Save the Portage Theater community meeting
The packed house suggested a major event at the Portage Theater—the screening of a rare classic film, perhaps, or a horror-movie marathon. But for once, it was the venue itself, not a slate of cinematic attractions, that people came out in droves to support.
“This isn’t a public meeting,” said Dennis Wolkowicz, who leases and runs the space and even played the organ before the event. “It’s a community explosion.” A near-capacity crowd filed into the 1,300-seat auditorium Monday night to hear ways it could fight a proposed sale that would turn the historic movie house—one of the last of its kind in Chicago and a fixture of the city’s Six Corners shopping district—into a new, large-scale worship space.
While Albany Park’s Chicago Tabernacle has put down an offer to purchase the building for a reputed $2.5 million, the management team that runs the theater—in concert with a group of local investors—has matched that number. But the tabernacle got its bid in first: According to Ald. John Arena (45th Ward), the Portage Park building’s current owner won’t be able to entertain the counteroffer until roughly the beginning of April.
News of a potential sale spread like wildfire when the alderman posted a message indicating that he had met with the tabernacle and—while welcoming it to the 45th Ward—opposed its plan to tear down the marquee, get rid of some of the 36 apartment units contained within the building and evict many of the businesses that have set up shop in the surrounding storefronts.
“The way you revitalize the area is you give people a reason to come,” Arena told the audience at last night’s meeting. “This is what's going to make Six Corners an economic engine again.” He went on to describe the Portage as a commercial “nucleus,” and explained how the arrival of a church at the center of the shopping district could hurt current businesses and drive away new ones. Bars and restaurants interested in the area, for example, could find their liquor licenses threatened by a sudden proximity to a place of worship.
Also in attendance was Mike Edwards, who created the Save the Portage Facebook page when news first leaked of the intended sale. "Where else can you see West Side Story one week and Dawn of the Dead the next?" asked Edwards. "You can get married here," he added. "I did."
Edwards's online campaign took off quickly. "It didn't take much," he told us before the event started. "The sentiment was out there. The community wants this theater intact." According to Edwards, the number of Facebook signatories grew from 200 on the first day to 800 by the end of the weekend to the current tally of about 2,500 names.
A few loyal patrons offered testimonials in a somewhat amateurishly constructed video, scored to Ennio Morricone’s “The Ecstasy of Gold” (from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) and sandwiched between speakers at the meeting. Much more effective were the words of Anna Zolkowski Sobor, vice president of the Old Irving Park Association. She urged Portage Theater defenders to write letters to the Zoning Board of Appeals, which could block the tabernacle’s special-use permit request.
“It’s so gratifying to see such a wide cross-section of groups and people attending this meeting,” Sobor said. “When's the last time you saw aficionados of silent, classic, indie, horror and documentary cinema mixing with people who are from historical, landmark and preservation groups, along with local entertainers and a lot of concerned elected officials?”
An e-mail to the building owner and calls to the Chicago Tabernacle weren't immediately returned. We hope to update this post with comment from them.