Uptown Theatre

4816 N. Broadway,
Chicago, IL 60640

Unfavorite 87 people favorited this theater

Showing 1 - 25 of 508 comments

Ssc48
Ssc48 on July 9, 2022 at 10:06 am

So what’s going on with this theatre will it ever be restored?

DavidZornig
DavidZornig on June 1, 2022 at 11:14 am

This documentary confirms the vertical UPTOWN letters were still in place in `81. 0:22 in the video.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gw8DC1ccucs

DavidZornig
DavidZornig on November 15, 2021 at 8:24 pm

A 2011 link with August 27, 1976 Bay City Rollers photos. I scrolled back and did not see it as being posted before.

http://uptownhistory.compassrose.org/2011/05/1976-bay-city-rollers-concert-uptown.html

DavidZornig
DavidZornig on August 31, 2021 at 2:46 pm

Filming currently taking place at the Uptown.

https://www.uptownupdate.com/2021/08/ripple-effects-at-uptown.html?fbclid=IwAR1vfpeGGZCPvKJ-Y5Qx3XhZyhniD3735aqcloNGBiTjd3uiHbTZkzXJjhc

DavidZornig
DavidZornig on January 4, 2021 at 9:05 pm

Uptown Theatre Foundation Inc. is the Uptown Theatre’s owners JAM Productions. That is their address on Goethe.

spectrum
spectrum on January 4, 2021 at 7:53 pm

Some more links to recent articles about the Uptown Theatre restoration!

Chicago Tribune: https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/theater/ct-ae-uptown-theatre-artifacts-jones-0127-story.html

Blockclub Chicago article from January 2020: https://blockclubchicago.org/2020/01/27/uptown-theater-renovation-work-could-begin-this-summer-alderman-says/

Blockclubchicago article from April 2019: https://blockclubchicago.org/2019/04/12/uptown-theatre-cac-event/

Architecture.org - lots of recent interior pictures here: https://www.architecture.org/learn/resources/buildings-of-chicago/building/uptown-theatre/

Also, the company handling the restoration is:

Uptown Theatre Foundation, Inc 207 W Goethe St, Chicago, IL 60610 (Haven’t found a webpage for them yet.)

LouRugani
LouRugani on November 23, 2020 at 3:54 am

(From ArchitectureChicago PLUS: Sunday, December 18, 2011) On the 30th anniversary of its closing, Andy Pierce reminds us what’s so magical about the Uptown Theatre. —

Today, December 19th, marks the 30th anniversary of the day Chicago’s famed Uptown Theatre closed its doors. By the time I got around to it in the 1960s, the 4,300 seat former movie palace designed by Rapp & Rapp was past its prime. Apart from the John Frankenheimer masterpiece The Train, most of the films I saw there were unmemorable - The Ballad of Josie? The Dave Clark Five in Having a Wild Weekend? - but I was always blown away by the grandeur, beauty, and sheer scale of the place.

Since its closing, the Uptown has suffered the indignities of being owned by some of the city’s most infamous slumlords, leaks, floods, freezes, neglect and decay. In 2008, it was acquired by Jam Productions, which already books the Riviera across the street. Last October, representatives from JAM, mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office and freshman Chicago alderman Harry Osterman and James Cappleman met to discuss how a revived Uptown could anchor a new vision for an Uptown Entertainment Center.

In 2006, the price tag bandied about for fully restoring the Uptown was $30 to $40 million. Today, it’s more like $70 million. If hope is to be had, it might be found in the examples of two New York City theaters, the 1929 2800-seat Beacon, which withstood bad times and attempts to “improve” it into a disco to emerge as a beloved and active concert venue despite being far from the Mid- Manhattan Theatre district. Even more striking is the comparison to the 3,200 seat Loew’s Kings Theater in Brooklyn, designed by the famed Chicago movie palace architects Rapp & Rapp, left to rot ever since its 1977 closing. Like the Uptown, those who cherished the theater battled to keep it alive for revival, and their efforts were rewarded in a project, launched last year for a 2014 completion, to restore the Loew’s Kings to its former glory as the centerpiece of the renewal of the Flatbush shopping district. The city of New York has committed $50 million to the project’s expected $70 million cost.

This week’s edition of Time Out Chicago has an excellent article by Andy Pierce, one of the people most instrumental in Friends of the Uptown who have been tireless in championing saving the theater. We’re privileged to have Andy provide us his overview of the history, importance and future potential of the Uptown …

What makes a theater a movie palace? At some point, almost any surviving vintage theater is referred to by fans or reporters as a “movie palace.”

The long-closed Uptown Theater, 4816 N. Broadway, is truly an early example of the very large movie palaces of the mid-to-late 1920s. It is also one of the last great movie palaces to not yet be restored, renovated, radically altered or demolished. Chicago’s remaining open and operating movie palaces – used for live performances – are the Riviera, Chicago, Congress and Oriental theaters. The Central Park has survived as a church since 1971 and the restored New Regal (originally Avalon) has been closed intermittently since 2003. [Note: Our Palace Theater was not a movie palace. Rather, it was built for Big-Time Orpheum Vaudeville.] Arguably the most profitable themed entertainment of the day, Balaban & Katz “presentation houses,” such as the Uptown, featured continuous performance of three or more shows daily; stage shows with themes, costumes and sets planned in consideration of the feature film; a full orchestra rising and falling on multiple stage lifts, with a conductor at the helm of projector speeds and tempos to keep on schedule and massive theatre organs to accompany the orchestra and provide the aural environments and voices for the early and yet-still-silent stars of the screen.

In B&K’s deluxe presentation houses such as the Uptown, a system of colored cove lights controlled the accent lighting of the auditorium such that the audience was entirely encapsulated in the mood of the moment on screen; for example yellow for sunrise, red for war, blue for night, purple for love.

Most of America’s movie palaces carried a Neo-Classical theme cohesively throughout their public spaces and were lavishly decorated not only with plaster relief but also with fanciful polychrome paint schemes, damask, drapes, elaborate chandeliers, antique oil paintings, marble sculpture groups and fountains. Patron comfort and service were augmented in the Uptown for example with amenities such as hat racks beneath seats, a parcel check, luxurious men’s and women’s lounges and a fanciful playroom with storybook themes for children.

Grand entrance lobbies gave standees a place to wait behind ropes while the previous audience exited through other lobbies and ambulatories. A full, working stage with scenery, a theater pipe organ, and multiple thousands of seats in floor, mezzanine and balcony areas completed the movie palace formula over tens of thousands of square feet of real estate.

Baptized in oil, labor and love, friends of Chicago’s historic Uptown Theater, 4816 N. Broadway, are recognizing a peculiar anniversary for one of the world’s largest and most lavish surviving movie palaces today, Monday, Dec. 19, with a letter-writing campaign. Please see the Uptown Theatre, Chicago, Facebook page for details:

While the Uptown has been closed for 30 of its 86 years, demolition by neglect was held at bay largely through the work of volunteers who kept the theater graffiti free as high as they could reach, who stoked her shopworn boiler and who kept the landmark interior as dry as possible, using patches upon patches of hydraulic cement to seal cracks in steel roof drains that had been pushed open by ice. Uptown’s 12 different roof surfaces drain through this system of pipes. The failure of this system in the arctic winters of the early 1980s allowed water to damage to some interior areas of ornate plaster ceilings and walls.

This less-than-glamorous anniversary comes as both Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) are avowed boosters of the Uptown Square business and entertainment district and have voiced their cooperation and support for renovating the Uptown.

The theater was built at a cost of $4 million between 1924 and 1925 by the local, family-owned company of Balaban & Katz, following the success of their Central Park, Riviera, Tivoli and Chicago theaters. “Built For All Time,” its over-the-top, neo-Spanish Baroque design by the Chicago architectural firm of C.W. and George L. Rapp was touted as “An Acre of Seats in a Magic City.” The Uptown has a marquee bigger than a yacht, three lobbies as big as train stations, and boasts more than 4,300 seats in its vast floor, mezzanine and balcony.

The opening of the Uptown was commemorated in the August 17, 1925 edition of Balaban & Katz’s weekly magazine. It’s a fascinating snapshot of both the Uptown and 1920’s Chicago. You can download the entire issue courtesy of the Compass Rose Cultural Crossroads website. Many historians note how the popularity of television in American homes curtailed the tremendous number of movie patrons. However, the late Bro. Andrew Corsini Fowler was quick to remind me that our fascination with radio programs took the first cut out of movie palace receipts. [Note: Bro. Andrew was a cofounder of Theatre Historical Society of America in 1969 alongside impresario and theater organ enthusiast Ben Hall, the Time-Life Editor and author of “The Best Remaining Seats."

As entertainment tastes and choices changed through the years, the Uptown was operated by successors to B&K before it was leased by the local Rabiela family in the late 1970s for Spanish-language films and special ticketed events. Interestingly, Jerry Mickelson, of Jam Productions, the Chicago music promoter who booked the Uptown for years and staged the last public concert there in 1981, is part of the LLC that owns the Uptown today.

“It was a very sad day for me on Dec. 19, 1981, when I told Rene Rabiela Sr. after Jam’s concert with the J. Geils Band that the theater was uninhabitable for the public use without repairs,” Mickelson recalled in an interview. “The washrooms were barely functioning and Jam had to pay for the oil to heat the theater.”

Mickelson credits local officials and longtime volunteers for the Uptown surviving decades of deferred maintenance and neglect through a succession of owners and receivership. Also, the City of Chicago invested in more than $1 million in court-ordered stabilization work and repairs, which removed and stored decorative terra cotta and replaced the system of pipes through which the rain and snow melt from 12 roof surfaces drains. It was this system’s failure in the arctic winters of the early 1980s which caused water damage to some interior areas of ornate plaster ceilings and walls.

While there is no shortage of public sentiment for the theater, the riddle of the Uptown is how to fund a restoration in the tens of millions of dollars such that the historic, block-filling movie palace will serve the entertainment and special events needs of the ticket-buying public of today.

“There is a new energy that has been infused by Mayor Emanuel, whose vision is to create an entertainment district that will provide an unprecedented economic and cultural development opportunity for this great neighborhood,” Mickelson said. He added that both Ald. Osterman and Ald. James Cappleman (46th) are also working hard to see the Uptown reopen and be a catalyst for enlivening the district.

Being closed 30 years means that most of the Uptown’s friends on Facebook, its persistent advocates and its letter-writing activists are not old enough to have seen a show there.

This 40-year-old writer became attuned to the dedication and resolve of Uptown’s volunteers during a frigid winter day sometime in 1998. We were getting the theater ready for a special event rental such as the Hearts Party, a commitment ceremony or a chamber of commerce dinner. I recall pulling down a rotten 1950s curtain that was hanging in shreds from its hoisted frame atop the grand lobby window facing Broadway and asking if it we should save it. “No. It will be replaced when the restoration happens,” Mangel said matter-of-factly without a hint of “if” in his tone.

At first, it struck me as very sad to think of how he and other volunteers would feel crushed if the building were not saved. Then, after seeing the entire building and working until I was exhausted and could no longer feel my feet or hands, I knew in my heart that the Uptown was too valuable and too extraordinarily beautiful to not save for some future use.

There was a time during my early work for the Uptown when I was ushering on alternate nights for the Auditorium, Chicago and Oriental theaters. I would come and go at times from their carpeted and well-lit spaces to the almost-forgotten Uptown. The disparity of attention and investment was palpable.

I also have a clear memory of sweeping the Uptown’s basement one day in preparation for a tour, listening to President Bill Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky hearings being broadcast from Capitol Hill. I thought: What if we had the money being spent on this ridiculousness? Turns out the $30 million Kenneth Starr spent on the investigation could have renovated the Uptown at that time.

Preparing for working within the Uptown was like going on a long, winter hike in the woods. I dressed in layers and packed water, snacks and flashlights. Aside from doing a good deed for the sake of preserving the building, the reward for a day’s work was usually a big, hot meal at Fiesta Mexicana Restaurant or a cocktail at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, both of which are on this historic block.

During rare special events, banner days, really, for the Uptown, I’ve heard the Uptown pulse with incredible dance music for events and seen every Spanish Baroque detail lit up in brilliant color by the industry’s best rented lights, disco balls and lasers. I also had a glimpse of a lost era when I saw the Uptown lit by candles and caressed in the music of a jazz trio. These are precious memories that make the work worthwhile. Together with the two community portraits I have organized in front of the theater for the 75th and 80th opening day anniversaries, I feel as if I have done everything I can do within my means and abilities as a volunteer for and with the Uptown.

On most days, the only performance one can hear in the Uptown is a small jam box tuned to WDCB or WFMT, the distant rhythm of the “L,” and the occasional shrill call of the resident peregrine falcon aerie. Time is at a standstill and the countless griffins, maidens, fascia brutes and laughing kings who populate the Uptown’s walls are simply waiting mutely for their next audience.

Some of the Uptown’s many friends who have said to me “I hope to live to see it restored” over the past 18 years have since passed away. I too had hope that they would be here to celebrate its reopening day. We stay positive as volunteers and have faith that the project will happen.

My trusted friend and mentor Joe DuciBella, the noted theatre historian and designer who succumbed to cancer in 2007, was one of the Uptown’s most tactful and respected advocates. Late at night following Theatre Historical Society of America events, our heady conversations in Joe’s National Register home on Caton Street in Wicker Park would always drift to the Uptown and its chances for revival. Deep down inside, Joe hoped that the Uptown would be restored in her entirety. However, he was a realist and would concede that perhaps it would survive in some repurposed form. Privately, the closest Joe would come to how he truly felt about the Uptown’s odds was to say the matter was “soft territory.”

In addition to DuciBella, who gave countless tours and chronicled its importance in Marquee magazine, the Uptown’s patron saints include Don Lampert, who had the building listed on the National Register and designated as a City of Chicago landmark; Bob Boin, who stored its bronze and crystal chandeliers and is in his third decade of volunteering; Curt Mangel, the restoration consultant who gained the confidence of owners Ken Goldberg and Lou Wolf (notorious tax-sale buyers) so that he could go in, thaw out, dry out and revive the Uptown’s systems in the 1980s; David Syfczak, the volunteer security guard since 1996, who checks all 110 doors and who does plaster repairs, paints and sweeps miles of floors and sidewalks; Jimmy Wiggins, manager of the Riviera Theatre, who oversees operations, maintenance and repairs; and many more unsung friends.

Despite being dark for three decades, the Uptown still has several mature professionals in its corner that did experience it alive with music and audiences. Time will tell if Chicago’s powerbrokers, elected officials, financiers and entertainment industry leaders will find a creative, collaborative and altruistic way to re-lamp the nation’s best closed theater.

(Andy Pierce, a volunteer who helped found Friends of the Uptown in 1998, is a member of the Theatre Historical Society of America.)

LouRugani
LouRugani on August 18, 2020 at 10:03 am

The Uptown Theatre opened on this date ninety-five years ago.

Comfortably Cool
Comfortably Cool on August 18, 2020 at 7:49 am

Unfortunately, no progress has been made in the Preservation Campaign. Latest update can be viewed here

DavidZornig
DavidZornig on July 5, 2020 at 10:46 am

WBEZ piece on Uptown.

https://www.wbez.org/stories/from-cemetery-saloons-to-movie-palaces-how-uptown-became-an-entertainment-hub/ff35dc6f-fcde-4ca4-81e5-22fe33947291?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=wbez

LouRugani
LouRugani on February 7, 2020 at 9:18 pm

The last remaining funds needed for the Uptown Theatre should be available soon, we’re hearing. Ald. James Cappleman (46th) said so in an email to residents. Work on the building could begin shortly after that, and today Cappleman said funding will likely be in place by late spring.

The Uptown Theatre since 1981 has largely been maintained by a dedicated group of volunteers who spent their own money to make sure the theatre didn’t deteriorate.

LouRugani
LouRugani on December 3, 2019 at 4:15 pm

In November, 2018 the Community Development Commission was told that construction was expected to begin in summer, 2019. No work has begun. The delay, according to Jam Productions' Jerry Mickelsen, involves financing. Public funding included $14 million through the state’s Property Assessed Clean Energy Act; $13 million in tax-increment financing; $10 million in Build Illinois bond funding; $8.7 million in federal tax credits; and $3.7 million in the City of Chicago’s Adopt-a-Landmark funds. That money’s committed, but $26 million is still needed that was supposed to come from loans and investments. Mickelson said he expects that financing to come in early 2020. The reopening is now projected to be in 2022. A newly-founded Uptown Theatre Foundation is intended to act as a steward of the theatre and potentially receive donations to help restore it. Peter Strazzabosco, deputy commissioner in the Chicago Department of Planning and Development, told Chicago Tribune reporter Chris Jones that his department is continuing to work with the developer on a restoration plan that will also revitalize the Uptown entertainment district, to hopefully start before summer.

MarkDHite
MarkDHite on November 6, 2019 at 2:55 pm

Has there been any activity on beginning the Uptown’s restoration yet? Thanks!

spectrum
spectrum on August 10, 2019 at 7:59 am

Latest from the Alderman James Cappleman’s website on June 29th:

https://www.james46.org/restoring-the-uptown-theatre/

The city officially announced the restoration, the state allocated $10,000,000 and they are looking to the city to alloocate another $13,000,000, and this will combine to get the project rolling. As they said, still some heavy lifting to do.

DavidZornig
DavidZornig on April 13, 2019 at 12:13 pm

FYI. Upcoming discussion by Andy Pierce, one of the founders of Friends of the Uptown.

https://www.glessnerhouse.org/programs/2019/5/2/for-all-time-the-promise-of-chicagos-uptown-theatre?fbclid=IwAR2f2s7yvW80Cq9MkBGH-wsxHBFkiWAJeeje6sxdaT-Y-tKPOGEEN86oV9Y

DavidZornig
DavidZornig on April 12, 2019 at 3:54 pm

I recall the estimate for asbestos abatement alone was $30 million 10 years ago. So maybe that portion was not part of the original restoration amount. $75 million was just the amount granted, not that that was necessarily the total amount that was needed.

Scott
Scott on April 12, 2019 at 3:29 pm

What? I thought the financing for the $75M renovation was already earmarked? What happened to that? Last summer they announced that $75M had been granted from various sources to fund the renovation. What am I missing?

Trolleyguy
Trolleyguy on April 12, 2019 at 3:18 pm

Thank you David. Just wondering.

DavidZornig
DavidZornig on April 12, 2019 at 2:25 pm

It was written by Jonathan Ballew from Block Club Chicago, which is a pay to subscribe only news site.

https://blockclubchicago.org/2019/04/12/uptown-theatre-cac-event/

Trolleyguy
Trolleyguy on April 12, 2019 at 1:00 pm

Citation for the above?

LouRugani
LouRugani on April 12, 2019 at 12:40 pm

The owner of the Uptown Theatre shared his vision yesterday, which includes hosting 100 shows a year, offering 200 jobs and even a non-profit arm focused on community arts outreach. Now for the hardest part: raising the remaining $40 million to finish the ambitious renovation. Yesterday, the Chicago Architecture Center hosted a panel featuring those working on the long-awaited restoration. Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones moderated and was joined by co-owner Jerry Mickelson, long-time volunteer Robert Boin and the Department of Planning and Development’s director of historic preservation Eleanor Gorski. “There is nowhere like The Uptown, at least that I’ve been,” said Jones, who has traveled to theaters across the country and around the world.

The Uptown Theatre, the largest freestanding theater ever built in its time, has three marquees, a kid’s playroom and over 17,000 light bulbs in the auditorium. It took 18 months and cost $4 million dollars to construct (over $58 million today if adjusted for inflation). One of the reasons the theatre has lasted so long — despite lying dormant for nearly four decades — is because it was built with one third more steel than necessary, making it able to withstand winter after winter without completely deteriorating. “It’s one of the most beautiful buildings, palaces ever built,” said Mickelson, who talked about the timeline for the restoration project. Although it has been previously reported that construction could start as early as this summer, it is more likely to start near the beginning of 2020. There is still $40 million that needs to be raised, and Mickelson said he won’t feel comfortable breaking ground until he has raised at least $20 million. He said he feels confident in raising those funds, already has an investor who has pledged a million dollars to the theater, and is hoping the theatre will open with its first show in early 2021. Much like in Las Vegas, he said he has been considering the option of having performers in residency who would regularly perform at the venue. To Mickelson, restoring the Uptown Theatre is all about bringing benefit to the Uptown community. His production company JAM also runs the nearby Riviera Theatre and the area is close to his heart. Everyone on the panel agreed the theatre would be a catalyst of economic development for Uptown. “It will bring back the glory of this proud neighborhood,” Mickelson said. “It’s all about creating jobs and opportunities for people who don’t have them.”

Instead of running the Uptown Theatre as a for-profit enterprise, Mickelson hopes the theatre will become a non-profit foundation run by a board of directors. He has already made deals with Chicago Public Schools, After School Matters and The People’s Music School, so that kids will have access to the theater during the restoration and once it’s open for good. “It’s about taking care of the future of us, of our city,” he said. “Kids cannot become what they cannot see.”

The panel recalled some of the theater’s darkest hours, when it looked like it might not be saved. Boin recalled a time in the early 80’s when its owners promised to heat the building in the winter. After failing to do so, several pipes burst, flooding large parts of the theatre. Boin was one of the unsung heroes who helped look after the theatre, often on his own dime. He used to pay for the oil and light the furnaces himself throughout the winter. In the 80’s it cost over $8,000 a year just to buy enough oil. Gorski remembered when the building had fallen into complete disrepair and the top of the building was close to falling off. The city was able to get a judge to allow them to appoint a caretaker, to supplement the careless owners.

Mickelson bought the theatre in 2008, just before the housing market crashed. Those were darker days, he said. When one of the former owners suggested turning the theatre into an indoor go-kart track, Mickelson doubled down on his efforts to save the building. “That really made me mad,” he said. But Gorski said city officials realized they needed to help save the theatre because of its stunning beauty. “This building has an effect unlike any building I have ever seen,” she said. “People are mesmerized. Once they see this building they understand why it needs to be saved.”

While Mickelson plans to restore the theatre to its former glory, there will be some changes made. The largest of those changes includes tiering off the main floor and creating a general admission dance floor. “It will increase the usage and is necessary to support the operational plans of the theatre,” he said.

Crowd members wanted to know if the 46th ward aldermanic race could have an impact on the theatre’s restoration efforts. Ald. James Cappleman (46th) only has a narrow lead over opponent Marianne Lalonde in the still too-close-to-call race, and some worried Lalonde may not be as friendly to the project. “I think the project is bigger than any one person,” said Mickelson. “It would be incredibly wrong to pull the rug out from under us at this point.” This morning, Lalonde said she’s excited for the project, but wants to make sure there’s community input. “I’m excited for it to be redone, but I think that we need a community benefits agreement for it,” Lalonde said. “The agreement would be to ensure that we have a plan for parking, safety and to make sure that the economic benefit for theater returns the community.”

Others were worried about keeping the theatre accessible to the entire community. Mickelson told them to look at JAM’s average ticket price. He said their average ticket sells for around $33, much lower than his competitors in town. He also talked about opening the theatre during the day as a place for the community, particularly kids, to congregate.

When asked about his dreams for the theatre, Mickelson said the legacy of the Uptown Theatre will be about giving back. “If the Uptown Theatre becomes a foundation, it will probably be the first theatre in the country where all of its profits will be donated to good causes,” he said. “And that will be the enduring legacy of the theatre.”

spectrum
spectrum on February 17, 2019 at 7:43 pm

Some more links regarding the Uptown Theatre Restoration:

Friends of the Uptown (corrected link):
http://www.uptowntheatre.com/index.html

Block Club Chicago Article and photos/renditions: https://blockclubchicago.org/2018/11/14/uptown-theater-renovation-would-take-18-months-boost-capacity-to-5800/

Uptown Update: List of articles related to the Uptown Theatre: https://www.uptownupdate.com/search?q=uptown+theatre

Tribune November 13 article: https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/theater/ct-ent-uptown-rehab-plans-1113-story.html

Tribune June 29 article article: https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/theater/ct-ent-uptown-rehab-0629-story.html

Tribune 2015 history article: https://www.chicagotribune.com/ct-inside-uptown-theatre-unique-features-20150807-htmlstory.html

Uptown Theatre unofficial facebook page (friends and volunteers): https://www.facebook.com/pg/theuptowntheatre/about/?ref=page_internal

Still looking for an official page. Hopefully soon.

DavidZornig
DavidZornig on January 26, 2019 at 11:26 am

I’ve been through the Sanfilippo mansion. Incredible place. Even more with an additional building with an 1890s carousel, vintage calliopes and a train on about 50 feet of track. They hosted the 50th anniversary of Thunderbird for our club back in 2005. Brevity thanks you…

LouRugani
LouRugani on January 26, 2019 at 12:14 am

Artifacts from the Uptown Theatre in Chicago have over the years been removed and brought to the Sanfilippo Foundation’s Place de la Musique museum for safekeeping. Hidden away in boxes and barns — or merely hanging in sumptuous plain sight — the gorgeous chandeliers and fixtures of the Uptown Theatre have been vacationing these past few years in Barrington Hills. They have been cared for by an eccentric but loving crew of collectors, restorers and guardians, rescued from avaricious thieves and the neglect of a convicted slumlord as if they were evacuees rushed to safety from a war zone. And on Tuesday of this week, under the careful eyes of most of those who have cared for them for so long — they all began their journey back to Uptown Chicago and home.

The story of how the Sanfilippo Estate, the family home of Jasper Sanfilippo (a hugely successful American businessman and a nut magnate who turned proprietory shelling techniques into a business with 2018 net sales of $889 million) came to help save the treasures of the Uptown is a fascinating one. The Sanfilippo Estate is not an ordinary home, even by the grand standards of Barrington Hills. Sanfilippo, 87, is a collector of automatic mechanical instruments, but the word “collector” does not do justice to the scale of his world-class acquisitions, which now occupy several buildings on his estate, nor the level of restoration in which he has invested, which is dazzling. When his collecting was at its peak in the 1990s, Sanfilippo defined mechanical instruments very broadly, collecting pipe organs, fairground ticket booths, steam engines and locomotives, slot machines, stereoscopes, mutoscopes, vending machines, calliopes, a carousel, player pianos and impossibly complex lighting fixtures — brass arms and internal beading polished to a shine.

The Sanfilippo Estate is not a public museum but it is well known locally, and frequently opens its doors to charity fundraisers and for concerts in its grand private theater, home to an 8000-pipe 1927 Wurlitzer, one of the largest pipe organs in the world. To those who love historic theaters and cherish their decoration, it’s known internationally as one of the best private collections in the world.

When the late Louis Wolf and his partner, Kenneth Goldberg, bought the theater from the Plitt movie chain after the Uptown’s 1979 closure, it was clear to preservationists that the new landlords did not intend to restore the building. Wolf’s modus operandi was to let historic buildings fall into disrepair, usually because the land was expected to increase in value. All kinds of horrors were being discussed for the Uptown following its closure to the public as a concert venue. Somebody wanted to install an indoor go-kart track. Someone else wanted to turn it into a mausoleum. As all this chatter went on, thieves were already seen entering the building. Indeed, according to Bob Boin, a civil engineer and longstanding Uptown volunteer, some of the Uptown’s fixtures already were showing up a local salvage stores, where volunteers would proceed to buy them back and then store them in their homes. The volunteers decided something had to be done.

It so happened that Curt Mangel, an Uptown-loving engineer, was working at the Sanfillipo estate on the restoration of a steam engine. The Friends of the Uptown (both upper and lower case) decided that Mangel should approach Sanfilippo about quietly moving as much as possible to Barrington Hills where it could wait for a happier time.

If there is one hero in this story, Mangel (who now lives in Philadelphia where he tends to a pipe organ – the Wanamaker – inside Macy’s City Center) is that hero.

And thus, in 1992, the group persuaded Wolf (who did prison time for tax evasion) and Goldberg that they could write off the value of the chandeliers and other decorative elements if they donated them to a non-profit. Mangel and the other Uptown caretakers enlisted Sanfilippo’s cooperation in an agreement to return the items when — or, more accurately if — the theater was restored. And that process began.

The Uptown’s new owner, Jerry Mickelson of Jam Productions, was there for the first time. So were employees of Farpoint Development, Mickelson’s partner in the restoration. So were employees of the Chicago-based Schuler Shook, a consultant on the renovation. So were restorers, historic theater specialists and several members of Mickelson’s staff. So was Lisa Sanfilippo, Jasper’s daughter. So were the Uptown’s longtime caretakers such as Boin and Jimmy Wiggins, who spend the entire day grinning from ear to ear. All were agog at the size and abiding beauty of the main chandeliers, as restored by Sanfilippo’s staff. “The people that do this,” Jimmy Wiggins, an Uptown volunteer whom Jam eventually hired, said “do it because it is in their heart. How wonderful that they have a place to do what is part of their soul.”

The Uptown’s main chandelier hangs in the entrance hallway of the main Sanfilippo building. Few visitors would know its provenance. It is soon to come down — but Greg Leifel, the caretaker of the collection pointed out the obvious to a visitor: “We have other chandeliers to take its place.” Indeed they do.

Over the course of a morning, the group looked for wall sconces and light fixtures, finding some inside boxes in a workshop, others looking yet more beautiful than they ever first appeared. All of the originals are returning, and where there are missing fixtures, they will provide a template for fabricators to match the precise original appearance. Everyone is aware that all of this was almost lost. “If it had not cost $8.4 million to demolish the theater,” Mickelson said, “they would have knocked it down. It was that cost that saved the theater.”

Rapp & Rapp, the Chicago firm that designed and built the Uptown were known, in the words of Boin, for “overbuilding their steel.” There was so much steel in the Uptown that conventional cheap demolition methods could not be used. Hence the price tag, at which Wolf and Goldberg balked. “You couldn’t punch a pillar in a Rapp & Rapp theater and then watch the roof collapse,” Boin said. “Thank God.”

The weather was awful, but still a day for taking inventory, and giving thanks and a day that neither Wiggins nor Boin nor Mickelson nor, most likely, Sanfilippo, ever expected to come.

By Chris Jones, a Tribune critic (edited for brevity.)