The newly renovated Davis Theater is a vaudeville house for the 21st century

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COURTESY OF DAVIS THEATER
  • Courtesy of Davis Theater

In the "Utopia" episode of Easy, the Joe Swanberg-directed series for Netflix, Malin Akerman plays a woman in charge of renovating the nearly 100-year-old Davis Theater in Lincoln Square, which began as a vaudeville house in 1918. The actual owner of the Davis, Tom Fencl, appears in a walk-through of the grand auditorium that Swanberg shot midrenovation; in the scene, Fencl wears a pink hard hat and asks Akerman how many seats the auditorium will hold.

Last week Fencl gave me a tour of the theater, which reopened after a multimillion-dollar makeover in December. In addition to the rehabbed auditorium—that seats 300, by the way—and two other 135-seat screening rooms, the first-run movie house at 4614 N. Lincoln sports a revamped lobby and several new restrooms, all decorated in an industrial-meets-art-deco style to evoke the theater's 1920s heyday; a concessions area that doubles as a box office; and an adjacent bar and restaurant, Carbon Arc Bar & Board, where customers can stop in for a sit-down meal or take their food and drinks into the theater with them.


COURTESY OF DAVIS THEATER
  • Courtesy of Davis Theater

The space

Fencl, who's owned the building for 16 years and operated the theater for the last five, says he and his team spent two years planning the renovations, and the last 11 months doing reconstruction. "We took over right when the switch from film to digital took place," Fencl says, "because that was when the prior operator decided it was time." He adds that the restaurant's name comes from the carbon arc projector that, along with a vintage ticket spitter, sits on display in the lobby. Both are fully operational and were in use five years ago—but now, Fencl says, the display serves as "a kind of history lesson" for the digital era.

Another way that the Davis is keeping up with the times is with reserved seating. As Fencl explains, "There used to be a box office when you first walked in, and we used to queue people outside. Now, with the majority of people buying their tickets online, we have reserved seating." Moviegoers only have to queue up once at concessions, he says, to offer their ticket's bar code to be scanned by the cashier.

COURTESY OF DAVIS THEATER
  • Courtesy of Davis Theater

Fencl's design team also put "a lot of energy" into creating spacious restrooms, he says, from where the former vaudeville house's sloped seating used to be. "We converted what was the ladies' room into two family restrooms," Fencl says, "and these back two theaters we turned into stadium-style seating, which then allowed us to be able to do large restrooms."

"As a dad with three daughters," Fencl continues, "in many public places, I've found it hard to find a family restroom. So there's diaper-changing stations in the men's room too, which is important."

Meanwhile, the restrooms in the Carbon Arc area stand out for their custom wallpaper—consisting of vintage carbon-arc blueprints—and steampunk light fixtures.

COURTESY OF DAVIS THEATER
  • Courtesy of Davis Theater

The food

Carbon Arc's 3,500-square-foot space revolves around fresh, playful fare from chef Gilbert Langlois that for the most part doesn't require silverware to eat.

"Anybody can come in and get a bite to eat, but you can also take our food to go, or right into the theater with you," Fencl says. "The majority of the items on our menu are very portable, and finger foods. We call it 'gourmet fast food.' So tacos, flatbreads—foods that are easy to eat in the theater." The lunch and dinner menu also incorporates appetizers, like "bacon cheddar loaded mashed potato cones"; desserts, like "campfire chocolate s'more cake bites"; an a la carte kids menu; and a late-night menu of items served from 10 PM to midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, with many vegetarian and gluten-free options as well.

COURTESY OF DAVIS THEATER
  • Courtesy of Davis Theater


The Carbon Arc dining area features a long bar and a mix of booth and table seating, some of which is shared to foster pre- or postmovie discussion, as well as several wide-screen TVs lining each wall for broadcasting special events like sports games or award shows.

Fencl notes that the waitstaff is required to see all of the movies playing at the theater each week, and to know the showtimes for each. That way, when they ask a diner if they're planning to see a movie, they can let them know if their food will be ready in time, and perhaps arrange their items on a tray that they can take with them into the theater and snap onto their seats. Or if the diners have already seen the film, the staff can engage them in conversation about it.

At concessions, Fencl points out items from local boutique Amy's Candy Bar alongside the more standard movie-theater candies and chocolates. And besides serving regular movie-theater popcorn, Fencl notes that the theater also has a wet popper, an air popper, full caramelizers, and cheese tumblers for making "house-specialty popcorns fresh on a daily basis." He adds that "we have lots of people come in off the street to buy caramel corn or cheese corn, and walk right back out the door," and that anyone can come in and purchase concession items to go.

The drinks

Patrons also can purchase a bevy of alcoholic beverages at the bar or at concessions to bring into the theater with them. At the concessions counter, canned beers, canned wine, and two hand-batched cocktails, a Moscow Mule and an old-fashioned, are available for purchase, alongside water and various sodas. At the bar, a full craft-cocktail menu offers "Timeless" drinks ( negroni, Sazerac, Aviation), "Original Screenplay" house cocktails (the Spitfire, for example, incorporates Avión Silver Tequila, Ancho Reyes, Combier pink-grapefruit liqueur, a jalapeño chip, lime wheel, and the option of hellfire bitters for an extra kick), and "Updated Classics," such as a Caramel Corn Old Fashioned with caramel syrup and Fee Brothers Aztec Chocolate Bitters.

The Carbon Arc's draft beer list includes 27 individual tappers, with plenty of local breweries on the list. "Being a local establishment," Fencl explains, "it's important to us that we rep lots of local product—our number one seller being Half Acre, our neighbor down the street."

COURTESY OF DAVIS THEATER
  • Courtesy of Davis Theater

The experience

The Davis plays three first-run movies every week and, according to Fencl, will sometimes split a screen to play a fourth movie, depending on what's playing. "Being in a family neighborhood," Fencl says, "we like to have a family movie playing at all times. And then in the evenings, we'll split a screen with a rated-G movie and a rated-R movie."

"Another thing you'll see is that the space is very transformative," he continues. "If you come on Saturday with your kids, you'll see that all of our digital poster boards will be rated G or rated PG; the lights will be bright and the music playing in the background will be very contemporary. And if you come later on that same evening on a date, to watch a romantic comedy or a rated-R movie, then all your boards are changing to PG-13 and rated R. The lights are a little dimmer, the music is a little edgier, and then the lights go down a little more. You don't notice it happening; it's just to provoke emotion."

COURTESY OF DAVIS THEATER
  • Courtesy of Davis Theater

Even when the Davis is "dark," typically Monday through Friday from 8 AM to 4 PM, Fencl says, "we're always trying to fill these seats." He and his team have been marketing to corporate groups that would normally hold their sales meetings, conferences, or educational seminars in hotel rooms downtown, as the theater can host groups that range between 25 and 300 people. In the auditorium, Fencl indicates, "we added back the old vaudeville stage and turned it into a full multimedia stage." The electrical outlets and data ports at the front of the stage are channeled underground to connect to the projectors, so one could play a PowerPoint presentation on the big screen, or use mikes for a panel discussion onstage. Fencl also notes that "instead of having that bad boxed lunch" corporate conference-goers know all too well, the Carbon Arc can cater a delicious breakfast or lunch. "We also offer drink packages," he adds, "if you wanted to do happy hour in the bar afterward."

On Sunday mornings, Fencl says, a local church group uses the auditorium for its service; and on the weekends, the theater hosts birthday parties for kids and adults alike. "All of our screening rooms are connected to our satellite system," Fencl says, "so we can adjust and show content in any way."

In theater one, he points to a window down and to the right of the movie screen, with a shutter that comes up. "That's actually the back bar," he says. "So if you're having a party, or some kind of event that doesn't have to be dark in here—like the Cubs World Series game, for example— instead of getting up and going [to the Carbon Arc for food or drinks], you can go right there and get food and beverage service."

For the Super Bowl this year, Fencl says a patron rented out all three screens: the younger kids watched a movie in one room, the older kids played video games on wireless remotes from an Xbox "plugged right into our projector" in another, and the adults and older teens watched the game in the auditorium.

"So we're really not just a movie theater," Fencl insists, "we're an entertainment complex."

Tom Fencl - COURTESY OF DAVIS THEATER
  • Courtesy of Davis Theater
  • Tom Fencl

In March, the Davis will donate theater space to the local Chambers of Commerce, Fencl says, who will be "bringing in state reps from both North Center and Lincoln Square for a State of the State event, to talk about local business and local politics, and what's going on."

"And that's what an old vaudeville house would have been," Fencl continues. "They would have played news reels in addition to silent films. It was a gathering place, kind of like a corner bar, where people could exchange information. A lot of people didn't have televisions at the time, so this is where they would get their news."

I mention that the Davis is like a vaudeville house for the 21st century.

"Yes," Fencl says. "That's a great way of putting it. We're a community theater, and we like to open our doors for those types of community events."

Upcoming events at the Davis:

- A Walk Down the Red Carpet for Common Threads: A live Oscar viewing party on Sunday, February 26, to benefit the national nonprofit; general admission is $100, VIP tickets $150.

- DOC10: The Davis is the official home for the Chicago Media Project's second annual documentary film festival, which will run March 30 to April 2 and present the Chicago premieres of ten outstanding documentary features that highlight important social issues.

- Movie trivia in the Carbon Arc is scheduled to begin in early March (details forthcoming).

For weekly showtimes and updates on special events, please visit davistheater.com.

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