Near the end of 2005, I was lucky enough to take part in filming a documentary about the preservation efforts surrounding the Uptown Theatre. Prior to that, I had only glimpsed the interior from the street, but I had heard stories of its grandeur. My Aunt Marsha had told me how, during high school in the late fifties, she and her best friend would sneak into the Uptown to catch a show. It was also one of my dad's favorite theatres, the others being the Granada (demolished in the 1990s) and the Nortown (undergoing demolition this year). There really aren't many of these great movie palaces left standing.
The Uptown is a bit of a mystery to most folks in the neighborhood. It's been closed for decades, and it's very difficult to get permission to go inside. I work with Friends of the Uptown, and even I haven't been able to go back inside since 2005. (The caretakers won't let anyone in without a signed waiver from the city, and it's pretty much locked down tight. ) The exterior facade has been stabilized, which means that much of the elaborate terra cotta has been taken down for safe storage. She's certainly not looking her best, and for that she's often called "an eyesore" and a "stumbling block to neighborhood progress." But if they could only look inside! It's still in remarkably good shape. While many of the fixtures have been taken down and stored away over the years, the physical structure and the majority of the decorative plaster and features are there. I do have strong hope for its restoration. There are entertainment prospects who are interested. And heck, if the Oriental Theatre downtown can reopen after being shuttered for 18 years (and now hosting a very successful run of Wicked), it's quite feasible for another movie palace--this one located directly on the train line and in a rapidly improving area--to do the same.
"Uptown: Portrait of a Palace," the documentary that I was an assistant to the assistant to the gaffer for ("Here, hold this cord.") premiered at the Portage Theatre and since then has had a pretty good life on DVD and Chicago Public Television. It's now set to open a new film festival at the Portage called "Preserving Palaces: The Struggle to Reclaim America's Cinema Heritage." Other films include "Preserve Me a Seat," "The Wizard of Austin Boulevard," "Loew's Paradise Theatre," and "Memoirs of a Movie Palace." Complete information can be found on the Portage Theatre Web site or by downloading the PDF:
I hope a few of you out there who haven't yet seen the documentary will make the trip to the Portage (located on Milwaukee near Irving). It's an old movie theatre itself, and home to the Silent Film Society of Chicago's annual festival.