Rekindling the magic of the Uptown Theatre

When the doors of the Uptown Theatre opened for the first time in 1925, it was the largest, most luxurious theater in the country.

“An acre of seats in a magic city.” That’s how the Uptown Theatre was billed on August 18th, 1925, when it first opened its doors to Chicagoans craving entertainment, enchantment and  a night at a show.

And the actual theater was a show in itself. 46,000 square feet of ornate opulence at the corner of Lawrence and Broadway.

But all the Spanish renaissance design has been darkened to visitors since its closure in 1981. The public hasn’t been inside this Chicago treasure in more than three decades.

One businessman and some loyal volunteers are looking to change that.  Jerry Mickelson, the owner of JAM Productions has purchased the Uptown and he’s on his way to opening it again.

“The theater needed to be saved,” he said. “It’s an iconic theater that will never be built again and as the architect said, not for today but for all time, and there are some of us who believe we have to fulfill that legacy and make it happen”

After half a century of stage shows and movies, the Uptown’s last life was as a music venue in the 1970s. That’s when Mickelson first saw it, as a young concert promoter. He convinced the owners to let him rent it on Halloween 1975 to host “The Tubes.”

It was the beauty that caused Mickelson to fall in love with not just the building, but with what it could offer.

“The acoustics were great, the room is great, it’s amazing. So the experience of a show here is like not other place you’ll ever be in to hear a live music performance,” he said.

But not without a lot of work. The last time it was in business, a water pipe burst, causing serious damage everywhere. Maintenance was put off, and it’s been vandalized inside and out.

Jimmy Wiggins takes care of it now, keeping it from further disrepair. He’s Mickelson’s facilities manager.

“I just want the place open again,” he said.

Once the work gets started, he predicts it will take two years to get the place back in business.

“The artisans will come in and start recasting plaster, light fixtures will be restored, and then all the color will be put back, and the crowds will come thru the door ,” Wiggins said.

The only thing stopping that from happening is money.

Sue Carey is helping Mickelson in that department.

“This is the most gorgeous theater that I’ve ever been in in all my life, and I’ve been in every theater in New York, London and the world,” she said.

The performer, playwright and local philanthropist is leading the efforts behind a non-profit to both raise funds for the renovation and eventually inherit the structure on behalf of the city after Mickelson’s death.

“This will be my last hurrah, maybe on my death bed there will be a little plaque that says Sue Carey helped,” she said.

The first thing the team needs is a mere three million for architectural plans. Those will be used to apply for tax credits that could total $40 million.

If that happens though, this rough patch of Broadway would be in for heavy car and foot traffic, which business owners around here see cutting two ways.

Dave Jemilo owns the legendary Green Mill jazz club, just yards away from the Uptown. He sees trouble coming if it reopens.

But if that vibe is a busy one, Rick Addy will be seeing dollar signs.  He owns the “Shake, Rattle and Read – Rock n Roll” bookstore right next door.

“For the first time in a long, long time we finally have hope,” he said.

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