Dennis Wolkowicz remembers, as a nine-year-old, going to see the 1959 classic Ben-Hur at the Portage Theater. “People lined Milwaukee Avenue oblivious to the fact that it was raining cats and dogs,” he said last week, sitting in the lobby of the 92-year-old single-screen movie house.
Now 62, Wolkowicz says he’d rather forget the dramatic last few months at the Portage, where he’s operations manager. In early September, after the Chicago Tabernacle ended its effort to purchase the theater and convert it into a house of worship, controversial Congress Theater owner Erineo “Eddie” Carranza swooped in to buy the place, surprising Wolkowicz and his business partner, David Dziedzic, who had matched the Tabernacle’s offer of $2.5 million. With the troubled Congress, Carranza has run afoul of Ald. Proco “Joe” Moreno. The 1st Ward boss called a Deleterious Impact/Public Nuisance hearing in March to demand the promoter address the venue’s crowd-control, security and underage-drinking issues—problems Logan Square residents have complained about for years.
Carranza sketched his plans for the Portage in a September 9 post on EveryBlock: “There are no immediate formal plans for our own entertainment programming as the current tenant maintains the venue’s event calendar. However, we will seek opportunities and will put forth ideas to further add diverse entertainment programming and live music events.”
But Carranza soon reversed course, upsetting 45th Ward Ald. John Arena. “My office learned early Saturday that Mr. Carranza is threatening to evict the current operators of the Portage Theater for lack of payment of a disputed amount of back rent,” Arena said in a September 22 e-mail newsletter. (Wolkowicz and Dziedzic, whose lease on the Portage is through 2015, say they struck a deal with the former owner to foot the bill for necessary building maintenance in lieu of paying rent.) Arena went on: “This is despite assurances Mr. Carranza gave…that he would not make any changes to the operations at the Portage in the short term.” (Calls to Carranza’s lawyer, Thomas Raines, were unreturned.)
“When we had discussions with [Carranza],” Dziedzic said by phone, “he expressed the desire and the plan of removing as many seats as he could from the auditorium and throwing the most lucrative shows that he could.”
This is bad news for the Portage’s film programmers. The eclectic group includes the Silent Film Society of Chicago; horror maven Rusty Nails, who curates the Terror in the Aisles series; and the Northwest Chicago Film Society. The theater also is a go-to venue for local independent filmmakers’ premieres, beloved annual events like Lebowski Fest and the occasional live band booked by Empty Bottle Presents.
On September 26, about 200 people showed up for a weekly screening by the Northwest Chicago Film Society. Its trio of cinephiles—Julian Antos, Becca Hall and Kyle Westphal—specializes in vintage Hollywood fare. “It’s really nice to see so many people out here for, let’s face it, a film that’s pretty strange,” Westphal said, introducing 1929’s The Great Gabbo. The 35-millimeter print, Hall happily announced, came from the Library of Congress collection.
As Antos ran the projector, Hall and Westphal stood in the lobby, discussing the possible eviction. Uprooting their series could impact its relationship with archives, collectors and studios. “You need to seem like reliable people” to get access to prints, Hall said.
“It’s about having a home base and having an established audience and a program that they can trust,” Westphal added. “We’ve been able to cultivate that at the Portage.”
NCFS projects only celluloid. As more theaters transition to digital, viable venues become fewer. “The ability to move to a new space with top-flight 35-millimeter projection equipment,” Westphal said, “it’s getting harder and harder.”
Wolkowicz is confident he and Dziedzic can carve out a compromise with Carranza and the programmers won’t have to find new homes. “Hopefully,” he said, “he’ll recognize that what we’re doing has value.”
Portage regular Vicki Adler, a 70-year-old retiree at the Gabbo screening, had stronger words for Carranza: “Go fuck yourself!”