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Owner and caretaker hope to restore and reopen Chicago’s Uptown Theater to all its glory

CHICAGO (CBS) — The Uptown Theater opened in 1925 as a movie and vaudeville house for the Balaban & Katz movie chain.

The massive venue at 4816 N. Broadway was designed by brothers Cornelius and George Rapp – who also designed the Chicago Theater and many others. It was and is the largest free-standing theater in North America.

It had more than 4,400 seats and more square footage than New York’s Radio City Music Hall.

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CBS2


“Patrons who stepped past the Spanish Baroque Revival facade of the Uptown Theater and into the luxurious, six-story grand lobby felt as if they were entering a palace,” the Chicago Architecture Center wrote. “In fact, Rapp and Rapp wanted the 42,000-square-foot theater to imitate the palaces of Versailles or St. Petersburg, with statues, paintings and tapestries that were reproductions of the world’s masterpieces.”

In its early days, the Uptown featured floating clouds and twinkling ceiling lights, a Wurlitzer theater pipe organ and even full orchestra performances.

“They used to say, ‘If the movie stinks, you can still enjoy the theater,’” says concierge Dave Syfczak.

As tastes changed, so did the theater’s mission: it became a concert venue hosting performances by top acts.

The most recent act to hit the stage, according to the theater’s Facebook page, was the J. Geils Band, which played classics like “Freeze-Frame,” “Love Stinks,” “Musta Got Lost” and “Centerfold.” . That was December 27, 1981 – when Jane Byrne was mayor, Ronald Reagan had been president for less than a year and Michael Jordan was playing basketball as a freshman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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In the 42-plus years since then, the Uptown has sat vacant and shuttered. A few movies and music videos were shot inside, and the lobby hosted a dance party in the 1990s to raise money for an HIV/AIDS charity — but the venue was silent and the theater remained otherwise closed.

Attempts to restore and reopen the Uptown have been launched several times, but so far nothing has succeeded.

During that time, other old movie palaces in Chicago – several of them – were closed and demolished.

The 3,400-seat Granada at Rogers Park (1926) – which later also turned into a concert hall – was demolished in 1990 after being abandoned. The Granada Center high-rise, occupied mainly by Loyola University, now stands on the site.

The 2,000-plus seat Nortown in West Rogers Park of West Ridge (1931) was demolished in 2007 – some 17 years after being closed and used for other purposes. The site is now occupied by a Wendy’s.

But the Uptown Theater has been a Chicago landmark since 1991 and remains standing – and remains a bracing spot just north of the popular Green Mill Lounge. The party tent has no lighting, but still hangs overhead – with the name Balaban & Katz even remaining legible at the top.

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Syfczak enjoys every day he spends indoors – ‘even the dust’, as he puts it.

“I find comfort and peace here, and I just enjoy the beauty and luxury built into this spectacular theater,” Syfczak said.

Initially, Syfczak’s work as a janitor for the Uptown was a side job. He was a police officer in Chicago.

Now the retired cop is the Uptown’s full-time caretaker. He gave CBS 2 a rare tour inside, documenting all the changes, including some curtains from a renovation in the 1940s.

“They designed it so that you forget about your problems,” says JAM Productions CEO Jerry Mickelson, who also took part in the tour. “It’s just a magical, perfect place to see a concert.”

Mickelson and JAM Productions bought the Uptown by foreclosure in 2008 after booking bands at the theater from 1975 to 1981. He looked back on a long list of acts that performed there in addition to the J. Geils Band.

“Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley, Frank Zappa, Genesis, Electric Light Orchestra, Prince, Rick James – everyone played,” Mickelson said.

Clemons & Springsteen perform at the Uptown Theater
Clarence Clemons (1942-2011), on saxophone, and Bruce Springsteen, on guitar, perform on stage at the Uptown Theater in Chicago on October 10 or 11, 1980. As part of ‘The River Tour’, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band op. performed on two consecutive nights at the Uptown that fall.

Steve Kagan/Getty Images


The theater was forced to close after years of neglect by former owners. The Chicago Architecture Center noted that the theater suffered extensive flood damage when the pipes froze and burst in December 1981 – and that was that.

But Mickelson wants it restored and reopened to its 1925 glory, and he remains committed to that mission.

“This was built at a cost of $4 million,” Mickelson said. “In today’s dollars, that’s probably about what it’s going to cost, what we think, to renovate — that’s about $140 million.”

Mickelson said he is trying to re-engage the city to talk about redevelopment.

“I’m putting all my time and effort into making it happen,” he said.

The restoration would probably take at least two years.

“A building of this size and its design and its uniqueness has to survive,” Syfczak said.

Those who run the theater dream of the day when they can share the palace with the people again.

“I’ll be wearing a tuxedo and sitting in the front row on opening night,” Syfczak said.

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