The Uptown Theater

Yesterday I posted the last of my Open House Chicago (Uptown edition) photos.  I have plenty more from various neighborhoods throughout the city that I can’t wait to post but I’m going to hold those off until this upcoming October.  Maybe I’ll do another epic series of posts for my favorite OHC stops of 2012.  Yeah, I’m sure that will keep my dozens of readers on the edge of their seats.  But for now, I want to make a quick post on a beautiful piece of Uptown history that I did NOT get to visit during OHC.

Ever since I moved to the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, I’ve been fascinated by the deteriorating Uptown Theater.  Even though the large vertical “Uptown” sign has long been removed, the windows have been boarded up and the marquee has been left to rust away, I can’t help but see the underlying beauty of this once amazing movie palace.  I’m blown away by the craftsmanship and attention to detail visible from the exterior alone.  And from what I’ve heard about the Grande Lobby, the outside is just the tip of the iceberg.

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The Uptown Theatre, also known as the Balaban and Katz Uptown Theatre, is a massive, ornate movie palace in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois. It was designed by Rapp and Rapp and constructed in 1925, and along with the Riviera Theater it was one of the last of the “big three” movie palaces built by the Balaban & Katz theatre chain run by A. J. Balaban, his brother Barney Balaban and their partner Sam Katz.

The largest in Chicago, The Uptown Theater boasts 4,381 seats and its interior volume is said to be larger than any other movie palace in the United States, including Radio City Music Hall in New York. It occupies over 46,000 square feet of land at the corner of Lawrence Avenue and Broadway in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood slowly becoming Chicago’s new Entertainment District. The mammoth theater has an ornate five story entrance lobby with an eight story facade.

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Rehabilitation efforts are needed to restore and reopen this historic movie palace which has been closed to regular events since the winter of 1981 when, due to the owner having turned off the heat, a frozen water pipe burst and caused extensive damage to the interior. In subsequent years, deferred maintenance and vandalism have led to further debilitation of the structure and ornament, both inside and out making it unusable without restoration. Subsequently, even with the assistance primarily of volunteers, the building remained in the hands of a notorious tax-sale buyer and continued to deteriorate. During this time volunteers managed to have the theater designated a Chicago Landmark and recorded on the National Register of Historic Places on November 8, 2008.

Since 1981, the theater has been used as a location for scenes in movies such as the Academy Award-nominated Ron Howard movie, Backdraft, the Julia Roberts and Nick Nolte movie, I Love Trouble, and the John Hughes-Chris Columbus sequel Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. In the 1990s, the theatre lobby was host to the “Hearts Party” (a gay “circuit” party), which raised money for an AIDS charity.

In 2006, the exterior was extensively secured and terra cotta pieces were cataloged and stored for future restoration efforts. A May 21, 2007 article in Crain’s Chicago Business described the Uptown Theatre as “suddenly a hot property,” as three national entertainment companies were in competition to purchase, restore and reopen the Uptown Theatre.

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It was purchased through a judicial sale July 29, 2008 by JAM Productions for $3.2 million and finalized in court on August 18, 2008. It is estimated it will take about $40 million to get it ready for use again. JAM currently also owns the Riviera Theater also on Broadway, approximately one block away.

Many articles, news stories and even a documentary have been done about the Uptown Theater even some more recently:

As I mentioned before, I did not get to go into the Uptown Theater.  I’ve wanted to get a peek inside ever since I moved to the neighborhood but, I’m sure there’s a multitude of reasons why people aren’t allowed in the deteriorating theater-which I’m sure would be a liability nightmare for the owner to actually open it up to the public.  So that’s probably the leading reason for why I’ve never been inside.  Well, that AND the fact that I don’t know how to pick a pad lock or scale the side of a building to an unlocked window that I can jimmy open.  I don’t think I have the core strength for that one.

The Uptown has a pretty impressive network or fire escape on the back side of the theater.

The Uptown has a pretty impressive network of fire escapes on the back side of the theater.

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With that in mind, if anyone reading this post has some connections and can pull some strings to get me and my camera into the Uptown for a day, I’d be willing to negotiate the terms of some financial compensation, the donation of a vital organ or the corporate naming rights to my first born child.  Whatever it takes to get me inside.  For real.  Hook me up.

Yet I feel my best chance for living out that modest dream will be to wait out all the talks currently ongoing to make Uptown the new music district in town, much like the theater district in the Loop.  It’s hard to have faith in the City of Chicago when it comes to following through with their grandiose plans to sink money into a project of this size.  But I’m an optimistic guy and I’m going to keep my fingers crossed that there will be a great Uptown renaissance in store for this neighborhood of great potential.  But the key to that happening is definitely the restoration of the Uptown Theater as the centerpiece of this neighborhood.  And if the City of Chicago doesn’t come through, I’ll just have to win the Power Ball jackpot and bankroll the project myself!  In the meantime, please enjoy some of these photos of interesting features that I took of the Uptown.

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This is a used and abused light bulb, one of the last one remaining, in back of the building over one of the doors.

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Even the manhole covers behind the theater are ornate.

Even the manhole covers behind the theater are ornate.

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Fancy brick work.

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All the doors at the back of the theater have a fairly fresh coat of red paint which really stands out from the drab stone exterior.

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Close-up of the marquee in its current condition.

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