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Whither The Uptown Theater?

By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 5, 2011 10:00PM

2011_01_uptown.jpg The stately Uptown Theater at Lawrence and Broadway was once, probably, the greatest place in the world to see a movie. Larger than even Radio City, the Uptown was built in 1925 for the Balaban and Katz Theater company, who also gave us The Chicago Theater, The Oriental, the Cadillac Palace Theater, The Congress, the Riviera, and about 50 others in the area.

After its role as a movie and stage venue faded, it became a major concert venue in the 1970s. Since the 1980s, it has been in and out of both foreclosure and the news as a tentpole restoration project for preservationists, appearing on Landmarks Illinois 10 Most Endangered List three times.

When we last checked in on this saga, local event promoter Jam Productions finally purchased it for $3.2 million, leading many to hope that the new owners (who also own the nearby Riviera operate the Aragon) could put together a plan to restore the crown jewel of the golden age of theater construction. As Chloe Riley of reports, the impending departure of long-time restoration advocate Mary Ann Smith as 48th Ward Alderman means even more uncertainty for the crumbling landmark.

Restoration of the theater would be an immense undertaking and require the navigation of lots of competing interest groups, but even a quick peek at the interior of the structure will tell you that it is worth it. If the 7,750 fans the vacant theater currently possesses on Facebook is any indicator, there is a lot of love for the old behemoth. Will we ever see it open its doors again? Will the next Alderman push as hard as Smith, or (as some demanded) harder?

Of course, the biggest problem is always money. Estimates of restoration efforts start at $40 million and head upwards into nine figures, so massive public investment or corporate backing is essential. But, as theater restoration expert Larry Wilker told, corporations are much more likely to sponsor sports venues that appear regularly on television than locations of this size. Besides, who has cash to spare these days? If it's too late for it to be The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 Uptown Theater, perhaps The Groupon Uptown Theater has a nice, profitable ring to it.