Friday, March 30, 2007

The Uptown Theatre - a dying treasure

The other day I was at a Walgreens downtown Chicago and I saw several items for tourists to buy. There were magnets with Chicago "fun facts" on them. One of them said "Chicago is the home of the largest theatre in the country - the Uptown theatre" I knew the tourists would never suspect this crown jewel of Chicago is run down, decaying and near death. It is one second from being a thing of the past.

The Uptown theatre is bigger than any other movie palace in the United States. (Even bigger than Radio City Music hall). Many other treasures of Chicago's past have recently been renovated like the Oriental theatre (incredible), the Palace theatre and The Shubert (now called LaSalle Bank Theatre). The best one of all is still sitting in rubble decaying day by day like Norma Desmond sitting alone in the dark watching her old movies.

I saw the documentary "Uptown: Portrait of a Palace" where they took you on a tour of the inside of the theatre. Despite all the years of flooding, neglect and vandalism the theatre is still incredibly gorgeous. Fine architectural details and ornamentation everywhere you look. If it was rehabbed it would be an incredible place to see a show or concert. The Oriental theatre went from being forgotten to one of the most beautiful places in the city - the Uptown would trump even that Triumph.

Once again I feel like I don't know what to do. There is a group called "Friends of Uptown" who have been rallying for the theatre. (There is a petition on their website you can sign) There was a million dollars donated for the theatre but it seems like that money hasn't helped in anyway I can see. It's just too expensive an undertaking to renovate such a large theatre.

Who should we call? Can we convince Oprah to help? She's opening schools in Africa and bankrolling "The Color Purple" musical. Can she help us out? Where are the local elite - can't they be having their fundraisers to save this part of Chicago history? Where are the local actors who are now stars like Gary Sinise, John Malkovich, William Petersen, John Mahoney etc? Where are the local media covering this story? Can Richard Roeper stop chatting about Lindsay Lohan for one day and cover this piece of our history that is having it's last gasp?

Part of the problem is location. Uptown is a slowly or rapidly (depending on your point of view) gentrifying neighborhood on the far north side. It still has many challenges and problems but it's heart is beating strong. I don't think residents in the gold coast or Lincoln park care very much about what happens in Uptown. They should care.

The next time someone comes to Uptown to hear jazz at the Green Mill, see a concert at the Riviera or attend a big party at the Aragon Ballroom they should be aware of the huge lurking theatre they're not supporting. If the Uptown stays empty it does nothing good for the neighborhood or any of those venues. If it becomes condos then we all lose except the lucky few who can buy a unit.

Let's hope it doesn't befall the same fate as the Landmark Theatre in Lakeview. It has been a mall since I moved to the city in 1990. I enjoy seeing foreign and gay films there but I would have preferred a real theatre instead. If I want a mall I can go to the burbs.

So as I sit here frustrated at what to do - I know the great uptown theatre is dying and I don't know what to do about that.

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