By James Currie
This past Wednesday, the Uptown Theatre opened its doors to the public for the first time in a long time. The behemoth of a venue officially closed in 1981, but has been trying to make a comeback ever since. Thanks to a special event put on by the 46th Ward Alderman, James Cappleman, a few fortunate individuals not only got a peek, but a fully guided walkthrough tour.
This was the work of Alderman Cappleman’s office who partnered with Jam Productions, Uptown Arcade and several constituents to make it all possible. It was a fundraiser hosted by the alderman’s committee to bring awareness and light to the aging building at 4816 N. Broadway.
The event started a couple doors north of the theatre at The Uptown Arcade. In the backroom of the video arcade bar, guests were treated to drinks and appetizers while waiting for the main event to begin. After a brief introduction from the Alderman, the group was led over to The Uptown Theatre.
This was one of the most ornate movie palaces of its time and as a bonus, it was air-conditioned. This was a rarity at that time. Today, the AC was not needed though because of a cold front blowing a storm through.
Guests arrived at the main front entrance of the Chicago Landmark on the Broadway side. This was the grand lobby. It’s now covered in plywood and makeshift padlocked doors. The group was greeted at the entrance by a representative from Jam Productions. Once he opened the door, it was like opening King Tut’s tomb. Cold, dank air blasted through with force. It smelled like a moldy wet basement. Inside Bob Boin introduced himself as just Bob, the caretaker and longtime volunteer for the Uptown Theatre. He’s been working here for 35 years. When asked by a fellow tour member, “Who do you work for?” Bob responded, “Nobody.” He was a character for sure. Bob taught the group a lot on this tour even if it was brash and to the point.
The Spanish-Baroque styled building was built by Patwardhan Realty Group (citation needed) and officially opened on August 18, 1925. The designers, Rapp and Rapp were basically given a blank check to make this grand palace the biggest and best it could be. According to Bob, at the time movie palaces were money making machines. The owners didn’t know what to do with all the cash that was coming in from them. The Balaban & Katz theatre chain decided to go all out for the Uptown Theatre. And once you’ve seen it, you’ll understand. It’s filled with grand staircases, enormous chandeliers, water fountains, multi tiered lobbies, towering pillars and lots of marble.
It’s over 46,000 square feet in size. The L-shape venue takes up an entire block, but looking at it from the front entrance on Broadway, you wouldn’t know it. The outside walls are a sample of how ornate it is inside. Its main hall has over 4,300 seats. There are three lobbies, one gigantic (reaching 5 stories tall) at the Broadway entrance followed by two others deeper inside. It’s the largest theatre in Chicago and the second largest in the United States but there’s debate to that as Radio City Music Hall in New York City is designed differently to compare against. So it depends on who you ask this question of. Bob says The Uptown Theatre is the largest.
Bob went on to say that at its peak, there were 80 ushers assigned to seat guests in its grand hall. There were almost 200 staff members to run the place that included a fulltime orchestra, nurse and nursemaids. The theatre was known for offering amenities like childcare services and a Ladies Lounge. There was a large room for the kids to play while the parents were entertained. On the north center court area was the ladies room. This was designated as a place for the women to smoke and use the powder room out of site from the men. It was a large oval doom room with glassed window showcases that back in the day displayed sculptures and statues from around the world.
Bob takes the group down another long hall, this time south towards Lawrence Avenue. He points to an upstairs room and tells us about a radio room that existed on the premises. WEBH could broadcast programs and shows from within the great walls in their own office located on the Lawrence and Broadway corner.
Many events happened here since it’s beginning. Theatre productions, Vaudeville shows, movies and near it’s end, concerts occupied the great cavernous spaces. Bands like, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Bob Marley, Bruce Springsteen, The Grateful Dead (audio and video exists from the Uptown Theatre performances), The Ramones, Frank Zappa, Prince and so many others played that historic stage during it’s relatively short 56 year run. The final show was in 1981 when the J. Geils Band featuring Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes drew the final curtain.
Bob leads back out to the main lobby entrance and answers a few more questions before sending folks off on their way. One last tale is how years ago, Bob received a notice from the alarm system that something was wrong. He tells us when he arrived, there were people milling around stealing everything they could get their hands on. They lowered it out the building through a pulley system on the backside. He left to call the police (because cell phones weren’t around yet) and waited for them to arrive. When they did. He stood in the main lobby and pointed to a spot where one robber was hiding. They came in and arrested just one man hiding behind a large drapery. Apparently the rest of his crew left him behind. Sadly, most of the items were never recovered. Today, the building is like Fort Knox with high tech security, people on site and most treasures that were left in storage.
Since it’s closing, there has been an ongoing petition to keep the theater alive, save it from the wrecking ball and bring it back to life. Alderman Cappleman is championing this.
In the meantime, Hollywood has taken notice and used its interior for several movie projects, which is kind of ironic. The eight-story screen that once displayed film is now in the background of films. Some notable film, television and video projects shot at the Uptown Theatre include; Backdraft, Home Alone 2: Lost In New York (the lobby in the film is not actually New York but the Uptown’s main lobby), Transformers: Age of Extinction and several music videos by artists like Enuff’s Enuff and Regina Spektor.
Restoration efforts have been underway for over 20 years. The doors have been closed to the public for more than 25 years. This is a gargantuan tomb lying dormant like the Titanic at the bottom of the Atlantic. Only this vessel is a little more reachable and definitely more attainable for public use. Thanks to Alderman Cappleman, we’re getting much closer to seeing that done.
Since taking office six years ago, James Cappleman has helped kickstart the revitalization of the Uptown district, putting it in high gear. In that time, the zones have been redesignated and the Uptown Theatre is now in his ward. He’s taking action and has been outspoken about how important this is for the community.
Alderman Cappleman has been pretty active since taking office. He’s helped to clean up the streets, parks and common areas but perhaps his greatest achievement, so far, was the revitalization of the CTA Wilson L stop. Something that has taken many years to work on and a cost of around $200 million dollars to complete, but will soon be open to all its Jazz era grandeur. This Red Line stop was voted as the worst stop on the L line. Soon it will be one of the best.
Side note: The Uptown Theatre itself was built within a year at a cost of $4 million.
I had a chance to catch up with the man that never seems to sit still for very long to talk about the future of Uptown, but more specifically, Uptown Theatre, the crown jewel of the northside.
James Currie: Hello Alderman Cappleman. How are you today? I know you’re busy, so thank you in advance for taking the time to talk with us.
Alderman James Cappleman: Very good thanks. Yes, busy as always.
JC: Great. Let’s get right into it. How and why did you get involved in saving the Uptown Theatre? Was this something you were involved with before becoming Alderman?
AJC: Yes. There was a photo from about 2002-2003 with the Theatre and people in front of it and video tape of me in the crowd. I was very focused on that because one, I heard such great things about the Uptown Theatre and the second reason was because the Urban Land Institute did a study and about what needed to happen to revitalize the retail corridor and they listed the Uptown Theatre as being crucial. It had to happen.
JC: Did you ever visit the venue while it was open? Or were you old enough to attend an event before it closed? A theatre production or concert?
AJC: (chuckels) Oh, I’m old enough. I’m 64. So I never officially visited it when it was open because I moved to Chicago in 1986. Actually since New Years Day 1986, but I had heard so much about it and that really intrigued me. Really What my focus has always been is the need for great economic development number one and number two once I did finally see the inside of the Uptown Theatre after I was elected, I was just blown away. I just couldn’t believe what I saw. It was just another reason to get something going here. When I was first elected Alderman back in 2011, that was part of the 38th Ward.
One of my first conversations with the Mayor (Rahm Emanual) was, what did I want to see happen in my ward. I told him my first priority would be rehabbing the Uptown Theatre, but that it’s not in my ward. So my first priority became the Wilson L station. And then later when they were redrawing the ward boundaries, I worked very hard to get that theatre in my ward.
I think it needed to happen because, for an entertainment district it kind of needed to have one alderman that could oversee it all. Since I already had the Aragon and The Riv, it kind of made sense. The Uptown Theatre is part of it as well.
JC: You just had a fundraising event. How did that go? How much did you raise and what kind of feedback did you get from it?
AJC: Yeah, I think we raised about $50,000. They’re still working on the numbers but feedback was positive. Once the people walked into the theatre and saw it in person, they got it. They got why it was such a priority.
JC: Yeah, that visual really said it all. Once we walked into that first great hall entryway, wow!
AJC: No speech can surpass that visual.
JC: Was this a one time special event or are there more planned?
AJC: No, I mean, I did it once before. I think it was one or two years after I was elected and ironically, I did it on the same exact date, May 17th. It was just an accident it happened that way.
JC: It would be nice to see it happen on a more regular occurrence. Not only to raise money, but the awareness that it’s still there and still important. Keeping it in the back of peoples minds. We have readers from Germany who have expressed interest in keeping this iconic building alive. I’ve even read that former musicians who’ve played there want to see it back in action. Maybe you could do a benefit concert for it from former bands or artist who played that great hall?
AJC: So everything I’m doing is in close communication with Jerry Mickelson (Jam Productions owner) and all the other people that are working on this project. But what we do know is that, I’ve spoke with somebody that works with the Uptown Theatre yesterday and confirmed to them that people were excited to go into the theatre. Once they entered into it, they were blown away. They knew it was a challenge, but after seeing it knew even more that this was a challenge worth fighting for. They all said that. That was kind of my way of telling Jerry Mickelson that I want to see the word get out more about this beautiful building that needs to get saved.
You know I talked to one person who said, you know I saw a couple people taking photos on the tour (we were told not to take any photos) and they said, I wanted to do the same but honestly, a photo can’t even come close to capturing the scale of this thing. You have to see it for yourself.
JC: After seeing what I saw that night, I have to agree. That is something you could work with Jerry and Jam with getting done. Actually getting people in there to see it with their own eyes.
What are the current plans for restoration? What does it stand? And what’s the most recent estimates to getting it done?
AJC: It’s at various states right now. There have been plans for decades on getting started on sections and getting things done. As of right now, there was another delay, but at least things are getting noticed and still moving. As you saw there are some areas, like the main entrance that is semi restored. It for a display purpose and use to show what the whole place could look like. Last we talked it was estimated to be around $75 million dollars to get done. There has already been lots of time and money spent on the outside façade. They did work on the terracotta front tiles and roof, plus the interior stuff you don’t see like leaks and structure supports.
JC: What do you ultimately want to see the Uptown Theatre turn into? How would it be used?
AJC: Well, that’s why I went to the Mayor’s office and the Department of Planning and I said, this building has been vacant for well over 30 years and I wanted to get an assessment and see what needed to happen to have a return on our investment. My goal was really, to save the building and not so much what its use could be used for.
There was a Lawrence Broadway TIFF that was created specifically for the Uptown Theatre and my concern was, it wasn’t being used for it’s primary purpose. We weren’t spending any money on it. There was a assessment done to see what it would take and what would be some uses. The assessment was, the Uptown Theatre was worth saving. I did not want to think what the assessment was if it was not that.
They suggested that huge open area can’t be divided out. They saw it as a concert venue, but there are some complicated factors in it that have to be dealt with. One of the complicated factors is the stage is very narrow. It’s actually an elevator. So to fit todays standards, it would have to change. The seating, it is historic, but it doesn’t fit today’s standards. Most venues and concert goers today stand. But we do know that the one large area does need to be focused on some sort of music venue. It’s just so large, we need some event space in there and a series of restaurants inside there.
So the next part is getting a business plan together and figuring how we’re going to make this all work and that’s kind where we’re at now. The business plan is together, but it’s getting all these different sources of funding together to make it happen.
There’s no guarantee, it’s going to be tough, but anyone who walks into that theatre will see it’s worth fighting for.
JC: Why should the public care if it gets saved or not? What will they get from it being in business again?
AJC: Well the big picture is it’s not just for the community. This is for our country. I mean, this is something that will get people from all over the world to come see. This will be a tourist destination.
For the community, I know they are excited about it, but, this will become a huge tourist draw. It’s going to create a lot of economic development and jobs but, it will help change the neighborhood. Which is sometimes scary for some people.
JC: I saw that, with the protestors that were standing outside you event with signs and megaphones that night.
AJC: Yeah, yeah, change is scary to most, but my job as alderman is to address ALL of those concerns. Both sides. You know, they want the neighborhood to continue to be affordable. So what I have to do to make it more attractive and to revitalize this area and make it more attractive for investors to put money into the Uptown is I have to do it in a way that protects our affordable housing cell. And I’m committed to doing that.
JC: How can the public get involved? How can they help save the Uptown Theatre?
AJC: Well, right now they can continue to push the legislators on a city and state level to keep focus on getting this theatre rehabbed. But there’s also investors. I’m working with attracting investors to this process this as well because that’s going to be a large piece of it to make this happen.
JC: And Jam productions are the main investors in this right now, but are there any others at this point?
AJC: I will let you speak with Jam Productions on that. There’s a lot I know, but some things I don’t. I’ve learned that I need to let others speak up for themselves.
JC: Understood. We can speak to them at a later time.
With that, thank you for your time. Good luck with this project and the rest of your work in Uptown.
AJC: No problem. Thank you.
In its time of hibernation, several factors have affected the Uptown Theatre’s current state. Mother nature has beaten through with ice and rain, thieves have ransacked the joint like a pharaohs pyramid in Egypt hauling away artwork, statues, fixtures and more from the upper floors. Much of the remaining lights and fixtures have been taken down and placed into cold storage like the archways above the front facade and two story tall chandeliers. It’s a shell of it’s former self for sure, exposed wires, crumbling plaster and broken glass, but the meat and bones are still there. It’s sheer magnitude and grandeur looming over the north shore community like a diamond in the rough, ready to shine again.
The venue needs to be in the public eye more. It needs a larger social media presence. They need to do more special events, more often to keep the interest up. Get tour groups in there. Let social media take hold. Get the grass roots approach growing. The more people actually see it the better. It’s a place that we can all talk about, but until you see it in person, you just can’t fathom it.
There seems to be several avenues for the Uptown Theatre to not only generate interest, but make money, like renting out the main lobby for special events, weddings etc. When I asked building supervisor Bob about this he said the owner is not interested in that. He said that there is not enough people around to manage it, too much liability and opposition from the city on use.
Let’s hope that Mr. Cappleman can bring real change. His hopes and talk of what Uptown could and should be are commendable. He’s already done quite a bit in his relatively short time in office. Getting the community and city hall on board is tough. We see it all over the 606. The Uptown Theatre is one that if done right, really could make a difference for the 46th Ward. It would bring economic development, jobs and a sense of pride. It could blossom to a global destination.
For more about the Uptown Theatre, click here
For more on Alderman James Cappleman, his campaign and the 46th Ward, click here
For more on the Friends of the Uptown Theatre, click here