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Reviving the Roaring Era in Uptown

The metal structure that used to hold the large, bright letters that spelled "Uptown" is all that remains.

The Uptown Theatre in the Uptown neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago still sits vacant and deteriorating near the corner of Lawrence Avenue and Broadway Street since closing 31 years ago.

But after decades of abandonment, there is new hope for the Uptown Theatre with Chicago’s Cultural Plan 2012. Included in this plan, released in May, is Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s desire to restore Uptown as an entertainment district with the renovation of the Uptown Theatre being a top priority.

Andy Pierce, a volunteer for the advocacy group Friends of the Uptown Theatre, said it would be an understatement to say renovating the theater would be an economic engine for the neighborhood.

“It’s the difference of having a heart and not having a heart,” Pierce said. “Right now you can see the shell of what needs to be done.”

Back in the ’20s when the Uptown Theatre was constructed, people from all over would arrive in street cars, partake in the local shopping and dining scene and then see a show, said Richard Sklenar, executive director of Theater Historical Society of America.

He said the difference between the entertainment in Uptown and what is found downtown is the structure of Chicago’s neighborhoods. In order for a place like Uptown to survive, he said, there needs to be 18 hours a day of activity, and the type of entertainment provided by the theater drew people in.

Although the theater hasn’t been operational in more than 30 years, residents and business owners in the neighborhood still remember the life it brought to Uptown.

Ric Addy, owner of Books Box on Broadway Street right next door to Uptown Theatre, said the theater used to employ a lot of neighborhood people and contributed to the local economy. There used to be more restaurants and businesses that thrived off the entertainment consumers, he said.

Addy even recalled several experiences he had at the theater from going to see shows and live concerts: the premiere of Star Wars and performances by Bob Marley, Bruce Springsteen and Prince.

“Everybody in the neighborhood loves the theater,” Addy said.

Modesto Rivera, who worked as a janitor in both the Riviera and Uptown theaters, said he lived across the street from the Aragon Ballroom from 1958 to 1971, the heart of Uptown’s entertainment culture.

Rivera said that back in the early ’60s people from all over the city and suburbs used to come into Uptown by the busload. The Hollywood lights would shine from the theater, and everyone would know there was a premiere, he said.

“The neighborhood was better then than it is now,” he said.

After 31 years of inactivity, the single sign left hanging in the front of the building is worn down, covered in rust and missing a few screws and bolts.

Rivera said that due to a change in politics in Uptown, there is a new “green light” for people to take action.

However, the theater has been boarded up and unmaintained for so long that many people who didn’t experience the theater when it was operational don’t even notice its presence. Pierce said when he first saw the theater building in ’95, it didn’t stand out.

Because of the amount of time that has elapsed, the theater is currently running the risk of dealing with a generation who have no relationship with the theater, Pierce said.

“To truly appreciate it you need to see a show there,” he said. “We don’t want to appreciate it as a ruin.”

As part of the Chicago Cultural Plan 2012, Chicagoans will be encouraged to send in their suggestions and requests regarding the priority and demand for certain projects in order to participate in the reconstruction of the city’s cultural structure.

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