UPTOWN — The owner of the Uptown Theatre shared his vision for the sprawling historic building Thursday, 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.
On Thursday, the Chicago Architecture Center hosted a panel featuring those working on the long-awaited restoration of the 4816 N. Broadway music hall. 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 was the largest freestanding theater ever built in its time. With a seating capacity of 4,351, it is larger than both the Chicago Theatre and Radio City Music Hall. It has three marquees, a kid’s playroom and over 17,000 light bulbs in the auditorium.
Built in 1925, it took 18 months and cost $4 million dollars to construct (over $58 million today if adjusted for inflation). One of the reasons the theater 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.
Mickelson 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, and already has an investor who has pledged a million dollars to the theater.
Mickelson said he is hoping the theater will open with its first show in early 2021.
Between 1975-1981, the Uptown hosted names like Bob Marley, Bruce Springsteen, Genesis, Rick James and Carlos Santana. Now, Mickelson said he expects to bring such big names back. 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 it’s 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. T
“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.”
Friday 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 theater, 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 theater 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 theater.”