Posts Tagged ‘Uptown Theater’

Rialto Square Theater, Joliet

December 6, 2010

I have long been a fan of the Rialto Square Theater in Joliet, a wondrous Rapp & Rapp vaudeville movie palace from 1926. I have brought tour groups to see its hall of mirrors, rotunda with oversized chandelier, and ornate and exuberant auditorium for more than a quarter of a century. When I left my first job in 1985, they actually threw a party for me in the rotunda, which amazes me in retrospect.

But theaters have always been a challenge economically, even in the best times. In the late 1980s I was involved, as a staffer at Landmarks Illinois, in the unsuccessful effort to save the Granada Theater in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. I had actually seen a show in the theater in 1980 (The Rocky Horror Show – the London-based stage show, not the movie) and it was another 1920s extravagance of architectural ornament. But it had no parking, no viable use for its large size, and as we looked into its history since its construction in 1929, it quickly became apparent that this building had NEVER been financially viable.

Granada Theater interior, Historic American Buildings Survey photo

Presentism biases our perspective in many areas, and economics is no exception. There has been a lot of discussion about the failure of the house museum model in recent decades, how the economics have changed. Similarly, in the world of theaters, movie economics changed in the 1970s and 1980s so that only multiplex theaters can survive economically. Thus, we see old house museums and old theaters as beautiful, wondrous reminders of a time when society in some respects was richer.

“Hall of mirrors” entrance lobby, Rialto Square Theatre, Joliet

And they are beautiful. And wondrous. And they epitomize a richness that society felt in that time that it arguably does not (can not?) feel today. And yes, the economics of movie consumption changed during my lifetime. But vaudeville movie palaces were not built for movies, as our friends at the Uptown Theater pointed out – they were built for shows, of which movies constituted a minority portion.

Ringling Theater, Baraboo Wisconsin

The real historical fact of the matter is this: the Granada Theater was built with a 1929 presentism and never made a dollar in its 60 year life. House museums that were saved in the 20th century never made sense economically unless they had an endowment. The Rialto Square Theater made the news yesterday because it is missing a $2.2 million renovations upgrade promised from the state of Illinois and the City of Joliet is questioning the $700,000 operating subsidy they provide the theater each year. The theater was saved in the 1970s through the creation of a county exposition authority which was effectively another unit of government that could raise the renovation funds through bonds. And the theater continually does fundraising, like public radio and television and all sorts of non-profits.

Rialto Square Theater, Rotunda

This does not mean the decision to save the Rialto – or the Uptown – is wrong, These buildings are worth the extra money, the extra effort, and thankfully they can be creatively programmed – the Uptown can be a profitable venue once the massive rehabilitation cost is complete. The Rialto has managed for 30 years now and it is truly a community center in a downtown which lost many of its historic buildings to parking structures, casinos and suspicious fires. Art galleries have cropped up in the storefronts that surround it – storefronts that were built in 1926 by developers who knew THEN that a theater by itself was an economically risky proposition. The same was true of many other such buildings of the period. These buildings of course have an enormous nostalgic sway over people, and as community places they witnessed significant social interactions over time. They are arguably among those sites – along with conservatories, parks, libraries and schools – that deserve a public subsidy in the increasingly diminished commons of American society. But don’t go into it with the illusion that the economics of viability are easily secured – or ever, ever were.


August 3, 2008

August already in Chicago, normally time for some landmarks shenanigans by the powers that be. At least, that used to be the tradition in the 1980s – announce a big historic-building-damaging project in August when the goo-goos were off in Saugatuck or Door County and couldn’t mount public opposition. That may be less true in the Internet age, because you can get the internet next to the pool in Rowley’s Bay. We shall see if down time dog days produce anything this year, but in the meantime I need to catch up on landmarks news in Illinois…

The big news at Landmarks Illinois is the selection of Jim Peters as the new President of Landmarks Illinois. Peters brings excellent credentials, being an award-winning faculty member of our SAIC Master’s program in historic preservation for seven years, a former Director of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, and a certified planner with a preservation degree. Jim also knows everyone and knows how to get things done, which is the LI way. I can proudly say I was on the Search Committee that unanimously chose Jim.

Budget cuts everywhere. The DysState of Illinois has halved its staff budget at the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency which has cut the hours at historic sites and has already suffered a decade of budget cuts. Hello? What is the state’s biggest industry? Tourism, you say? Well, then, let’s shut down all of the tourist sites! These state pols couldn’t find out which side their bread buns were buttered on with both hands and a flashlight.

At the National Trust budget tightening is striking as well, thanks to the faltered economy, although not nearly as draconian as Illinois. Usually a down economy means an uptick in my industry (one of the nation’s few with a positive trade balance) education, although we will have to wait until the fall class shows up to prove that one.

Jerry Mickleson of Jam Productions bought the Uptown Theater, which has been shuttered since the early 80s and despite landmark status in ’91 has continued to fall to bits because it is a massive theater with no parking in an endearingly sketchy neighborhood. Jam was the last one to use it, booking rock acts, a couple of which I saw in college, and they probably have a better sense of how to make it work than those who love the theater more.

That is one of the great conundrums at the heart of historic preservation. We save buildings because we fall in love with them, and we fall in love with them because we see them so much or learn so much about them and the more we take in each historical and artistic detail the more we want to preserve – on a pedestal – the object of our affection. But like all love objects, historic buildings should not be put on a pedestal and that is why so few can become museums. Pygmalion is an enduring human fiction.

In this regard I was chatting (electronically) with Mark Harmon, Site Director at the Gaylord Building in Lockport, about the future of that National Trust property (where I chair the Site Council). The building decided decisively NOT to be just a museum when it opened in 1987 and again 15 years later. Half of it has always been a restaurant, a paying tenant. The other half is interpretive (or interpretative if you like an extra syllable) with various galleries and visitors centers occupying its three floors over time. Half museum, so to speak, and our strategic plan a few years back basically came to the conclusion that we have to make our museum-side more commercial (we would love to have a 19th century general store there) and the restaurant side more interpretive, to better integrate the identity of the National Trust’s first adaptive re-use property. This is the goal we are working toward, as Mark sagely noted and I responded that the greatest innovation we could offer the preservation world would be leases for commercial tenants that hold them to certain interpretive goals.

It is a fine balancing act between the refined tastes of the artist and the base urges of commerce, between Pygmalion and the blow up doll. That balance is an art and it is the reality of life – as opposed to the artificiality of the pedestal and the love that smothers.