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Uptown Theater hopes to find a place in city’s cultural plan

Uptown Theater - Chicago
Uptown Theater - Chicago (Photo credit: Anne Rossley)

The owner of the Uptown Theater hopes the landmark movie house will become the driving force in Chicago’s Cultural Plan for a North side entertainment district.

“Uptown Theater is really the key” to figuring out how the city will define what is expected by the term “entertainment district” according to Uptown United Administrator, Wally Rozak.

Rozak said the rehabilitation and rebirth of the theater will have a domino effect and “push other things to fall into place” in the Uptown area.

However, success comes at a high price. The Uptown Theater suffered serious and costly damage after it was closed in 1981.

Former owners of the building turned off the heat during the first winter it was closed, which caused the water drainage system in the walls of the building to back up and flood parts of the building, said Rozak. The flooding is the main reason the Uptown Theater has remained closed for over 30 years. After the flooding, the theater fell into the hands of various “slum lords” who, Rozak said, did not take care of the building.

Jerry Mickelson, co-founder of the Chicago-based Jam Productions, purchased the building at auction in 2008 and has since met with “every public official he can as well as private investors” to bring the Uptown Theater back to life, said Rozak.

“It’s a work in progress, trying to raise the money,” Mickelson said of the estimated $70 million necessary to restore the building.

The cost includes cosmetic restoration as well as updates to make the building compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to Mickelson, who said he is in the process of exploring support options from the city, such as TIF funds, tax credits and grants.

The Uptown Theater will be located in the 46th ward once remapping goes into effect in 2015. Ald. James Cappleman (46th) is “looking into helping in any way he can,” said his chief of staff, Tressa Feher.

“Once [Mickelson] secures funding, we’ll see how we can supplement that,” said Feher.

But despite the challenges, Mickelson remains hopeful: “It’s a challenging project, but I’m making progress.”

The theater received landmark status, which saved it from demolition and means a contractor has very little leeway in making any building modifications.

Andy Pierce, a volunteer with Friends of the Uptown, an advocacy group for the theater, said he was not surprised when Mickelson bought the theater. The purchase appeared to be the culmination of years of work by Jam Productions. The theater’s renovation has always been a hope, Pierce said.

“I think it would serve the [city’s Cultural] Plan as well as any of the city’s venues,” said Pierce.

Chicago’s Cultural Plan is only in the information-gathering stage, and city officials hope to encourage public input during town halls and neighborhood meetings over the next several months.

The goal of the project, launched by the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, is to put more emphasis on Chicago’s cultural strengths and stimulate economic growth within the creative community.

As a part of that economic growth, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has expressed his hope that the portion of Broadway Avenue where the Uptown Theater is located will become the anchor for a future North Side entertainment district.

Previous stories about Uptown Theater by Chicagotalks.

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