Uptown Chicago Resources

Student Produced Documentary Wins Award at Film Festival

by Christina Amoroso

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in The Daily Northwestern and is reprinted by permission of the author. A DVD version of the documentary is now available.

Uptown Theatre, Chicago.

Uptown Theatre, 1980. Image courtesy The Commission on Chicago Landmarks.

As soon as Communication junior John Pappas began taking his documentary production class in the fall, he knew he wanted the final project to be about Chicago’s historic Uptown Theater. What he didn’t know was that the movie would go on to win an award at a film festival.

“Last summer, I started researching (the theater) more,” he said.

He recalled seeing for years the “massive building” just past the Lawrence Street El stop, but he needed somebody to help him create the documentary and enlisted classmate Michael Bisberg.

“I was intrigued right away,” Communication senior Bisberg said.

The students’ 25-minute documentary tells the story of the Uptown Theater, which closed in the early 1980s. The building was designated a Chicago landmark in 1991, but due to poor maintenance it now sits abandoned at its 4816 N. Broadway location.

At a capacity of 4,500 people, it is the second largest movie theater in the United States after New York’s Radio City Music Hall, according to cityofchicago.org.

“It was unreal,” said Pappas of his first visit to the theater. “You walk in off Broadway … and everything all of a sudden is quiet.” He said the grand lobby resembles a cathedral.

Pappas and Bisberg said they went through “a ton of red tape” with the City of Chicago because they needed special permission to get into the theater.

When they finally got permission, they had only one day to shoot all the footage they needed.

Despite the initial difficulties, the movie won Best Documentary at the 11th Annual Flicker Film Festival last weekend and will premiere June 8 at the Portage Theater. Copies of the movie will be sold for $10 at the screening. Bisberg and Pappas said they are also looking to submit it to several other film festivals.

“I think it’s a very touching portrait of the Uptown,” said NU adjunct lecturer Debra Tolchinsky, who taught the documentary class. “If you allow students to tap into their enthusiasm, they create great work.”

Pappas said his true satisfaction came from making the film and learning how to make documentaries.

“To accomplish that (is) an immediate learning experience,” he said.

Communication junior Jackie Doherty helped Pappas and Bisberg with lighting during the shooting. She said she was awestruck by the abandoned building.

“It was this amazing, beautiful building,” she said. “There was a still a bag of popcorn in one of the seats … I feel like we did the building justice.”

The city has started preliminary repairs so that a larger restoration can occur in the future, Bisberg said. As of now, no one has stepped up to fund the $35 million restoration, he said, both because of the high cost and the widespread belief that if it reopened, the theater would not make enough money to be profitable.

The documentary acts as a tool to raise awareness and to “give more hope to people who want to save it,” said Pappas. It also highlights the “internal conflict” among those who want to save the theater: They realize it may be impossible to save, but they still have “undying hope” for the theater.

“It’d have to be a labor of love,” said Bisberg.

He also said the documentary gives audiences a tour of the theater.

Even though their documentary is finished, Bisberg and Pappas agree more needs to be done to save the theater.

“The movie isn’t over yet,” said Bisberg. “There’s a whole new chapter yet to be written.”

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