Volunteer caretakers prevent the Uptown Theatre from crumbling

Andy Pierce and Friends of the Uptown keep the landmark on life support.

I was in the fifth grade and a Cub Scout when the Uptown Theatre’s marquee lights were turned off 30 years ago, on December 19, 1981. For the last 13 years, I’ve been working as one of several caretakers of the grand, shuttered 86-year-old movie palace at 4816 North Broadway.

My relationship with the Uptown began on a frigid winter day in 1998. I volunteered to help prep the venue for a special-event rental—a Chamber of Commerce dinner maybe. I removed a ’40s-era curtain hanging in shreds from the grand lobby window facing Broadway. “Should it be saved?” I asked volunteer coordinator Curt Mangel.

“No, it will be replaced when the restoration happens,” he said without a hint of doubt that the Uptown would one day be returned to its former glory. Mangel is a restoration consultant who first gained the trust of the theater’s reputed slumlords Ken Goldberg and Lou Wolf in the ’80s so that groups of volunteers could gain access to the building for regular maintenance.

The Uptown’s dilapidated beauty bewitched me, so I asked Mangel to put me on the volunteer mailing list. “Mailing list?” he responded. “That’s a good idea.”

In 1998, we founded Friends of the Uptown. Though the Uptown was saved from the wrecking ball when it was designated a Chicago landmark on October 2, 1991, the serious threat of decay by neglect remained. Without a vigilant volunteer effort, there’s no doubt the theater—once a hive of moviegoers and, in later years, concerts by the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Prince—would’ve slowly crumbled to the sidewalk at Broadway and Lawrence.

Over the years, my duties have included sweeping, mopping, thawing out pipes, shooing out feral animals, maintaining a sump pump, public relations and court advocacy. We’ve stoked the old boiler to keep the theater’s thousands of square feet as warm and dry as possible and gone through countless buckets of hydraulic cement, sealing cracks in the steel roof drains pushed open by ice. Drainage failure during the arctic winters of the early ’80s allowed water to do serious damage to some of the plaster ceilings and walls.

But for every patch of plaster that needs repair, there are spots that look as they did in 1925 and need only cleaning and painting. In the silent auditorium, time is frozen. The carved maidens, griffins and laughing kings that populate the soaring walls await their next audience.

Outside, along Broadway, I boarded up several lobby doors to deter squatters and thieves, who had plundered decorative elements such as ornate wall sconces. On the wooden panels, I stenciled a plea for respect: historic uptown theater - post no bills. The request, surprisingly, was mostly abided.

My tenure as an Uptown volunteer is just a speck on the theater’s caretaking timeline. Bob Boin, who put the theater’s bronze and crystal chandeliers in storage, is in his third decade. David Syfczak, the volunteer security guard since 1996, frequently does plaster repairs and paints.

While Monday 19 marks yet another year without the Uptown, there have been some uplifting developments as of late: The city’s power brokers, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and 48th Ward Ald. Harry Osterman, see the theater as one key to kick-starting development of the Uptown Square entertainment district, which also includes the Riviera Theatre and the Aragon. Jam Productions, which bought the Uptown in 2008, is the first owner since its closure seriously seeking to revive the venue for live performances.

Still, the big question remains: How will the restoration, estimated to cost $70 million, be funded? I hope the answer doesn’t take another three decades to come.

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