A History of the Uptown Theatre

Current Status of the Uptown Theatre

A modern view of the main auditorium of the Uptown Theatre.

A modern view of the main auditorium of the Uptown Theatre. Image copyright © Steve Duncan

The Uptown Theatre was forced to close its doors in the 1980s as part of a general decline of the entire area. While its architects and builders designed the theatre “for all time” they failed to anticipate changes in the market, in entertainment, and even the neighborhood. Yet the building’s interior and exterior are protected at the local, state, and federal levels, thanks to the tireless efforts of many theatre advocacy groups. The Uptown is listed in the Illinois Historic Structures Survey. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1996 the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed it on its list of “Eleven Most Endangered Places.” The eleven sites chosen each year are those threatened by neglect, insufficient funds, inappropriate development, or insensitive public policy. It was listed on the “Ten Most Endangered Historic Places” list compiled by the Landmark Preservation Council of Illinois. In 1991, it was even designated as a Chicago Landmark. It is the last theatre in Chicago to still bear the name “Balaban and Katz” on the marquee.

Despite all of these designations—despite the fact that many worthy organizations recognize the historic significance of this building and its prominent place in architectural and entertainment history—its doors remain closed to the public. There is, however, a small group of tradesmen who keep up with repairs and the theatre is regularly inspected to ensure public safety and security. In 2005, a receiver was appointed to perform necessary stabilization and exterior repair of the Uptown—the type of work necessary for a full-scale restoration.

Friends of the Uptown, “a diverse advocacy group of volunteers, neighbors, longtime patrons, historians, architecture buffs, entertainment seekers, theater organ enthusiasts and fans of American cinema,” should be applauded for helping keep this theatre safe, sound, and accessible for the last twenty years. They are not the sponsors of this history and petition, but we encourage you to visit their Web site to learn more about the theatre and to keep abreast of any current news and developments regarding the Uptown.

A close-up of the staircase in the Grande Lobby.

A close-up of the staircase in the Grande Lobby. Image copyright © Steve Duncan

Seeing the Uptown Theatre restored and finding an acceptable reuse for it are not outlandish dreams. The Urban Land Institute, a non-profit research and education organization, made a close examination of the area now referred to as the Uptown Square Historic District in order to make a recommendation for a development plan that would include retail, dining, and entertainment venues. A major conclusion they came to is that the Uptown Theatre must be restored. It is known by all that this will be an expensive and difficult process, but it is the lynchpin in the recreation of an entertainment district that would attract Chicagoans and tourists alike. The ULI concluded that “the theatre is truly significant historically and magnificent aesthetically.” A number of suggestions were made for how the restored theatre might be used, including flexible seating in the amphitheatre to allow for a variety of events and use of the entrance hall and other rooms for shops, restaurants, a museum, receptions, meetings, weddings, and corporate functions. The Uptown Theatre is, in short the pivotal piece in the puzzle of the redevelopment of the Uptown Neighborhood. A copy of this report is available from the Urban Land Institute or through the Uptown Chicago Commission.

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