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Swimming With Sharks

The latest chapter in the battle for control of the Uptown Theater involves shady landlords, pie-eyed restorationists, and a mysterious buyer woh vanished overnight.

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By Ben Joravsky

From time to time over the last few years one reporter or another has written the sad story of the Uptown Theater, a great old movie palace caught in the clutches of penny-pinching land scavengers who don't care if it lives or dies.

As the refrain goes, a band of restorationists nobly strives to keep the building functional--making repairs out of their own pockets--while desperately trying to raise enough money from city or private backers to meet owner Lou Wolf's purchase price of over $1 million.

The story was retold last month by newspapers coast to coast, after the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the Uptown on its list of the country's 11 most endangered historic places. "It needs at least $150,000 in basic repairs, not to mention millions to restore it to its grandeur," says Ron Emrich, executive director of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois. "If the building doesn't fall into good hands very soon, I'm afraid it could simply implode."

But what the stories didn't report--because most of the people involved didn't know--is that the Uptown was available for purchase at the county's last two scavenger sales of tax-delinquent property. In other words, restorationists could have pulled the property from Wolf's control for a few thousand dollars had they, city officials, or local politicians been just a little savvier about how land deals in Chicago really work.

"I've never seen a project that's had more sad, bad luck than the Uptown," says Curt Mangel, a restorationist who has spent 12 years trying to revive the theater. "The scavenger sale is just another example of this poor theater's sad fate. Not being an expert at scavenger sales, we got screwed. We were swimming with sharks, and yet we were naive."

The confusing, often seesaw battle for control of the Uptown goes back at least 16 years, when Wolf and his partner Ken Goldberg picked it up from the Plitt movie chain. They showed little interest in operating it as a theater, allowing it to stand shuttered and vacant--a hideous boarded-up scab blocking development at Broadway and Lawrence, one of Uptown's most important commercial intersections.

In 1984 Mangel was allowed access to the building. What he saw both blew his mind and broke his heart. It was one of the grandest theaters he had ever seen, an eight-story structure with a 40-foot-high front lobby, ornately painted ceilings, opulently embellished fixtures mixing Spanish baroque and Renaissance styles, and more than 4,000 seats--reportedly more than any other movie theater in the country. But it was in horrid disrepair.

"I walked in there and saw six inches of ice coming down the grand stairs," says Mangel. "The boiler was broken and the pipes had burst. There were 48,000 square feet [of space] in the basement and it was all under four feet of water. The place was just piled high with junk--sinks, pipes, stoves--someone was using it as a storage warehouse for kitchen equipment, of all things. I keep saying that God must have a good sense of humor to give the Uptown to these guys."

Over the next few months an odd but mutually beneficial relationship developed between Wolf and Mangel. Wolf, a convicted arsonist, is one of the city's most notorious landlords, known for buying property cheap, sitting on it without paying taxes or making repairs, and selling it years later for top dollar.

Mangel, in contrast, admits he's helpless at wheeling and dealing. He is, instead, a brilliant tinkerer, able to take apart and put together the intricate innards of watches, pipe organs, boilers, and other machines. He persuaded Wolf to give him a key to the Uptown in return for making repairs on some of the landlord's other properties.

"I always believe in being fair with people, and for all his faults with his other buildings, Mr. Wolf's not half bad with the Uptown," says Mangel. "At least he let me in to fix it up, and he even paid for some of the repairs. I think he was fond of me because he thought I was full of piss and vinegar. Personally, I don't care for Ken Goldberg. But I feel fortunate to say that I've seen the real Mr. Wolf, as opposed to the caricature created by the press. If you met with him you'd think he was a grandfather, that's how quiet and nondescript he is. And I can say this: If he says he's going to do something, consider it done. He's very honorable in his own way."

By the late 1980s Mangel had joined forces with a local developer named Larry Mandell in an effort to buy the Uptown and reopen it as a theater. "I love that building," says Mandell. "I was willing to put years and years of my life into it."

For a few years they had backing from a developer in Milwaukee; after that deal fell through they detected interest on the part of Disney, Mike Ilitch--who owns Little Caesars and renovated the Fox Theatre, one of Detroit's grand movie palaces--and Garth Drabinsky, the chairperson of Livent Incorporated, a Toronto-based entertainment conglomerate.

But these prospects also died. Mandell says the city refused to commit the necessary funds. "The problem going back to the Washington administration is that the city never wanted to make an investment that it thought would compete with the downtown theater market," says Mandell. "I understand State Street is integral, but there can be two great theaters. The city kept telling me about the Chicago Theatre, and I kept telling them to look out for Rosemont. I said there's enough business for two big theaters. Sure enough, Rosemont built a big theater, and now we're seeing the 6 percent amusement tax going out there instead of staying here."

City planning officials say they would have been interested in funding the Uptown's restoration, but the project would have cost millions, and they were never presented with a specific deal to consider.

For whatever reason, Mandell and Mangel's many proposals never came together, even as they and their backers sunk thousands into the Uptown. "We paid all the bills on the Uptown from 1986 to 1991," says Mandell. "We put a lot of money into that building--maybe $300,000--and that doesn't include the hours and hours of labor that Curt put into it. For a while we paid Wolf and Goldberg $10,000 every month for an option to buy."

Last summer they formed a not-for-profit group and intended to buy the building with money raised through donations. "We worked out a deal where we would buy the building from Wolf and Goldberg under a five-year mortgage for $1.6 million," says Mandell. "For the first two years we don't have to pay anything while we try to round up our money. It was a very good deal for everyone. It would have taken the building out of Wolf and Goldberg's hands and given us time to find our backers."

The deal was signed last September 1, but even then the building wasn't theirs. City officials told Mangel he couldn't claim title until he had paid a $40,000 outstanding water bill. Mandell countered that the bill must be erroneous, since the Uptown hadn't had water service in many years. Days and weeks passed, and in December Mandell found himself in City Hall haggling with a lawyer from the water department.

"I blew up," says Mandell. "I said, "I don't care if this building was owned by Cardinal Bernardin or Lou Wolf, if the money's not due to the city we shouldn't have to pay it.' The lawyer for the city kind of agreed, but he said he wanted to make sure that we weren't in collusion with Wolf and Goldberg. I said, "Are you crazy? We've been trying to get that building from them for years."'

The city finally realized its mistake and canceled the water bill, leaving Mandell and Mangel ready to claim the title on the Uptown. That's when the bad news broke. "I got a call from Goldberg's attorney, and he told me that the building had been sold at a county scavenger sale," says Mandell.

In short, Wolf and Goldberg had agreed to sell them a building that they couldn't really sell. It turns out that more than $400,000 in property taxes had accumulated over at least a half-dozen years, making it one of thousands of tax-delinquent properties auctioned off at the August scavenger sale.

On August 27, just a few days before Mangel and Mandell were set to consummate their long-awaited deal, a fellow by the name of David Harper bought the Uptown and its surrounding parcels of vacant land for about $23,000, according to the county treasurer's office, which oversees scavenger sales.

Wolf and Goldberg were notified that unless they paid their property taxes by May 1 they'd lose the property, but they let that deadline pass.

The sale, says Mandell, caught him by surprise, since he was expecting the local alderman, Mary Ann Smith (48th), to keep him abreast of potential obstacles.

But Greg Harris, Smith's chief of staff, says his office assumed no one would bid on the Uptown since it had such a huge delinquent tax bill.

In fact, buyers are excused from paying back taxes on property acquired at auctions. "It's a tax reactivation sale--the whole point is to get property in the hands of people who will pay future taxes," says an official with the treasurer's office. "You're bidding on the tax lien of delinquent property. The county then goes to court to have the sale confirmed. If the previous owner doesn't pay his delinquent bill after a minimum of six months, a new deed is awarded, and the old taxes are expunged from the record."

This was not even the first time someone bought the tax lien to the Uptown at a scavenger sale, according to the treasurer's records. In 1993 someone named Gene Ware purchased the lien to the property for $3,500. But Ware never followed up on his bid by appearing in court to obtain the deed, so the property remained with Wolf and Goldberg. As hard as it is to swallow, the very Uptown for which Mandell and Mangel were willing to spend $1.6 million might have been theirs for as little as $3,600. At the very least, they could have attempted to purchase the property in August by outbidding Harper.

Mangel says he wasn't aware that they could have purchased the Uptown in 1993 or last August. Mandell says he was. "You have to remember that we were negotiating with Wolf and Goldberg in good faith," says Mandell. "It wouldn't have been illegal to buy the Uptown at the scavenger sale, but it would have been immoral. And that's not the way you should do business. And we wanted to do everything honorable with Wolf because, as I have said, Louie Wolf was always honorable with us."

Besides, Mandell continues, the Uptown actually includes three parcels of tax-delinquent land near Broadway and Lawrence. "Anytime he wanted, Louie could have retained ownership to at least one parcel by paying the back taxes, and we still would have had to deal with him. With twenty-twenty hindsight, yes, we could have bought the property at the scavenger sale. But it's really the city and county's fault for letting that parcel go up for sale when they knew we were working on a deal for it."

In any event, attention now turns to the buyers: Harper and Howard Weitzman, who's listed as one of Harper's "authorized bidders" on forms filed with the treasurer.

Mandell says he and Mangel met with Weitzman a few months ago and offered him $150,000 for the property. "Weitzman was a nice man," says Mandell. "He seems knowledgeable. He said make me an offer. And we did. He agreed to that offer. Since then he's stopped talking to us, and we haven't been able to reach him by phone. It doesn't make any sense."

According to Harris, Alderman Smith, who had been unable to persuade Wolf to maintain his property, insists it will be different with Weitzman. Harris recounts a conversation between Smith and Weitzman: "She said, "If you do anything to that building we will hold you to the highest standards.' He assured the alderman that he would."

Meanwhile, Smith has pledged to use her connections with Mayor Daley to win the city money needed to save the Uptown or at least to convert it into some sort of mixed-use development. "We would not want to see it converted into a 20-screen multiplex bringing 4,000 cars into the neighborhood," says Harris. "But we would like something that's true to the architectural integrity. Maybe some retail and theaters. We talked to an architect who has done this kind of renovation work, and he said the key is not to compete with the Chicago Theatre. There are only so many touring Broadway shows."

But Mangel, Emrich, and other restorationists hold out hope that the building will be restored, a multimillion-dollar effort that would require a huge investment by the city to build more parking.

In the fall the National Trust will hold its convention in Chicago. There are plans to hold a reception at the Aragon Ballroom. Afterward, Emrich and others plan to lead tours of the nearby Uptown to build support for restoration and to find investors. "I take so many people on tours of the Uptown, and no one fails to be impressed," says Emrich. "People stand in the front entrance, look up at that ceiling, and say, "My God, we can't let this die.' I keep thinking we have to get Maggie Daley here. She is a lover of art and architecture, and with someone like that on our side a lot can be done."

Emrich hopes that Weitzman will accept an offer for the building--or at the very least that he won't pay his property taxes, and the restorationists can buy it in the summer of 1997 at the next scavenger sale.

For his part, Mandell says he can't wait that long, and will move on to other projects, but Mangel vows to persevere. "I have a friend who calls me the keeper of lost dreams because I'm always taking on projects that other people wouldn't touch," he says. "The Uptown's the only one not finished yet. It's heartbreaking to think that we could have bought it at a scavenger sale, but I can't look back. It's been worth the 12-year effort. And I still say the day will come when I get it done."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos of Curt Mangel and the Uptown Theater by Paul L. Merideth.

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