WBEZ Chicago: The Avalon Regal Theater was once a luxurious movie palace. Today, its future is uncertain. (Chicago 7 2012)

The Avalon Regal Theater, 1927, John Eberson, 1641 East 79th Street. Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers
The Avalon Regal Theater, 1927, John Eberson, 1641 East 79th Street. Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

“Eleanor Truex lives in south suburban Flossmoor and occasionally, when traffic is especially bad, she gets off the highway and takes a detour through city streets. On that route, she passes by a building on 79th Street in the South Shore neighborhood that looks like it belongs on a movie set.

“‘It’s ornate, it’s got beautiful tilework,’ Truex says. ‘It looks, to me, Middle Eastern, even Arabic. There’s no name on the building. I don’t know how to figure out what it was for, it doesn’t look like it’s in use now.’ Truex noticed another very unusual detail: ‘It has a tree growing [on] it so I have a feeling that building is deserted.’

“Truex reached out to Curious City wanting to know more about this extraordinary building, and if there are any efforts underway to preserve it.

“The building Truex is talking about is the Avalon Regal Theater built in the 1920s as an eclectic entertainment venue.

“This old theater has had many different names and different lives over the years. Less than a decade after opening it moved away from live performances to primarily show films. Later it became a church — before coming full circle as a live performing space in the 1980s and ’90s when it hosted a bevy of mostly African American artists including Ray Charles, B. B. King, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Patti LaBelle and Tupac.

“The Avalon Regal Theater closed its doors to the public in 2003 for a number of reasons, including low attendance and high maintenance costs. Since then there have been a few notable events in the theater, like Obama’s election night party to celebrate his first presidential victory. And it’s a regular stop on the Chicago Architecture Center’s annual Open House Chicago tours.

“Several owners have tried to restore the building to its past grandeur including its current owner Jerald Gary of Community Capital Investment LLC. Gary’s dream is to transform the space into a hub of art and culture on 79th Street.

“‘I’m taken aback every time I enter the building and I notice something new every time I walk into the building,’ says Gary, who grew up near the theater.

“But getting the Avalon Regal to reopen has been a real saga. His ownership of the theater is currently hanging by a thread.

“Built in 1927, the theater was known as the Avalon Theater. Architect John Eberson, a leader of ‘atmospheric’ theater style, designed this building to make people feel like they were immersed in a magical place. It was inspired by something he found at an antique store.

“‘He comes across an incense burner from Persia and he’s looking at this intricate metal work and all of the geometry and detail in this artifact,’ Adam Rubin, director of interpretation at the Chicago Architecture Center, says. ‘That was part of the inspiration.’ (Cardona-Maguigad, Curious City, WBEZ Chicago, 1/13/23)

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