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Feature Wed Feb 23 2011
This article was submitted by Gordon McAlpin.
Portage Park's gorgeous Patio Theater opened in January 1927, what was then a mid-sized movie palace, with a mere 1500 seats. Designed by Rudolph G. Wolff in the Spanish Renaissance style, its atmospheric canopy is dotted with twinkling "stars" and projected moving clouds, like the 850-seat Music Box's, which opened two years later.
At the time, the Chicago movie theater business was largely controlled by large, national chains Lubliner & Trinz, Balaban & Katz and Essaness, but the Patio was started by three Greek immigrants — William, John and George Mitchell (originally Michalopoulas) — at a cost of $750,000. Its first film was The Blonde Saint, an adaptation of a Stephen French Whitman novel.
The Patio flourished for decades as a first-run theater, until television started to eat away at the movie business. John Mitchell, who took over in 1942 after his brother William died, reluctantly allowed the building to fall into disrepair. To save on taxes, a vertical section of the marquee — like those seen on the Music Box or the Davis — was removed. In 1970, the Patio turned into a second-run movie house. In 1976, after the death of George Mitchell, the Patio was turned over to outside management. After John Mitchell passed away in 1981, the Mitchell family put the theater (along with the rest of the building) up for sale.
Alexander Kouvalis, a commercial real estate broker, bought the building in 1987 for $380,000 in back property taxes. He ran the theater until August 2001, when the theater was closed — but the reason didn't seem to be a matter of public record. A decade later, the Patio has a fresh coat of paint, and is set to reopen in the next few months, under the management of Demetri Kouvalis, Alexander Kouvalis's 22-year-old son.
The younger Kouvalis showed Gapers Block around the restored Patio and help filled in the gaps.
Did the Patio close because of slow business?
Demetri Kouvalis: No, it closed because the air conditioner broke down, and during that time, the [Public Place of Amusement (PPA)] license was a new thing in Chicago. And so he was trying to go through all the procedures and the forms that you need to go through to obtain this license, but I guess he wasn't quick enough.
And then he had trouble with the air conditioner, trying to fix it, so on top of the air conditioner breaking down, the city came and closed us down, because we didn't file for the license fast enough.
That was in the end of July, beginning of August of 2001. He couldn't find anybody to fix it. Everybody wanted to just put in a new air conditioning system, which would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace. And then Sept. 11th happened, and then nobody wanted to go out for a few months. We didn't even want to bother opening at that period.
And then around 2003-2004, two of the partners that had the building with my father, they wanted to back out. They didn't want to put in the money to reopen the theater, so my dad had to buy them out. Because he spent a lot of money buying them out, he couldn't fix the theater [and] try to fix the air conditioner, because his priority was trying to put me through college and my sister through high school. And he was getting older. He was about 67 at the time. He put all this work in, and he said he wanted to retire.
I recently graduated from UIC with a business degree, and I said, "Well, you know, we have this building. It's a great opportunity. Nobody I know can say the same thing — that they have a theater that they could open." So I convinced my father that I would help him reopen the theater, and he trusted me, that I could run it. That's how we started, in May, trying to renovate the theater and try and open it.
So you basically grew up here.
I born here and raised here until about 12, then we moved to the northwest suburbs. But we came here a lot, because my dad owns the theater and the apartment building and the stores in front, so he would take care of those.
Do you know what kind of movies you'll be showing?
The same like before — the only difference is, back then, my father had $2 or $3 admission prices. We're going to put it at $5 now — all day, for all ages. We might have some deals... We don't know yet.
Because it's a $5 admission fee, the film distributors, they have all these rules. You can't get first run unless you charge at least $7.50. So we're going to be second run, like before, but I think we're going to get the movie maybe a week before we used to. So you can expect to see us show a new movie two, three, four weeks at the most later.
With the $5 admissions, we have the ability, then, to charge less for concessions. Because, you know, AMC and all those big theaters — if they charge $10, the distributors take, like, 95 percent of the profits from tickets, so they have to charge a ridiculous amount for food and popcorn and drinks. So we'll have a much more convenient price for concessions.
This is mainly a community theater. The community, back when my father had it, that was the main audience, but then we'd have people coming from the north suburbs, the west suburbs, from downtown, just to see the place and come watch a movie in this kind of atmosphere.
The only competition we have now is [the AMC Loews Norridge 10], and they're doing worse and worse every year. I don't think they're going to be too big of a competition for us. And the next one is Logan, and that's a bit away from here.
They're a small theater. They have four screens—
—Yeah, they cut it up.
Everybody has been telling me that they're so surprised that we didn't chop this theater up, that kept it in the original one screen. My father had good business before with one screen, so I think we could continue the same business. Especially with one screen, we can choose which movies we can play. The better movies, we can play. Then we don't have to split four movies with four screens and have two bad movies and two good movies.
Have you thought about doing short-run revival screenings, like midnight Raiders of the Lost Ark?
That's definitely an idea... Probably not within the first six months. We're just want to try to get all the money back that we put into the place. But yeah, I could see us maybe one or two Sundays a month, playing classic movies, or maybe midnight showings of something — and hopefully being in the circuit for Chicago film festivals and independent films, to attract more people from outside the neighborhood.
Do you have a closer timeframe to when it's going to be open?
It's totally up to the city, because we're about 95 percent done with fixing the inside. We started filing papers with the city right after Thanksgiving, and we already have our food license and everything, but the PPA takes a long time. Until all those papers are done, we cannot open the theater at all. We hope to open in the beginning or middle of March, if the city doesn't give us any trouble, which I don't think they should.
I'm surprised we had so many people join the Facebook page so quickly. I'm glad word of mouth is spreading quickly. We don't expect anything from the community; we just want them to be excited and get ready for us opening.
Photos by Charlene Epple and Gordon McAlpin.
This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.