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 April 12, 2019 at 8:40 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 9:00 pm

Citation for the above?

DavidZornig on April 12, 2019 at 10:25 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 11:18 pm

Thank you David. Just wondering.

Scott on April 12, 2019 at 11:29 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 11:54 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 8:13 pm

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


spectrum on August 10, 2019 at 3:59 pm

Latest from the Alderman James Cappleman’s website on June 29th:


The city officially announced the restoration, the state allocated $10,000,000 and they are looking to the city to alloocate another $13,000,000, and this will combine to get the project rolling. As they said, still some heavy lifting to do.

MarkDHite on November 6, 2019 at 10:55 pm

Has there been any activity on beginning the Uptown’s restoration yet? Thanks!

LouRugani on December 4, 2019 at 12:15 am

In November, 2018 the Community Development Commission was told that construction was expected to begin in summer, 2019. No work has begun. The delay, according to Jam Productions' Jerry Mickelsen, involves financing. Public funding included $14 million through the state’s 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. That money’s committed, but $26 million is still needed that was supposed to come from loans and investments. Mickelson said he expects that financing to come in early 2020. The reopening is now projected to be in 2022. A newly-founded Uptown Theatre Foundation is intended to act as a steward of the theatre and potentially receive donations to help restore it. Peter Strazzabosco, deputy commissioner in the Chicago Department of Planning and Development, told Chicago Tribune reporter Chris Jones that his department is continuing to work with the developer on a restoration plan that will also revitalize the Uptown entertainment district, to hopefully start before summer.

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