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.

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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.

LouRugani on April 12, 2019 at 12:40 pm

The owner of the Uptown Theatre shared his vision yesterday, which includes hosting 100 shows a year, offering 200 jobs and even a non-profit arm focused on community arts outreach. Now for the hardest part: raising the remaining $40 million to finish the ambitious renovation. Yesterday, the Chicago Architecture Center hosted a panel featuring those working on the long-awaited restoration. Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones moderated and was joined by co-owner Jerry Mickelson, long-time volunteer Robert Boin and the Department of Planning and Development’s director of historic preservation Eleanor Gorski. “There is nowhere like The Uptown, at least that I’ve been,” said Jones, who has traveled to theaters across the country and around the world.

The Uptown Theatre, the largest freestanding theater ever built in its time, has three marquees, a kid’s playroom and over 17,000 light bulbs in the auditorium. It took 18 months and cost $4 million dollars to construct (over $58 million today if adjusted for inflation). One of the reasons the theatre has lasted so long — despite lying dormant for nearly four decades — is because it was built with one third more steel than necessary, making it able to withstand winter after winter without completely deteriorating. “It’s one of the most beautiful buildings, palaces ever built,” said Mickelson, who talked about the timeline for the restoration project. Although it has been previously reported that construction could start as early as this summer, it is more likely to start near the beginning of 2020. There is still $40 million that needs to be raised, and Mickelson said he won’t feel comfortable breaking ground until he has raised at least $20 million. He said he feels confident in raising those funds, already has an investor who has pledged a million dollars to the theater, and is hoping the theatre will open with its first show in early 2021. Much like in Las Vegas, he said he has been considering the option of having performers in residency who would regularly perform at the venue. To Mickelson, restoring the Uptown Theatre is all about bringing benefit to the Uptown community. His production company JAM also runs the nearby Riviera Theatre and the area is close to his heart. Everyone on the panel agreed the theatre would be a catalyst of economic development for Uptown. “It will bring back the glory of this proud neighborhood,” Mickelson said. “It’s all about creating jobs and opportunities for people who don’t have them.”

Instead of running the Uptown Theatre as a for-profit enterprise, Mickelson hopes the theatre will become a non-profit foundation run by a board of directors. He has already made deals with Chicago Public Schools, After School Matters and The People’s Music School, so that kids will have access to the theater during the restoration and once it’s open for good. “It’s about taking care of the future of us, of our city,” he said. “Kids cannot become what they cannot see.”

The panel recalled some of the theater’s darkest hours, when it looked like it might not be saved. Boin recalled a time in the early 80’s when its owners promised to heat the building in the winter. After failing to do so, several pipes burst, flooding large parts of the theatre. Boin was one of the unsung heroes who helped look after the theatre, often on his own dime. He used to pay for the oil and light the furnaces himself throughout the winter. In the 80’s it cost over $8,000 a year just to buy enough oil. Gorski remembered when the building had fallen into complete disrepair and the top of the building was close to falling off. The city was able to get a judge to allow them to appoint a caretaker, to supplement the careless owners.

Mickelson bought the theatre in 2008, just before the housing market crashed. Those were darker days, he said. When one of the former owners suggested turning the theatre into an indoor go-kart track, Mickelson doubled down on his efforts to save the building. “That really made me mad,” he said. But Gorski said city officials realized they needed to help save the theatre because of its stunning beauty. “This building has an effect unlike any building I have ever seen,” she said. “People are mesmerized. Once they see this building they understand why it needs to be saved.”

While Mickelson plans to restore the theatre to its former glory, there will be some changes made. The largest of those changes includes tiering off the main floor and creating a general admission dance floor. “It will increase the usage and is necessary to support the operational plans of the theatre,” he said.

Crowd members wanted to know if the 46th ward aldermanic race could have an impact on the theatre’s restoration efforts. Ald. James Cappleman (46th) only has a narrow lead over opponent Marianne Lalonde in the still too-close-to-call race, and some worried Lalonde may not be as friendly to the project. “I think the project is bigger than any one person,” said Mickelson. “It would be incredibly wrong to pull the rug out from under us at this point.” This morning, Lalonde said she’s excited for the project, but wants to make sure there’s community input. “I’m excited for it to be redone, but I think that we need a community benefits agreement for it,” Lalonde said. “The agreement would be to ensure that we have a plan for parking, safety and to make sure that the economic benefit for theater returns the community.”

Others were worried about keeping the theatre accessible to the entire community. Mickelson told them to look at JAM’s average ticket price. He said their average ticket sells for around $33, much lower than his competitors in town. He also talked about opening the theatre during the day as a place for the community, particularly kids, to congregate.

When asked about his dreams for the theatre, Mickelson said the legacy of the Uptown Theatre will be about giving back. “If the Uptown Theatre becomes a foundation, it will probably be the first theatre in the country where all of its profits will be donated to good causes,” he said. “And that will be the enduring legacy of the theatre.”

Trolleyguy on April 12, 2019 at 1:00 pm

Citation for the above?

DavidZornig on April 12, 2019 at 2:25 pm

It was written by Jonathan Ballew from Block Club Chicago, which is a pay to subscribe only news site.


Trolleyguy on April 12, 2019 at 3:18 pm

Thank you David. Just wondering.

Scott on April 12, 2019 at 3:29 pm

What? I thought the financing for the $75M renovation was already earmarked? What happened to that? Last summer they announced that $75M had been granted from various sources to fund the renovation. What am I missing?

DavidZornig on April 12, 2019 at 3:54 pm

I recall the estimate for asbestos abatement alone was $30 million 10 years ago. So maybe that portion was not part of the original restoration amount. $75 million was just the amount granted, not that that was necessarily the total amount that was needed.

DavidZornig on April 13, 2019 at 12:13 pm

FYI. Upcoming discussion by Andy Pierce, one of the founders of Friends of the Uptown.


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