UPTOWN — When it opened in 1925, the Uptown Theatre was the largest freestanding theater of its time.
Burst pipes and flooding forced the theater to close in 1981, and it has remained dormant for more than 40 years. For the last three decades, Bob Boin, a longtime volunteer, organ enthusiast and retired civil engineer, tried to revive it.
Boin died Sept. 21 at 76. He devoted more than 30 years of his life to restoring the Uptown Theatre. Before that, he advocated for restoring the Music Box Theater in the early 1980s.
Boin’s husband, John Nolf, said the music enthusiast made himself available “day and night” for the Uptown Theatre’s restoration. He would visit the theater after every attempted break-in or electrical and water issue and was the “first phone call” for the theater’s alarm company, fellow volunteers said.
The city’s theater scene was particularly meaningful to Boin as a Chicago native, Nolf said.
“We enjoyed theater tremendously, whether it be musicals or drama, comedy,” Nolf said. “The COVID epidemic kind of put a little bit of a halt on our theatergoing, but up until the time he was passing, [we] did enjoy going to shows and plays as they opened in Chicago.”
The two bonded over their careers in computer programming and system analyses, Nolf said, but theater and music was a long-running passion of Boin’s. A piano player, Boin also taught himself to play the theater organ. He attended professional organist performances with Chicago Area Theater Organ Enthusiasts group, of which he later became a board member.
While serving on the group’s board, Boin helped advocate for the Chicago Theater’s organ to achieve landmark status alongside the building. He also restored the organ console from the James M. Nederlander Theatre and, in 1990, joined a team to restore the carillon at the Waveland Clock Tower at the Lincoln Park Fieldhouse — receiving a mayor’s citation for the latter.
Andy Pierce, a longtime volunteer with Friends of the Uptown Theatre, said Boin always conducted himself as a “gentleman” when leading the volunteer group and liaising with city officials.
“He was kind, he was patient, he was funny,” Pierce said. “You wouldn’t hear anger from Bob. … You would still get a composed email from, and if you’re a public official or someone in preservation or theater, you would get a letter from Bob. That’s how he did his advocacy.”
Boin also was crucial to preserving the oral history of the theater as one “best remaining primary sources” with firsthand knowledge of the city’s original great movie theaters, Pierce said.
Pierce said Boin ultimately tended for the Uptown longer than the theater’s original owners and builders.
“Native Chicagoans are somewhat of a rare and precious thing,” Pierce said. Boin “had worldly experience, and he had very local experience. You don’t meet too many native Chicagoans in their natural habitat who haven’t been pushed out or priced out.”
Nolf and Pierce said continued advocacy and appreciation for the arts would be among the most meaningful ways to honor Boin’s legacy.
Launched several years ago, a petition by Friends of Uptown Theatre is still accepting signatures toward its goal of 15,000 names. More than 13,000 people have signed it, pushing city leaders to invest in restoring and reopening the Uptown Theatre.
“Bob contributed a great deal,” Nolf said. “I think it’s important to let other people know of one person’s passion and the work that they perform behind the scenes.”
Boin is survived by his husband, brothers and nieces and nephews.
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