The Uptown Theatre, also known as the Balaban and Katz Uptown Theatre, is a massive, ornate movie palace in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois.
Designed by Rapp and Rapp and constructed in 1925, it the last of the “big three” movie palaces built by the Balaban & Katz theatre chain run by A. J. Balaban, his brother Barney Balaban and their partner Sam Katz.
The largest in Chicago, it boasts 4,381 seats and its interior volume is said to be larger than any other movie palace in the United States, including Radio City Music Hall in New York.
It occupies over 46,000 square feet (4,300 m2) of land at the corner of Lawrence Avenue and Broadway in Chicago’s Uptown Entertainment District.
The mammoth theater has an ornate five story entrance lobby with an eight story façade.Rehabilitation efforts are needed to restore and reopen this historic Chicago landmark,which has been closed to regular audiences since 1981.
By Darin Riggi -
“Here is the Uptown Theatre. It is beyond human dreams of loveliness, rising in mountainous splendor, achieving that overpowering sense of tremendous size and exquisite beauty-a thing that comes miraculously seldom.” This quote, taken from the August 17th, 1925 weekly Balaban & Katz Magazine was how well known theatre operators, Barney Balaban and Sam Katz, introduced the Uptown Theatre to the city of Chicago.
Since closing the doors of this music hall in 1981, a great deal of speculation has been made on what to do with this historic building. Bringing arts and culture to more Chicago neighborhoods is part of Chicago’s 2012 Cultural Plan, calling the theater’s restoration a key player in turning the Uptown neighborhood into the planned North Side Entertainment District.
The theater’s future has been uncertain due to a vaudeville act of ownership, misuse of funds, and the estimated seventy million dollar price tag that is needed for a complete renovation. The Uptown Theatre must be restored because it is imperative to the social, economic, and artistic revitalization of Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.
To have a better understanding of how beloved the Uptown Theatre is and why its renovation needs to be one of the city’s top priorities, one needs to know the history of this magnificent gift that was given to the citizens of Chicago. In 1924, Balaban and Katz hired well-known Chicago architects C.W. Rapp and George L. Rapp (Rapp & Rapp) to design a city within a city movie palace. Present day Chicago architect Dan Coffey states, “The Uptown, regarded as one of the most wondrous movie palaces of the ‘20s, ranks with the Chicago Theatre as one of the best creations of Rapp and Rapp.
It’s the largest theater in square feet (46,000) and, with 4,381 seats, is only second to New York’s Radio City Music Hall in seat capacity” (Osgood). According to The Uptown Theatre Fact Sheet, the Spanish baroque theater was built in one year with a cost just over $4 million dollars. After years of hearing the music of The Benny Goodman Orchestra and the songs of Frank Sinatra, the theater changed with the times.
In the 1950’s the television game show “Queen for a Day” was broadcasted from the Uptown Theatre one week a year, while in the 1970’s it became a Spanish-language movie theater with the occasional rock concert with performances from Peter Gabriel to Prince. Sadly the doors have been closed since 1981.
Fortunately for the building, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, and on the country’s most endangered historic places list in 1996. The timing was perfect because the theater gained the city’s attention as well as the nations. Through the 1980’s to early 2000, funding came through from the city to protect the theater from the harsh Chicago winters and to aid in repairing some of the internal damage it was enduring, as well as the maintaining the facade.
(*In 1996 the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed it on its
list of “Eleven Most Endangered Places.” The eleven sites chosen each
year are those threatened by neglect, insufficient funds, inappropriate
development, or insensitive public policy. It was listed on the “Ten
Most Endangered Historic Places” list compiled by the Landmark
Preservation Council of Illinois. In 1991, it was even designated as a
Chicago Landmark. It is the last theatre in Chicago to still bear the
name “Balaban and Katz” on the marquee.)
In addition to the internal and external deterioration of the landmark building, several years of financial battles in the courtroom and the question of the building’s ownership also derailed any attempts to bring the theater back to life. The theater was finally purchased in 2008 and is now owned by Jerry Mickelson of Jam Productions, the city’s leader in concert promotion and owner of the Riviera Theatre.
On August 17th, 1998, Friends of the Uptown was unveiled to the public, an advocacy group made up of individuals who love the Uptown and its history. While never seeking donations, the group has devoted its time to spreading awareness about the importance of saving the Uptown Theatre throughout the city as well as the rest of the country. The dedicated volunteers have worked effortlessly in keeping the theater safe from vandals. Some even stop by the theater on their way home from work to heat the building during the winter months. Efforts like this, from members from a community contribute to building stronger and more dynamic neighborhoods.
Restoring the Uptown Theatre will play a large role in continuing the social revitalization of the Uptown neighborhood. Many Chicago neighborhoods that were depressed have made a complete turnaround largely due to tireless efforts from the community as well as assistance from the city.
Starting with Lincoln Park, the communities of Lakeview, Andersonville, and Edgewater have flourished over the decades. To complete the process for Uptown, cultivating arts in the community as well as continuing its music legacy, is the missing piece for complete revitalization. Uptown has been remembered as a music destination. With the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, The Riviera Theatre, and the Aragon Ballroon still attracting music lovers, the timing is perfect to go forward with the Uptown Theatre’s renovation.
City officials have spoke of plans that would call the Uptown neighborhood the “North Side Entertainment District,” creating another tourist destination to mirror downtown’s theater area.
In the Chicago Tribune article, “Mayor-Elect Rahm Emanuel on the Arts: Dance, Gritty Theater and a Shift Towards Neighborhoods,” author Chris Jones writes, Mayor Emanuel explains his plans to “raise up” the arts in Chicago neighborhoods. He discusses how he would like to compliment the success of the downtown theater district in the Uptown area. In doing so, it will finally assist in the renovation of the Uptown Theatre. The mayor then explains what he feels arts can do for an entire neighborhood by saying, ‘“one neighborhoods cultural entity can be powerful enough to flip a whole neighborhood.”’ Marj Halperin, vice-chair of the mayor’s Cultural Affairs Advisory Council, said, ‘“Look at Bucktown or Pilson, where artist came together to rejuvenate a community.
Look at Uptown, where there is potential for that with the theaters, bars and restaurants. What if the city could facilitate more parking, improve CTA stations, bring in hotels or help renovate the Uptown Theater as a better anchor for the community? When the city uses its resources to support what’s happening, you can get a really powerful cultural hub”’. There is no doubt on what a well-structured cultural plan can do for this city. Twenty-six years ago was the last time Chicago drafted a Cultural Plan and the result was a thriving North Loop theater district and Navy Pier. Success of this new plan will make for some very positive changes in the city.
Many articles have been written; studies have been made with regards to how a depressed community can bounce back from a strong injection of arts and culture. The City Planning Commission of Cleveland Ohio states in an article in their Arts and Culture section, “Art in the form of public art or architecture, or the creative configuration of public spaces, calls us to excellence, self-realization and worthy aspirations. It binds people and communities together by creating shared experiences and common points of reference.”
Now lets fantasize for a moment that funding goes through to restore the Uptown Theatre and it becomes the anchor and the leader for another cultural hub or the proposed north side entertainment district. Certainly there will be critics that feel that the influx of art and culture into neighborhoods is not a good plan. These are usually the same citizens that would want the Uptown Theatre leveled and have a glass and steel condo complex put into its place.
During a neighborhood planning meeting in February of this year, Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa who are the co-authors of a recent NEA-study, “Creative Place Making,” argue that bringing culture to Chicago neighborhoods is bad, saying, “they oppose the arts district strategy because it can pit neighborhoods against each other” and ‘“implies that other districts [in the city] do not have arts’” .
This may be so, however, at that February meeting it was also announced that there would be a series of “neighborhood conversations” with regards to what should be included in the cultural plan signifying how clear it is that Mayor Emanuel is very interested in listing to the voice of the city. While social inclusion is key to the Uptown community’s growth, one needs to look at what can be done for economic growth.
As a catalyst for the continued revitalization of Uptown, restoring the theater will only strengthen the community’s economy. As a Chicago resident, this author couldn’t imagine what the yearly revenue is that is generated from the cities cultural events. While some events are culinary based, as any attendee can see, most are structured with arts and music. More often than not, it is a combination of the two.
In the fall of 2011, Mayor Rahm Emanuel was asked if the Uptown Theatre’s renovation has a role in the development of the neighborhoods economy, his reply was, “It can happen now because people are finally seeing the intertwined connection between culture and economic development.’ Later in the interview the Mayor continues supporting the theaters renovation by saying, “This could make the Uptown area a great entertainment district that could drive the economy of that area with more restaurants and more other types of retail and commercial life that would really takeoff”.
Uptown and many other neighborhoods in Chicago all have potential to build a strong economy through arts and culture. In the mid 1990’s there was one or two theaters housing Broadway styled productions, but today, Chicago’s downtown theater district continues to grow. Theater in Chicago is gaining the same respect that is given to theater in New York. “Its sheer quantity – at least 200 troupes and counting – is a wonder. So is its growing international reputation” (Jones). More and more people are traveling in from the suburbs and from other parts of the country to experience the quality of wonderful theater that Chicago has to offer, and that translates into dollars pouring into the downtown area. Cultural tourism has always been a driving force for boosting the economy.
“You create it, and they will come.” And they will come to Chicago’s North Side to experience the Uptown Theatre and its surrounding entertainment district. It is certainly fair to anticipate that those who are not advocates for the arts will indeed feel that a creative environment does not equal a creative economy. Several studies have proven otherwise. In Arkansas, their creative economy employs twenty-seven thousand people and generates nine hundred and twenty-seven million dollars of personal income for its residents.
In North Carolina, citizens employed in the creative field are yielding a number of four billion in wages (Hayter). Still, some might argue that further monies should not be spent on the renovation of the Uptown Theatre or for the arts in general in a city that is clearly in the red. This may be so, however, Michelle Boone, who is the Cultural Affairs and Special Events Coordinator points out, “with 24,000 arts enterprises, Chicago already has what City Hall calls the nation’s third-largest creative economy. It includes 650 non-profit arts organizations that employ 150,000 people and generates $2 billion in annual revenues”.
In addition, critics might add that the city could not support it’s own music district where the Uptown Theater would be it’s anchor. A 2005 economic-impact study commissioned by the Chicago Music commission establishes that, “the city’s music concert, recording and sales business generates $1 billion annually. The city’s music business also employs 53,000 people, the study says; only New York and Los Angeles employ more. The year of the study, Chicago ranked fourth in the country for concerts hosted”. It is certainly safe to assume that Chicago, the city of big shoulders, also has two very strong legs to stand on when comes to generating income through the arts.
The artistic community of Uptown and the city of Chicago will certainly benefit from the renovation of the Uptown Theatre based on Uptown’s artistic history alone. Long before any of the discussions of what to do with the Uptown Theatre, one should step back in time for a moment and learn about the historical significance of the Broadway and Lawrence intersection. “Seventy years ago, the Uptown neighborhood was at the heart of Chicago’s easy life … it was the city’s answer to Times Square (Edwards).
Throughout this research paper, it has been said how the city of Chicago and all other interested parties want to label Uptown the “North Side Entertainment District.” It does not need to be labeled. It already was starting in 1925 with the Uptown Theatre, The Riviera Theatre, The Aragon Ballroom, and of course the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge. Except for the Uptown Theatre, one can still travel to Uptown and see the marquees shining brightly throughout the intersection of Broadway and Lawrence nightly. Either at the Green Mill with the stylings of some of Chicago’s jazz greats, or today’s favorite pop icon at the Riviera. While the Aragon delivers top notch performances from the country’s top Latin artists. Uptown is a melting pot of artists. A few doors down from the Uptown Theatre is the Annoyance Theater Company which is an improve group specializing in sketch comedy as well as full theatrical productions.
Chicago is home for many theater companies, some troops have yet to launch because they do not have a home. This is where a newly renovated Uptown Theatre would come into play. Once the renovation is completed, the theater will be large enough to house three smaller theaters in addition to the main auditorium. A three hundred-seat proscenium theater, a one hundred and twenty-five seat black-box theater, and a seventy-five-seat cabaret theater, all to be made available for theater companies and performers to use. Future planning has also detailed an art gallery and a radio station to be placed in the theater.
In the article, “Chicago Theater Scene,” Chris Jones expresses what theater does for the city of Chicago, by saying, “theater is so woven into our urban neighborhoods that it has become the fabric of Chicago…. It’s also a source of regeneration and drumbeat of local social commentary.” So one can see how this, as Balaban & Katz stated best, Palace of Enchantment, will just pour artistry out to the community.
“Not for today, but for all time” The words of C.W Rapp of the theaters architect team, for how he envisioned the life span of the Uptown Theatre. This theater has so much more life to live. Once restored it will continue to cultivate the multicultural community of Uptown. The tourism it will attract will generate revenue for the community and the city of Chicago building a stronger economy. The ability it has to nurture the many talented artists of Chicago and elsewhere is boundless, and the life it will breathe into all performing arts is truly a gift.
On March 24th, 2012, while Uptown’s Alderman James Cappleman was hosting a symphonic concert, he delighted the audience with an announcement saying, “he expects all of the financing to be in place by the end of 2013, at which time the renovation and restoration would begin … and that the entire project would be expected to be finished in two years”.
Will the community of Uptown be crowned the “Midwest’s Entertainment Capital?”
“Not for today, but for all time”