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Where West Side Story Meets Dawn of the Dead

Note: I’m currently working on a Gapers Block piece about the Portage Theater and efforts to prevent its purchase by the Chicago Tabernacle Church. Some passages and sentiments may carry over to that article, but the GB article will be more history-heavy. Just FYI.

Monday night I attended the Save the Portage Theater rally. Appropriately, it was held at the theater itself. I’ve visited the Portage twice, first to take my son to a mini-comicon (where we took a picture with chubby, purplish Batman—a photo I hope he cherishes in his later years), and the second time to see Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein with my friend Pat. Both experiences were a tad cheesy, yes, but rare and sweetly enjoyable owing to their surroundings: a classic, old-school movie palace. But experiences like will be harder to come by, if a certain church buys the place, modifies it, and declares an end to the variety of programming the Portage offers to the community.

The Portage has been around in one form or another since 1920, starting out as a nickelodeon before being purchased by the Balaban and Katz theater chain in the forties. Originally designed to reflect the poufy Beaux Arts design favored at the time, Balaban and Katz brought a sleek, spare Art Deco influence to the marquee and interior. Palatial doesn’t begin to describe it. Dream-like comes closer.

I arrived early, signed in at the reception tables, and—after bumping into my father in law, a transplanted Irving Parker—walked into the auditorium. As before, and despite what the potential owners might think, the place is glorious. The auditorium is dark and cavernous, but also lush, golden, and warm. As with most buildings its age and older, you can practically touch the history and life of the place. I could easily imagine the audiences filling the seats for everything from early silent movies to 70s Kung-fu flicks to modern art-house fare.

The evening was pleasant, informative, and ably led by Old Irving Park Association Vice President Anna Sobor. I believe I met Ms. Sobor a couple of years ago, when I conducted tours of my church during the annual Old Irving Park House Walk. But before she walked onstage and got things rolling, we enjoyed the organ-playing of Mr. Dennis Wolkowicz, motivating force behind the theater’s restoration. As he ran through a familiar (and not so familiar) back catalog of songs on the theater’s original Kimball organ—placed on mechanical riser to awesomely cool effect—the place filled up with hipsters, senior citizens, Chicago neighborhood types, and members of the local cultural aristocracy. A lot of bearded guys with big guts were present too. I think I recognized them from the comic show and horror fests. In the dimness and darkness I could see a hundred blogs, tweets, and updates being typed out as one.

Not every seat was filled, but at least half were. For a 1,300-seat theater that’s not bad. Illuminated thank-yous were projected on the screen, especially to preservationist ringleaders like alderman John Arena, the Portage Park Neighborhood Association, the Six Corners Association, and others. Digital cameras flashed  every which way, and, appropriately, amateur and professional cinematographers shot electronic footage of the proceedings with their cameras and iPhones.

In closing, Mr. Wolkowicz led the audience in a muted version of “The Star Spangled Banner.” I got the feeling not everyone learned the lyrics in Boy Scouts, like I did. Still, all respectfully rose up, and made a game effort to be melodically patriotic. After all, that was the reason why we were there. We’re Americans, dammit, and we’re mad as hell someone’s trying to take our stuff. Rise up, my darlings, rise up. You have nothing to lose but your theater chains.

Mr. Wolkowicz concluded his set, but was informed that folks were still signing up outside. So, he returned to the keys, and vamped out a little “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” On the northwest side, the audience clearly root-root-roots for the Cubs.

A little perspective on the size of the stage and screen.

At last, Ms. Sobor took the stage, and thanked Mr. Wolkowicz and all dignitaries present. Alderman John Arena—prime instigator of the Portage campaign—was present, looking casually fashionable in a windbreaker and “SAVE THE PORTAGE” t-shirt. His colleague Alderman Tim Cullerton of the 38th ward sat nearby, appearing firmly entrenched in his suit and tie.

Ms. Sobor wasted no time, asking the audience to keep a civil tongue, and stressing that the biggest goal of the campaign was to support local businesses and let them know they’re being “patronized” by Portage supporters. As I later learned, the Chicago Tabernacle folks have given similar instructions to their throng—as a tax-free group I assume they’re attempting to sound financially lucrative. Sobor then introduced Arena, who, if the applause was any indication, needn’t worry about several hundred votes in 2016.


The man is a decent speaker, and he reminded me that one of the reasons I voted for him is his approach to pragmatic preservation. Protecting pretty buildings is fine, but they need a reason to exist and a healthy local economy to persist. The folks behind the Portage’s restoration have done as much, and the theater is viewed as an anchor for the Six Corners shopping district. Once upon a time, this was the greatest and busiest place to shop, eat, drink, and see a flick outside the Loop. For the past several years, before he was even an alderman, Arena and others have tried to give the slightly shabby Six Corners a economic shot in the arm. Thus far things have been looking up.

Then the Chicago Tabernacle Church approached him last September, asking for his support as they sought to buy the theater and convert it into a church. Arena asked for a write-up of their intentions for the property, and what they presented to the zoning board was (in my words) horrifying.

CTC’s plans included removing the snazzy marquee outside (not sure if this includes the original terra cotta PORTAGE PARK THEATER marquee out front as well as the flashy electric one; I hope not), get rid of the businesses currently occupying the storefronts, and convert the auditorium and apartments inside into classrooms. Arena said um, no thank you, but welcomed them to the area and suggested several local properties that would better suit their and the community’s purposes. The church’s subsequent lack of response showed they weren’t interested, and have proceeded to push for ownership of the building and their proposed changes.

Despite public outcry, the CTC folks are displaying a, in my opinion, weird obsessiveness about purchasing the building, and a predictable disinterest in allowing the place to be used for the silent, classic, and (naturally) horror film festivals already taking place there. Speaking in a Tribune article about the Portage kerfuffle, church leader Al Toledo offered the following bit of aesthetic blindness:

“We happen to have a choir that people come listen to. We do a number of dramatic presentations. We have an Easter presentation coming up. So we have art that we bring forth as well, and I don’t think that should be minimized.”

Minimized? Not really. More like irrelevant. Chicago is surfeit with churches, religious choirs, and Easter presentations, but lacking in classic movie palaces and independent film venues. Eleven churches of varying sizes are within walking distance of the Six Corners district; but only two movie theaters (including the newly restored Patio Theater, which continues to exist by the skin of its teeth) currently operate thereabouts. Whether the 11 churches (not to mention the nearby Islamic center and Buddhist temple) are the right kind of churches according to Mr. Toledo… Well, let’s not touch that point just yet. Fans of the theater have been called on to grit their teeth and echo alderman Arena’s point that the church is welcome to the community (because, sure, we could always use more tax-free soul-winners who believe the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse could come galloping down Milwaukee Ave. at any moment), and thus far everyone’s played nice. Thus far.

Back to the rally… Arena made the solid point that preserving the Portage is all  about economic recovery. Four restaurant proposals have been made for the area, but not a one would be able to get a liquor license if the church opened shop at the theater. So, it’s not just a matter of keeping the nerd cinephiles from their celluloid fantasies, or even about protecting an, admittedly, gaudy old queen of a theater from being ravished and violated. It’s about money. A short-term windfall for the theater’s current owners won’t translate into income for Portage Park, the surrounding neighborhoods, or Chicago in general. Church folks have promised to buy stuff at the local businesses, but that remains to be seen. Will the church-goers bussed in to the church really be picking up their groceries at Jewel and their steel-toed boots at Rasenicks? Hmmmm…

When Arena finished speaking, Ms. Sobor took over again. Prepared to deliver a PowerPoint presentation, equipment failure spared the audience from the sight of hastily created pie charts. Thinking on her feet, Sobor provided all the necessary URLs and procedures for making your voice heard. Why, here’s that very information:

The Save the Portage Theater site.

Save the Portage Theater Facebook page.

Alderman Arena’ post on Everyblock.

Arena’s site.

Periodically, a few of the burly bearded fellows emitted approving howls of “Wooooooooo!” whenever they found favor with Ms. Sobor’s statements, and one seeming non sequitur about “No Brooklyn theaters!” This was answered by Ms. Sobor with another curious statement about Irving Park being founded by four New York carpetbaggers. Hah? No illumination was provided, but I later discovered that the Tabernacle folks have done this before, to the former Lowes Metropolitan in Brooklyn, NY. Before and after restoration photos on the net aren’t heartening:


Our next to last speaker was Mike Edwards, creator of the Save the Portage Facebook page, who provided the quote of the night: “Where else can you see West Side Story one week and Dawn of the Dead the next?” Edwards led the gathering in a mass cell phone contact list updating, providing the number for the Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals: (312) 744-5822

Again, that’s (312) 744-5822.


Dennis Wolkowicz, the organist and one of the prime movers on the restoration of the theater several years ago, closed the meeting, dubbing it a “community explosion.” He shared a bit of Portage trivia, explaining that back in the 80s the theater was sliced down the middle by a wall that’s since been removed. The seats reflected a curious  and unwitting division of political proportions by having red seats on one side and blue ones on the other. This was rectified when director Michael Mann shot Public Enemies with Johnny Depp there in 2008, using the theater as a stand-in for the Biograph Theater on Lincoln Ave. Red and blue seats wouldn’t do, so the film company sprang for blue cushions across the board. No comment.

The meeting closed with reminders that letters to the ZBA could be returned in the lobby, and that various spokespersons would be available for interviews. I needed to get home, and after running into a workmate and my church’s pastor,  I headed out to spread the word. I hope you do likewise, dear reader. Check out the above links and take action.

Come on. I’ve got kids who need to see Frankenstein on the big screen!