Trying times for the Portage Theater

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The historic Portage marquee
  • The historic Portage marquee
The legendary Portage Theater—Chicago's oldest movie palace still in operation—is in the news again. On Friday Jim DeRogatis reported at WBEZ's website that Erineo "Eddie" Carranza, the theater's new owner as of September 1, served a five-day eviction notice to the current management on the grounds that they owe approximately $103,000 in back rent. DeRogatis posted another report on Sunday, going into further detail on the bad blood between Carranza and Portage Park alderman John Arena. In brief, Arena claims that Carranza broke his promise to the community (made at a meeting only earlier last week) that he would not pursue an eviction. He also intends to block approval for Carranza to receive either a liquor license or a public place of amusement license at the Portage, citing "documented history of deferred maintenance, rowdy crowds, and underage drinking [that is] not welcome at Six Corners.”

News of a five-day eviction notice may sound dire, but it's unlikely that the Portage Theater will close its doors this week. This morning I spoke with Arena's chief of staff, Owen Brugh, who explained that Carranza and his lawyer Tom Raines merely issued a notice of intention to file an eviction—which is essentially a strong warning and not a binding threat. "It's important to note that commercial evictions take a while," Brugh said. "The legal proceedings can take years, especially in cases of disputed back rent." In other words, Northwest Chicago Film Society will still screen The Great Gabbo this Wednesday at 7:30 PM. (Some movies are just too weird to suppress, apparently.)

I also spoke with Raines, who told me that Carranza does not want to make things impossible the current management. According to Raines, the eviction warning arrives after managers Dennis Wolkowicz and Dave Dziedzic failed to answer Carranza's requests of when they'll start paying off their back rent. He emphasized that Carranza hopes to negotiate the matter with the managers and that he's not requesting the full amount up front.

In his Sunday post DeRogatis wrote positively about the Portage's managers, arguing they fell behind in rent because of "costly repairs to the venue that should have been done by the former owner but which were urgently needed to keep the venue viable and open to the public." Raines didn't contradict this argument, and in fact spoke complimentary about Wolkowicz when I mentioned him. "Dennis is a well-regarded person, both by us and in the community," he said, adding that Carranza would like Wolkowicz to stay involved with the Portage. "He'll always have a job here," Raines told me.

Carranza would like to use the theater for more than film exhibition, as he feels the theater can accommodate concerts, plays, and comedy shows in addition to movies. "There's no reason why there can't be several [different] programs a day," Raines said. "We feel that showing movies just three or four nights a week [as the current management does] is not making full use of the theater."

If Arena does keep Carranza from securing the appropriate licenses, the Portage might not be used for much at all when Wolkowicz and Dziedzic's lease expires in 2015. Here's hoping that the alderman, the new owners, and the current management can come together for the common good of the theater and its loyal audiences.

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