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Chicago’s Music District

WGN’s Randi Belisomo looks at Chicago’s Music District, including the historic Uptown Theater

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Creating a Music District Special: Closing thoughts

A peak inside Uptown’s Shake, Rattle & Read

Creating a Music District: Viewer questions and comments

Creating a Music District Special: Part 1

Uptown. It has been up and coming for years now, according to many residents, realtors and really optimistic business owners.

Seemingly, it should be. It is bordered by the lake, easily accessible by public transit, and richly diverse in population.

But, sights of blight are common here, as is some crime- in higher numbers than in many neighborhoods nearby. It is also a hangout for many of the city’s homeless, as reported in multiple media outlets lately.

What could save it? Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel says he hopes the answer to that is music.

“It’s unique in the country,” Emanuel told WGN’s Randi Belisomo Wednesday during an interview in his 5th floor office at Chicago City Hall. “Nowhere else in the country do you have turn of the century theaters, art deco style, within a block of each other.”

Emanuel has proposed the creation of an “Uptown Music District” with inviting lighting, signage, gateway identifiers and street scaping along Broadway and Lawrence. A “people plaza” at Broadway and Racine and  “people street” on Clifton could be shut down for outdoor performances.

Alderman James Cappleman (46th Ward) says easier business licensing would streamline the opening of more venues and up the project’s tempo.

“There was a study done by the Urban Land Institute in 2000, and it said to really encourage economic development, three things had to happen here,” Cappleman said during an interview in his Uptown ward office. “We had to get a big box store, and we got Target. We had do something about the Wilson train station, and we’re doing that now. And we had to do something about the Uptown Theatre.”

Uptown Theatre owner Jerry Mickelson is working to reopen the shuttered treasure, and he sees it as the linchpin of the area’s potential boom.

“It’s logical, it makes sense,” Mickelson said when giving a tour of the theater at Broadway and Lawrence to WGN-TV.  “Just like downtown made sense for the theater district, this makes sense for the music district.”

Under former Mayor Richard M. Daley, Chicago directed close to $90 million dollars in tax increment financing during the early 1990s to downtown theater, live in the Loop.  The Oriental and Chicago Theatres along with the Cadillac Palace stand as a theatrical triumvirate, as could the Aragon, Riviera and Uptown Theatres in this neighborhood further north. Mickelson owns the Riviera too, just south of the Uptown.

“Theater is about economic development, the opportunity that rehabbing it offers, because once it’s open it will bring back businesses that have left and new businesses that will want to be here,” Mickelson said. “The Uptown Theatre is the catalyst that will get all of this going, and everybody recognizes that.”

But Dave Jemilo, owner of the Green Mill Jazz Club down the block on Broadway, says crowds and the lack of parking are problematic- especially if the Uptown reopens.

“You know, there’s five thousand people at the Uptown Theatre to see Englebert Humperdink or something, and all these blue hairs come in and they say ‘hey look at this over here, it’s the Green Mill, I want to hear about this history,’ and everyone’s telling them to be quiet, it just changes the whole vibe of the joint,” Jemilo said.

Music critic Jim DeRogatis says folks like Jemilo don’t have anything to worry about- not any time soon.

“We had this much ballyhooed cultural plan that cost the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, and it doesn’t mention an Uptown Music District, an arts district, once,” DeRogatis told WGN-TV during an interview at Chicago Public Media.

If it does happen, DeRogatis says the neighborhood needs parking structures- municipal ones like you will find in other music cities Memphis and Austin. Seattle and Nashville have offices of music, serving as liasons between venues and city agencies. Chicago’s Film Office serves to attract Hollywood productions, but there is no such department for music, DeRogatis argues. That is despite a University of Chicago economic study which showed music’s multiple billion dollar impact here- far more than that of the movies.

Emanuel says Chicago’s music scene is on par with that of any other, and he characteristically enumerated the reasons why.

“They have offices, and we have the largest music event in the world- Lollapalooza,” Emanuel said. “Number two, Pitchfork. Number three, we have Blues Festival. Number four, Gospel Festival. They have offices, and we have events. I would take events over an office.”

DeRogatis says it is all talk from City Hall.

“Mayor Emanuel gives a lot of lip service to being a music fan,” DeRogatis said. “He loves Wilco. Well that’s great. But when he mentions music, that’s the only sentence we get. All in all, absolutely nothing substantial has happened for this ‘music mayor’ yet.”

Uptown could be that substantial something.

Mayor talks about Chicago’s music scene and its future.

The push is on to renovate and reopen the historic Uptown Theatre.
With a  price tag of at least $70 million,  it would become the keystone of a proposed music district for the North Side.
Mayor Emanuel made the pitch for the district during his 2010 campaign and he’s promising to make it happen soon.

Join us tonight on CLTV as will talk with the theatre’s owner, the Uptown alderman and a local business owner about the project and it’s possibilities in our special “Creating a Music District”.
Tune in Tonight at 10 pm on CLTV or watch the live stream at 


Take a look at the web extra: Sights and sounds of the Uptown Theater.

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.