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Against All Odds: Can citizens save the Nortown theater?



The shutdown came without warning; one day the old Nortown theater was open, and the next day it was closed.

That was in May 1990, and the closing left many residents and business owners in West Rogers Park concerned. The massive, 8,000-square-foot Depression-era movie theater at 6320 N. Western--best known for its glorious "starlit" ceiling--was the entertainment centerpiece of the community in the 50s and 60s. People came from across the north side and from the suburbs to see movies there.

Now residents worry that the boarded-up building will draw vandals and frighten investors from nearby business strips that flourish along Devon and Western avenues. "This theater could be a boost for our neighborhood," says Susan Vikstrom Lukatch, who lives in the area. "We don't want it to be a weakness."

With that in mind, Lukatch and other residents got together last fall and formed Friends of the Nortown Theater (FONT). They hope to raise enough money to buy the building, rehab it, and convert it into a community arts center.

They are a plucky group, but the odds are against them; they are operating at a time when community investment dollars are short and renovation costs high. Their success or failure will measure the ability of city residents everywhere to find the money to rebuild their communities in a period of social-spending cuts and war overseas.

"We're hopeful even though we know what we're up against," says Lukatch, the group's president. "Once word of what we want to do gets out, there will be support. At least that's what we hope."

The community is a mixture of Jews, Greeks, and East Indians and other Asians. For the most part, they get along. The schools are good and property values stable. A few years ago there were some attacks on a few of the Indian-owned stores on Devon. But community groups rallied around the shop owners.

"To me, this community is what makes Chicago great," says Lukatch. "It's the diversity, the ethnicity. You have different shapes, sizes, ages, and colors. I've always been fascinated by language and culture. Here you have cultures from all over the world. That's our strength."

Last year, Lukatch and other volunteers finally finished rebuilding Indian Boundary Park. It had been a three-year, $300,000 effort, with money coming from private foundations and the Park District and construction crews and workers donating their labor.

The Nortown task may be more difficult. The theater is owned by Cineplex Odeon, the movie-theater conglomerate based in California. A few years ago Cineplex subdivided the Nortown into three smaller-screen theaters--a move that disappointed movie fans and architecture buffs. When Cineplex bought and enlarged the Lincoln Village movie-theater complex a mile or so away, the Nortown was doomed.

"The decision to close the Nortown was strictly economics," says Lukatch. "Cineplex didn't want competition for its new theater complex. . . . Cineplex has also indicated that they don't want the Nortown converted back into another movie theater. So that limits some options."

In addition, the building needs about $120,000 worth of roof repair and tuck-pointing. But sentiment for saving old movie palaces is usually strong; leaders of the Copernicus Foundation, a Polish organization, raised enough money to buy and revive the old Gateway theater at 5216 W. Lawrence, and the Chicago Theatre downtown was also saved from destruction in the mid-1980s. Both projects, however, were probably easier than the Nortown venture will be.

"They're up against a lot," says Nick Rabkin, deputy commissioner for the city's Department of Cultural Affairs. "First of all, these theaters are dinosaurs. There's nostalgia for them, but that's about it. The Chicago Theatre was saved because there were some rich people who could make money through tax write-offs. With the Copernicus center, you had a uni-ethnic culture behind it. The Nortown's backers represent many different cultures. I know that they think that's their strength, and I'm all in favor of cultural diversity. But unlike Copernicus, they won't have one solid constituency and fund-raising base to tap. The very thing they claim as an advantage may be a disadvantage."

The Nortown backers also have to find a focus for their new arts center. Most successful community-based art centers, like the Mexican Fine Arts Center in Pilsen, have a specific identity. In contrast, the two lakefront mansions that Edgewater residents converted into arts centers a few years ago may now have to close. Part of the problem is that there is no parking; but there's also an identity crisis--people don't know what the centers are there for. Similarly, 47th Ward residents are wrestling with what to install in their soon-to-be-completed cultural center at the old Hild Library on the 4500 block of North Lincoln.

"I love the idea of a cultural center, everyone does," says Rabkin. "But it's one of those feel-good ideas, with no real meaning until you get specific. Is it one big theater with a lot of little arts groups around it? Is it a bunch of artists and arts groups renting space in a building? You have to have an identity and you must identify a need before you build it."

Lukatch and other FONT members have informed theater and dance companies of their proposed project, but so far no commitments have been made. One suggestion is to convert the Nortown into a children's theater.

"There are a lot of schools and young children in the area, so I think a children's theater would be great," says Lukatch. "We would find a lot of support for that. We have talked to one children's theater company. But it's still early to say how serious they are."

The final task--raising money--might be the hardest. It took Edgewater activists years to complete their project, and they had the vociferous support of Kathy Osterman, then the local alderman.

Money for the Hild cultural center came from the late mayor Harold Washington, who used the project to win support on other matters from 47th Ward Alderman Eugene Schulter. But at the moment, the Nortown project has no political heavy hitters behind it. It's in the 50th Ward, whose incumbent, Bernard Stone, is locked in a heated race for reelection against a DePaul University professor named Hank Rubin. Rubin and Stone both support saving the Nortown (it's perhaps the only thing they do agree on), but neither has the ear of Mayor Daley.

Not that it would make much difference if they did; with money so tight, even Daley's hands are tied. Mayor Washington, who saw the arts as a tool for economic development, put Rabkin in charge of developing art studios, dance spaces, and theaters throughout the city. Though Daley has expressed similar sentiments, federal urban-aid budget cuts have forced him to slash money for such ventures. With the federal deficit rising and more money being spent on the war against Iraq, there's little hope the programs can be revived.

"Most state money for arts development is for planning such projects, not building them," says Rabkin. "I'm sorry to say that you can't get much to cover the costs of the actual bricks and mortar."

As Rabkin sees it, the key to saving the Nortown hinges on the community's ability to purchase the building at a reasonable price. Cineplex still owns it. According to Lukatch, the company has only had one firm purchase offer.

"A church offered to buy the Nortown for $288,000, and Cineplex turned them down," says Lukatch. "They say they want at least $320,000. I don't know how long they can hold at that price. The real estate market is kind of flat. Maybe that will work to our advantage. I know they are a business and that businesses watch the profits. But you have to think there are public relations advantages to helping us succeed."

For the moment, she and her allies remain confident. Fifty residents showed up at their last meeting, and 21 local organizations have signed on. Perhaps the biggest factor in their favor is the residents' fond memories.

"I grew up in Hyde Park, so I had never been to the Nortown until my husband took me there," says Lukatch. "He said, 'You have to see the Nortown.' That was our first date, long before we were married. We went to see the movie Star Wars. When I walked in, I was overwhelmed by the decor. I was so busy looking at the decor that I almost forgot about the movie; it kind of snuck up on me.

"I remember there were stars on the screen, stars on the ceiling, and stars in my eyes--it was a great date! Memories like that are going to help keep our efforts alive."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.

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