Uptown Theatre

4816 N. Broadway,
Chicago, IL 60640

Unfavorite 85 people favorited this theater

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. At opening the orchestra pit housed a 60-person orchestra and the theatre was equipped with a Wurlitzer 4 manual 20 rank theatre organ.

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. Additionally, 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 is one of the last truly great theatres without a certain future. 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, with restoration work beginning Summer of 2019.

Recent comments (view all 475 comments)

LouRugani on June 28, 2018 at 8:41 pm

Uptown Theatre will be restored: $75 million plan unveiled for grand palace on North Side. (Chris Jones, Contact Reporter, Chicago Tribune)

After 35 years of stuttering starts, empty promises, a court-ordered sale and oft-reckless neglect, the 4,381-seat, 46,000-square-foot Uptown Theatre — once the gilded crown jewel of the Balaban & Katz theater chain, and among the most opulent and gorgeous movie palaces ever built in America — is finally to be restored to its 1925 glory.

In other words, what long has seemed impossible to dogged, devoted preservationists, nostalgists and the tireless volunteer group known as the Friends of the Uptown is finally happening on Chicago’s North Side. And an eye-popping $75 million has been pieced together and set aside for the restoration of a dangerously decayed and decrepit theater that was boarded up after a J. Geils Band concert on Dec. 19, 1981, leaving aging Chicagoans only with their memories of once seeing Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley, Prince or the Grateful Dead inside its historic bones.

This is not just another plan for the 4816 N. Broadway flagship of the Uptown neighborhood, insists Mayor Rahm Emanuel. This time it’s for real. Assuming the plan passes the City Council and other regulatory hurdles, the restoration and redevelopment project is slated to begin this fall. Within two years, the boards should be off the windows, the venue open for business and a curious public careening once again down the grand lobby staircase.

“This is the fulfillment of a promise,” said Emanuel in an interview Thursday. “When I was still mayor-elect, I talked about creating an entertainment district in Uptown. Our investments in culture are one of our best drivers of economic growth and job creation in our neighborhoods.”

The new Uptown will be a joint and equal venture between the Chicago-based promoter Jam Productions (which gained ownership of the landmarked Uptown for $3.2 million in 2008) and Farpoint Development. A new partnership entity will be formed.

Relatively new to the Uptown party, Farpoint Development is led by Scott Goodman, who co-founded Sterling Bay and helped build that firm into one of Chicago’s biggest and best-known commercial real estate developers, with projects including McDonald’s headquarters’ move to the former site of Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios and Google’s Midwest headquarters in a former cold-storage warehouse. Goodman and three other longtime Sterling Bay executives left the company in 2016 to start Farpoint.

“The Uptown is an amazing asset in an amazing neighborhood,” Goodman said. “This was the rare opportunity to do something really cool.”

Goodman said the architect for the project has yet to be selected.

Jam’s specialty is concert promotion, but the plan is for the Uptown to feature a variety of live events.

“Concerts. Comedy. Dance. Special events. A whole multitude of things,” said Arny Granat, the co-founder and co-owner, with Jerry Mickelson, of Jam Productions. “This is a game changer for the city. It’s not just about concerts, it’s about the economic development that now will occur in the Uptown neighborhood”

Granat also said that, for some events, main-floor seats will be removed, allowing for an audience capacity as high as 5,800. Even with all-seated events, the Uptown’s size eclipses all other theaters in the city, including the 3,901-seat Auditorium Theatre and the 3,600-seat Chicago Theatre, both of which are about to experience some formidable new competition.

The mayor’s office said the piecemeal financing for the Uptown Theatre comes from an array of public and private sources: $14 million in financing through the State of Illinois’ Property Assessed Clean Energy Act; $13 million in tax-increment financing; $10 million in Build Illinois bond funding; $8.7 million in federal tax credits; and $3.7 million in the City of Chicago’s Adopt-a-Landmark funds. Jam and Farpoint are kicking in the remaining $26 million in a yet-to-be-determined mix of debt and equity. The restoration scheme also includes $6 million in streetscape improvements to portions of North Broadway, and Lawrence and Wilson avenues and Argyle Street, including a new pedestrian plaza and public stage, located just south of Lawrence and Broadway.

The byzantine road to restoration — and the campaigns to avoid the wrecking ball — have been as melodramatic as one of the movies the Uptown showcased in the 1920s.

Back in 2002, politicians and arts supporters, including Ivar Albert Goodman, held a news conference announcing an impending restoration. But the nonprofit group calling itself the Uptown Theatre and Center for the Arts did not have the money to acquire the building. And Goodman’s $1 million donation quickly was spent with nothing concrete to show. In a civil complaint, the Illinois attorney general’s office alleged the money had been spent on purchases at luxury hotels, restaurants and clothing stores.

“This theater,” said then-Ald. Mary Ann Smith, 48th, to the Tribune, “tends to attract people with stars in their eyes.”

Indeed it did. All kinds of people with all kinds of fantasies.

But as early as 2000, a report by the Urban Land Institute of Washington, D.C., had laid out the essential, irrefutable argument for the Uptown: “Future generations will not forgive those who do not attend to this obligation.”

For Chicago politicians, the Uptown has been a major quandary for decades. Restoration was jaw-droppingly expensive and thus beyond the reach of most private owners, especially since success in the highly competitive entertainment business was far from assured. But what mayor or alderman would want to be associated for life with the demolition of such a treasured and unique beauty?

Designed by the famed team of C.W. and Geo. L. Rapp (known as Rapp and Rapp) and touted on opening as containing “an acre of seats in a magic city” behind its Spanish Baroque facade, the huge six-story lobbies and extra-wide staircases of the Uptown could get 4,300 people out the doors, and another 4,300 inside, all within 16 minutes. In its first five years of operation in the 1920s, more than 20 million Chicagoans went through its portals into a fantastical world apart, one that Rapp and Rapp had wanted to resemble such creations as the Palace of Versailles.

There were floating “clouds,” tiny twinkling lights in the ceiling and even a perfuming system under the seats.

It was a far cry from Al Capone’s Chicago.

Had the Uptown Theatre been in the Loop, it likely would have been restored long ago, alongside the busy, historic theaters now owned or operated by Broadway in Chicago and Madison Square Garden Entertainment. But the Uptown’s massive size — too big for many concerts and most Broadway musicals — and its location in a neighborhood with significant economic challenges presented the dilemma of how to attract suburban and tourist audiences to an address that’s about 8 miles from the corner of State and Madison streets. Especially given the relative lack of parking and the large number of competing venues in the city.

By 2002, the alarmed Friends of the Uptown group was calling reporters with stories of falling plaster and pooling rainwater. Some in the group suspected that the endangered theater was being intentionally allowed to rot and soon would be condemned for good (or, their minds, bad). Others were pushing for the city to acquire the building through eminent domain. By the summer of 2008, there had been a court-ordered foreclosure sale and competing bids, leading to Jam Productions taking control of the building through a spinoff company, UTA II, controlled by Mickelson and Granat.

Jam’s winning bid was widely seen at the time as a defensive move to counter the incursions into the city by such rivals as Live Nation and MSG Entertainment. But taking control and reopening were two very different things. The Uptown could not just be reopened to the public: At the time, Jam argued that no restoration would be possible without public money, which was not then forthcoming. And thus, although Jam invested in and stabilized the Uptown, and averted the building’s worst problems, the theater remained on the endangered lists.

Watch the video for Regina Spektor’s “Black and White.” A few reporters, documentarians and artists found their way inside. In Chicago’s 2012 Cultural Plan, the Uptown Theatre got a hopeful mention. And in 2017, a music video was made by Regina Spektor inside the ghostly but atmospheric building, revealing to a new, younger generation what was hidden behind the barriers to entry.

But those who have fought for — and reported on — the theater have grown old while the Uptown has languished, its keepers fearing every severe storm.

So what changed? The construction boom in the city has certainly been a factor, as has the revival of urban entertainment venues and the urban economic momentum in general, often coming at the expense of the suburbs.

Farpoint is among the developers looking to capitalize on the nationwide urbanization trend. Its largest initiative is the proposed redevelopment of the 49-acre former Michael Reese Hospital site and other land south of McCormick Place into residential and commercial buildings. The project, called the Burnham Lakefront, was one of five Chicago sites that Amazon visited in March as the e-commerce giant scouted sites for its planned second headquarters.

This isn’t Farpoint’s first foray into cultural development: Goodman recently was involved with an unsuccessful attempt to build a new home for the Northlight Theatre in downtown Evanston. But that was potential new construction with vociferous local opposition. The Uptown is a fulfillment of a neighborhood’s dream.

“This is not unlike asking kids if they want another Christmas, or Chicagoans if they want another World Championship,” said Andy Pierce, the co-founder of the Friends of the Uptown, an organization with a 20-year history of campaigns and agitation, and now with results to show. “You just don’t meet anyone who doesn’t want the Uptown saved.”

Tribune reporter Ryan Ori contributed to this story.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

DaveM on July 5, 2018 at 12:59 pm

From the Chris Jones article: “There were floating "clouds”, tiny twinkling lights in the ceiling…“ Every photo I’ve seen makes it look like Uptown ceiling contained a lit cove. I don’t think it was a partial atmospheric like the Gateway. Am I missing something?

JAlex on July 5, 2018 at 6:40 pm

The Uptown is not an atmospheric, even partially.

BobbyS on July 5, 2018 at 8:20 pm

I bet Chris Jones was thinking of the Aragon Ballroom which is atmospheric when he wrote the article… I didn’t realize Live Nation owns the Aragon when I looked it up. This is wonderful exciting news for the beautiful Uptown! Bravo Jam!!

Comfortably Cool
Comfortably Cool on July 7, 2018 at 6:23 am

Recent news article explaining “Why the Uptown Theatre Restoration Is a Big Deal” can be viewed here

LouRugani on July 20, 2018 at 10:31 pm

Restoring The Dream: The gilded interior of Chicago’s Uptown Theatre remains mostly intact, ready for a $75 restoration project that will be the centerpiece of a neighborhood renewal years in the making. Jam Productions bought the building more than 10 years ago and, in partnership with a local developer and the city of Chicago, is on the verge of bringing the landmark back to life.

Jam Productions’ Jerry Mickelson and Arny Granat could be within months of realizing a decades-long dream: breaking ground on a $75 million restoration of Chicago’s ornate, landmark Uptown Theatre, which they purchased 10 years ago for a reported $3.2 million.

They knew it would take a massive injection of financing to bring the building, closed since 1981, back to its gilded, ca. 1925, Spanish Revival glory. And Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel knew he had an as-yet unfulfilled 2011 campaign pledge to create an entertainment district in the Uptown neighborhood.

Mickelson and Emanuel jointly announced June 29 they’ve found a partner in Farpoint Development and a patchwork of funding that, pending city council and regulatory approvals, should enable restoration to begin in fall on a 5,800-capacity Uptown Theatre.

A new partnership entity will be formed as a joint venture between Jam Productions and Farpoint, which is one of the city’s biggest commercial real estate developers. In addition to the Uptown restoration, a comprehensive streetscape plan will help bring together the vision for an entertainment district that will also include the 2,300-capacity Riviera Theatre, also operated by Jam, 4,378-cap Aragon Ballroom, booked by Live Nation, and Green Mill Jazz Club that seats about 100.

The $6 million streetscape project includes improvements to surrounding streets, with a new pedestrian plaza, sculpture and public stage all expected to be completed this summer.

But it’s the Uptown Theatre that is the unquestionable jewel in the city’s crown, and the object of Mickelson’s deep affection as not only a concert promoter but a Chicagoan. The Uptown long ago was granted “landmark” status – from façade to stagehouse – which likely saved it from the wrecking ball fate of so many other movie palaces of its era. “Jam did all the concerts there from Oct. 31, 1975 with The Tubes through Dec. 19 1981 with the J. Geils Band,” Mickelson proudly says. “At that time, the theatre was owned by a small family, not theatre operators, and they weren’t putting any money into the venue. When I walked into the theater on that cold December day, we had to purchase the oil to get the furnaces going to heat the building because they couldn’t afford it. The bathrooms were barely functioning, so I told the owner he had to close it. And he did and gave it back to the people he bought it from. “But the only damage was in the winter of 1982 when some roof pipes burst because the owners didn’t put the heat on. But other than some small, minor plaster damage, everything’s there. It’s not one of those old, decaying, decrepit theaters. It’s a landmark building, inside and out,” Mickelson says.

He might have come to regret telling those owners they had to close it. Twenty five years later, the ownership was subject to a battle for control between Jam, Live Nation, AEG and Madison Square Garden Co. at various times since at least 2006, when AEG and Live Nation last kicked the tires at the old building. Two years later, Live Nation appeared on the brink of making a deal to lease the venue from the city of Chicago until a final bid was scuttled by a dispute over who actually owned the property.

As it turned out, Jam Productions and Joseph Freed & Associates LLC owned a second mortgage on the Uptown property. The holder of the first mortgage, David Husman of investment firm Equibase, refused their offer of $1.3 million to pay off the mortgage. “That doesn’t stop us from doing anything other than what we’ve been trying to do and are in court over, which is trying to pay off the mortgage,” an impassioned Mickelson told Pollstar at the time. “We paid off the first mortgage, but they sent us our money back. We don’t believe that’s legal and that’s what we’re fighting over.”

But a complex scenario was made simple by a court-ordered sale in July 2008. Jam was the sole bidder, and bought the Uptown for $3.2 million. At about the same time, the worst recession in memory struck, making financing for a rehab project all but impossible. “It’s been a long journey over the past 10 years but I can see the finish line is right ahead of us,” Mickelson tells Pollstar. “It’s not easy to restore a theater like this without being a city or municipality, just doing it privately is difficult. But we will get it done.”

Not all of the financing is in place. According to Mickelson, about $49 million of the $75 million is secured – but “we’ll get the rest,” he says.

As for the Uptown itself, plans call for interior improvements including new elevators and concession stations; mechanical, electrical, plumbing and “life safety” systems, and restored decorative finishes, New seats and a reconfigured first floor of the three-story building will reduce the old theatre’s seated capacity from about 4,400 to 4,200 – though some floor seats will be removable, allowing for a total capacity of 5,800.

Exterior work will repair the building’s masonry and terra cotta and improve marquees and related signage, among other improvements, according to a statement from Emanuel’s office.

“The Uptown Theater has been a staple of the Uptown neighborhood’s past, and will be a strong asset for the community’s future,” Emanuel said. “The restored theater will be the centerpiece of the new, revitalized Uptown entertainment district, giving residents and visitors another way to experience world-class culture and entertainment in one of the City’s most storied neighborhoods.”

Mickelson also envisions the restored theater as a catalyst for lifting up Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, and compares its potential impact on Chicago’s North Side to that of the Fox Theatre in Oakland, Calif. “It’s an economic engine that starts everything else. After the Fox [in Oakland] opened, and the Paramount was already opened, that created some nice synergy that allowed the Uptown part of Oakland to come alive as well,” Mickelson said. “This is more than just about concerts. It’s creating jobs, it’s creating new businesses.”

It’s also about creating education and job opportunities for area youth and, to that end, Mickelson’s vision includes collaborations with organizations like After School Matters, a program of the Chicago public schools, and the nearby Peoples’ Music School that provides free music education to 600 kids. “We are going to provide them the opportunity to be part of the Uptown Theatre, starting from the restoration phase all the way through opening and when we’re presenting events,” Mickelson explained. “I decided to make a program that benefits students and the education they can get that they normally would not have access to. They’re going to be part of this and we’re going to let them use the theatres for fundraisers and rehearsals, things like that.”

Redevelopment agreement details will be finalized this summer and presented this fall to the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, the Community Development Commission and the Chicago City Council for review and approval. Restoration work would start later this year and be completed in 2020.

“Given its past, size and potential impact on the City’s cultural landscape, the Uptown will be one of the most significant restoration projects in the city’s history,” said Department of Planning and Development Commissioner David Reifman. (Pollstar, by Deborah Speer)

Comfortably Cool
Comfortably Cool on September 10, 2018 at 1:58 pm

TV news coverage of the restoration project and its impact on the neighborhood can be viewed here

Comfortably Cool
Comfortably Cool on September 23, 2018 at 8:21 am

“The Case Against An Uptown Theatre Restoration” can be read here

DavidZornig on November 1, 2018 at 6:15 pm

Uptown Update link with renovation drawings.


DavidZornig on November 13, 2018 at 8:57 am

Start date for renovation has been announced.


You must login before making a comment.

New Comment

Subscribe Want to be emailed when a new comment is posted about this theater?
Just login to your account and subscribe to this theater