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 489 comments)

Scott on November 29, 2018 at 10:29 am

David Zornig – you may be correct about the photo, but if that view is looking west, I don’t see how the Green Mill could be on the left. That would be where the auditorium currently sits. Perhaps the Green Mill is at the lower left, mostly out of camera view? Whatever is casting a shadow on the Uptown’s lobby wall in the 1925 photo is much closer to Broadway than is the chimney in the construction photo. Okay, maybe I’m over-analyzing this.

DavidZornig on November 29, 2018 at 6:51 pm

I’m not sure though, since the Uptown Update link says it is the back of the Green Mill. It could be after the demolition of the gardens that were behind it before the Uptown was built.

The shadow I referenced was apparently cast from a chimney across the street, if you compare the two photos below.

The 1st is from Summer 1925 before construction is completed. The 2nd is from 1926 and after the marquees on both Broadway & Lawrence are completed. The shadows are cast longer in the second photo, as evidenced on Lawrence as well.



Scott on November 30, 2018 at 2:30 pm

It’s still a mystery to me. Nevertheless, an interesting photo.

BobbyS on December 1, 2018 at 11:05 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 6:35 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 3, 2018 at 2:07 am

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 6:23 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 7:39 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 3:33 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 16, 2019 at 12:35 am

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.” ( )

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