The Daily Parker

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The sad history of the Uptown Theater

Chicago's largest auditorium north of the Loop needs saving soon, or it might be lost forever:

At the intersection of Lawrence, Racine and Broadway in Uptown, the massive, once-grand Uptown Theatre, a shuttered movie palace that has awaited restoration for nearly 40 years, is slowly deteriorating. Its reopening—an expensive proposition that would require public and private funds—is key to the neighborhood's vitality and could make it a premier destination for live entertainment.

Preservationists say that because of its decrepitude, something needs to happen fast to save the theater from permanent ruin. "If this isn't resolved soon, this building will continue to deteriorate," says Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago.

A reopened Uptown would, at 4,500 seats, have the largest theater capacity north of downtown (the Auditorium in the Loop has nearly 4,000). Mark Kelly, commissioner of the city's Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events, shares Emanuel's vision that the Uptown would solidify the intersection of Lawrence, Racine and Broadway as a destination for live entertainment. "What would be most desirable is we get a mix of these awesome performance venues at a very high level to accommodate a lot of people," Kelly says. "Then it's a real entertainment district."

The neglect dates to the 1970s, when the Uptown was used primarily for closed-circuit boxing matches and rock concerts by acts including the Grateful Dead and Bruce Springsteen. Accelerating its demise was co-owner Lou Wolf, a notorious Chicago slumlord and felon who purchased the theater in 1980 and shuttered it the following year. Unoccupied and uncared for for more than three decades, the building suffered water damage after the heat was turned off. In 2014, 6 inches of ice covered the grand stairway and 4 feet of water rose in the basement. Broken windows, animal infestation, vandalism and plaster-killing summer humidity followed, along with hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid property taxes.

Fortunately, the city designated a landmark district in 2016 that includes the Uptown, but that only means it can't be demolished. But it still needs maintenance, desperately. I hope someone steps up. I'm looking at you, Rahmbo.

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