from avaricious thieves and the neglect of a convicted slumlord as if they were evacuees rushed to safety from a war zone. And on Tuesday of this week, under the careful eyes of most of those who have cared for them for so long — they all began their journey back to Uptown Chicago and home.

The story of how the Sanfilippo Estate, the family home of Jasper Sanfilippo (a hugely successful American businessman and a nut magnate who turned proprietory shelling techniques into a business with 2018 net sales of $889 million) came to help save the treasures of the Uptown is a fascinating one. The Sanfilippo Estate is not an ordinary home, even by the grand standards of Barrington Hills. Sanfilippo, 87, is a collector of automatic mechanical instruments, but the word “collector” does not do justice to the scale of his world-class acquisitions, which now occupy several buildings on his estate, nor the level of restoration in which he has invested, which is dazzling. When his collecting was at its peak in the 1990s, Sanfilippo defined mechanical instruments very broadly, collecting pipe organs, fairground ticket booths, steam engines and locomotives, slot machines, stereoscopes, mutoscopes, vending machines, calliopes, a carousel, player pianos and impossibly complex lighting fixtures — brass arms and internal beading polished to a shine.

The Sanfilippo Estate is not a public museum but it is well known locally, and frequently opens its doors to charity fundraisers and for concerts in its grand private theater, home to an 8000-pipe 1927 Wurlitzer, one of the largest pipe organs in the world. To those who love historic theaters and cherish their decoration, it’s known internationally as one of the best private collections in the world.

When the late Louis Wolf and his partner, Kenneth Goldberg, bought the theater from the Plitt movie chain after the Uptown’s 1979 closure, it was clear to preservationists that the new landlords did not intend to restore the building. Wolf’s modus operandi was to let historic buildings fall into disrepair, usually because the land was expected to increase in value. All kinds of horrors were being discussed for the Uptown following its closure to the public as a concert venue. Somebody wanted to install an indoor go-kart track. Someone else wanted to turn it into a mausoleum. As all this chatter went on, thieves were already seen entering the building. Indeed, according to Bob Boin, a civil engineer and longstanding Uptown volunteer, some of the Uptown’s fixtures already were showing up a local salvage stores, where volunteers would proceed to buy them back and then store them in their homes. The volunteers decided something had to be done.

It so happened that Curt Mangel, an Uptown-loving engineer, was working at the Sanfillipo estate on the restoration of a steam engine. The Friends of the Uptown (both upper and lower case) decided that Mangel should approach Sanfilippo about quietly moving as much as possible to Barrington Hills where it could wait for a happier time.

If there is one hero in this story, Mangel (who now lives in Philadelphia where he tends to a pipe organ – the Wanamaker – inside Macy’s City Center) is that hero.

And thus, in 1992, the group persuaded Wolf (who did prison time for tax evasion) and Goldberg that they could write off the value of the chandeliers and other decorative elements if they donated them to a non-profit. Mangel and the other Uptown caretakers enlisted Sanfilippo’s cooperation in an agreement to return the items when — or, more accurately if — the theater was restored. And that process began.

The Uptown’s new owner, Jerry Mickelson of Jam Productions, was there for the first time. So were employees of Farpoint Development, Mickelson’s partner in the restoration. So were employees of the Chicago-based Schuler Shook, a consultant on the renovation. So were restorers, historic theater specialists and several members of Mickelson’s staff. So was Lisa Sanfilippo, Jasper’s daughter. So were the Uptown’s longtime caretakers such as Boin and Jimmy Wiggins, who spend the entire day grinning from ear to ear. All were agog at the size and abiding beauty of the main chandeliers, as restored by Sanfilippo’s staff. “The people that do this,” Jimmy Wiggins, an Uptown volunteer whom Jam eventually hired, said “do it because it is in their heart. How wonderful that they have a place to do what is part of their soul.”

The Uptown’s main chandelier hangs in the entrance hallway of the main Sanfilippo building. Few visitors would know its provenance. It is soon to come down — but Greg Leifel, the caretaker of the collection pointed out the obvious to a visitor: “We have other chandeliers to take its place.” Indeed they do.

Over the course of a morning, the group looked for wall sconces and light fixtures, finding some inside boxes in a workshop, others looking yet more beautiful than they ever first appeared. All of the originals are returning, and where there are missing fixtures, they will provide a template for fabricators to match the precise original appearance. Everyone is aware that all of this was almost lost. “If it had not cost $8.4 million to demolish the theater,” Mickelson said, “they would have knocked it down. It was that cost that saved the theater.”

Rapp & Rapp, the Chicago firm that designed and built the Uptown were known, in the words of Boin, for “overbuilding their steel.” There was so much steel in the Uptown that conventional cheap demolition methods could not be used. Hence the price tag, at which Wolf and Goldberg balked. “You couldn’t punch a pillar in a Rapp & Rapp theater and then watch the roof collapse,” Boin said. “Thank God.”

The weather was awful, but still a day for taking inventory, and giving thanks and a day that neither Wiggins nor Boin nor Mickelson nor, most likely, Sanfilippo, ever expected to come.

By Chris Jones, a Tribune critic (edited for brevity.)

DavidZornig on January 26, 2019 at 11:26 am

I’ve been through the Sanfilippo mansion. Incredible place. Even more with an additional building with an 1890s carousel, vintage calliopes and a train on about 50 feet of track. They hosted the 50th anniversary of Thunderbird for our club back in 2005. Brevity thanks you…

spectrum on February 17, 2019 at 7:43 pm

Some more links regarding the Uptown Theatre Restoration:

Friends of the Uptown (corrected link):

Block Club Chicago Article and photos/renditions: https://blockclubchicago.org/2018/11/14/uptown-theater-renovation-would-take-18-months-boost-capacity-to-5800/

Uptown Update: List of articles related to the Uptown Theatre: https://www.uptownupdate.com/search?q=uptown+theatre

Tribune November 13 article: https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/theater/ct-ent-uptown-rehab-plans-1113-story.html

Tribune June 29 article article: https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/theater/ct-ent-uptown-rehab-0629-story.html

Tribune 2015 history article: https://www.chicagotribune.com/ct-inside-uptown-theatre-unique-features-20150807-htmlstory.html

Uptown Theatre unofficial facebook page (friends and volunteers): https://www.facebook.com/pg/theuptowntheatre/about/?ref=page_internal

Still looking for an official page. Hopefully soon.

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