Chicago Tribune Op-ed: It’s time to get the band back together for the Uptown Theatre

“Sunday, Dec. 19, will mark 40 years that the landmark Uptown Theatre in the North Side’s Uptown neighborhood has been closed. It is a leading contender for the largest and finest movie palace not yet restored, not only in the United States but in the world.

“A lot of great, memorable full-house concerts happened there between 1975 and 1981. Some of the biggest names in music performed there. A select few of them, such as Bruce Springsteen, are still working today.

“By the time it closed in 1981 with a rousing concert by yet another chart-topping rock group, the J. Geils Band, tens of millions of people had been entertained there for over 56 years. Since then, the Uptown has only hosted special events, movie locations, historical tours and the humble activities of mostly volunteer caretakers.

“Its beauty and importance are legend. Neighbors began promoting its potential for reuse as early as 1985. There is no recorded opposition to restoring and reusing the Uptown. In fact, all of the studies carried out by the city and Uptown neighborhood identify the Uptown as an anchor that would make the entertainment district complete and successful. People from around the world message to ask: What is going on with the Uptown Theatre?

“The trouble is, plans have stalled again. A deal announced by city of Chicago planners in 2018 to begin the project and deliver it finished for modern entertainment died a lonely death before the pandemic took hold.

“Farpoint Development, which teamed up with owner Jerry Mickelson (of Jam Productions and UTA II LLC), worked for more than a year on research and planning needed to begin restoration. For reasons unknown, the partnership paused and all of the city, state and federal incentives were left on the table. There’s been no substantive public update or explanation from Ald. James Cappleman, 46th, who consistently defers comment and action to the Department of Planning and to Mickleson.

“The Uptown is a riddle that’s not been answered by a succession of owners, mayors, aldermen, city planners, chambers of commerce, planning commissioners and financiers. And no one’s livelihood appears to depend on solving the riddle.

“On the plus side, we have four decades of theater restoration projects and entertainment district planning to learn from here and across the United States. And our statewide preservation agency, Landmarks Illinois, headquartered in Chicago, has a custom-made committee, its Real Estate and Building Industry Council, with the knowledge, experience and connections to provide guidance and counsel to Mickelson and the city.

“Though not immediately threatened by development, the Uptown Theatre is at risk from stasis and disinterest. Most of the interior damage happened over the hard winters of the early 1980s. It stands today due to the quality of its initial construction and the ongoing stabilization and monitoring overseen by the city and Mickleson.

“When I first began giving tours at the Uptown as a 26-year-old volunteer in 1998, it was not uncommon to meet people who had fond memories of going to the show at the Uptown, movies and concerts. Old-timers would wistfully say aloud, ‘I hope to see it restored in my lifetime.’

“Today, most of the theater’s tenured fans have passed away, leaving new generations of advocates curious and supportive but without a strong emotional attachment to it — yet. Now at 50, I also wonder if I will live to see it restored.

“One of the best things to happen to the Uptown in my time as a volunteer was when then-building commissioner Stan Kaderbek vowed to use funds set aside for emergency demolition for much-needed stabilization work in 2005, which bought the building considerably more time and kept it from further damage. Mickelson has continued to keep the building from further decay by maintaining the roof and converting one of its three oil boilers to natural gas so that it may be heated in the winter.

“The last free, public tour I gave was in the early 2000s. My experience tells me it is time to open the Uptown again for regular public tours so its story may be told and its value shared anew. It has tremendous potential in its three ornate lobbies and large auditorium.

“One can easily see how it could lead to new ways of thinking about and designing for in-person and streamed entertainment in our recovering, post-pandemic economy. The Uptown has spaces for audiences from 50, to 500, to 5,000 people.

“In a great Chicago tradition celebrated by the Blues Brothers, it is time to get the band back together. The city, the developer and the owner had a good thing lined up in 2018. It is time to revisit the plan, jump-start the motor and share what help they need to make the project happen. People want to go to the show again at the Uptown.

” Andy Pierce is a volunteer with Friends of the Uptown.” (Pierce, Chicago Tribune, 12/16/21)

Read the full story at the Chicago Tribune

Chicago Tribune Op-ed: It’s time to get the band back together for the Uptown Theatre, Andy Pierce, Chicago Tribune, 12/16/21

The Friends of the Uptown and the mission to restore the landmark, WGN Radio’s Bob Sirott interviews Founder of Friends of the Uptown, Andy Pierce, 1/10/22 (7:55)


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