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History Thu Apr 19 2012

Celluloid, Graft & Puppies: The (Abbreviated) Portage Theater Story

The Portage Theater Building at 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave. is built with bricks and history. You can never perfectly record a building's history in an essay or article. You can participate in it, live in it, or sample it, but the building itself can't be presented in words alone. When it's gone; when it's demolished or stripped of presence and purpose, its story is over.

The Portage Theatre, Chicago

Presently, both the Portage and its story are threatened. Last September, 45th Ward Alderman John Arena was visited by members of the Chicago Tabernacle Church, who asked for his support in pursuing the purchase and conversion of the historic theater. They wanted to remove the theater's snazzy marquee; alter the auditorium for worship services; evict current tenants living or operating out of the building's storefronts and apartments in order to build classrooms and offices; and end all current film programming. Arena declined, and suggested alternate locations. Likewise a large, audible faction of the local community — including the Six Corners Association, the Portage Park Neighborhood Association, and the Old Irving Park Association — said no, thank you, citing the theater's importance to the area as an economic anchor and a cultural landmark. Both alderman and associations welcomed the church to the community...only elsewhere. As yet, and despite mounting opposition, the church seems intent on buying and changing the property.

On April 6, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks gave the theater preliminary landmark status, but the fight isn't over. On Friday, April 20, at 9am, the matter will finally be brought before Zoning Board of Appeals at City Hall. While there's still time, perhaps it's best to revisit the theater's background, and discover what we stand to lose should the church remake the Portage into its own image and likeness.

Before the Theater

It began with a marshy parcel of land called the Dickinson Homestead, which sat along the west wide of Milwaukee Avenue's earlier incarnation, North Plank Road. In 1919, Ms. Clara S. Lowell, widow of real estate dealer Luzerne Lowell, sold the property for $50,000 to real estate speculators and developers J.M. and Edward Browarsky. A lady of old Chicago stock, the widow Lowell was the daughter of Chester Dickinson, owner and operator of the land and a two-story, 12-room brick building that sat north of the Portage's current location. The building, the Red Horse Inn, was built in 1845 (another source says 1841), by a gentleman known as "Sutherland." Dickinson purchased the inn in 1846, and it served not only as a hostel (supposedly putting up Abe Lincoln at one point) but also a meeting place, stage depot, and Jefferson Township's first post office long before the city annexed the area.

When her father passed away, Ms. Lowell and spouse took possession of the house and all properties thereunto in 1904. Luzerne died in 1915, and Ms. Lowell assumed control of the rest of his lands. The onset of old age encouraged her to sell off a few tracts here and there, the current location of the Portage Theater Building among them. As a personal observation, according to the single photo of Ms. Lowell I came across, she probably owned a canary named Tweety Bird.

In 1919, the Tribune and several trade publications announced the theater-to-be with minor fanfare. Designed by architect Lindley Phelps Rowe, working for the architectural firm of Fridstein and Co., the new building — referred to as a "theater block" — offered a 3,000-seat auditorium that specifically showed films (rather than live acts), eight storefronts, 34 apartments, and according to alternate sources, a dancehall or fraternal lodge. Costs were projected at $400,000 to $600,000. Historically, the Portage is described as a "transitional theater," resting in the period between the smaller silent film houses and the later, grander movie palaces (the Chicago Theater and Uptown, for example). The Portage Theater Building isn't the only theater designed by Fridstein and Co. Other cinematic centers the reader might recognize are the Congress and Logan Theaters. portage_theatre_terracotta.jpgAnother bit of trivia: the fantastic, and remarkably intact terra cotta on the Portage's facade was provided by the Midland Terra Cotta Co. of Cicero. Midland outfitted many other Chicago buildings, such as the ludicrously ornate Medinah Temple.

Mr. Lindley Phelps Rowe was a perfectly fine architect possessed of a wonderfully archaic name. He's mostly remembered for a few pleasant Tudor Revival homes and other useful buildings he designed later on through a firm founded with his brother, Charles. The historical record shares little more about Mr. Rowe. We know he earned his second lieutenant bars in the army air service back in 1918. Ten years later he moved into new offices in the Engineering Building on Wacker and Wells with his brother and an architect named Frank Garrison. Rowe next appears in the Tribune's pages as the late Mr. Rowe. His obituary reveals he passed away at age 79 in 1964, having retired in 1958 after working for De Leuw Cather and Co. Godspeed, Mr. Rowe, and thanks for the Portage.

Per the September 1920 issue of Engineering World: A Journal of Engineering and Construction, the theater block was completed at 4042-60 Milwaukee Ave. The theater was first leased by Max, Nathan, and Henry Ascher, of the Ascher Brothers theater chain. Open for business starting in 1909, the brothers ran 15 theaters by the time the Portage was erected — though the construction and running of most of them hardly went without a hitch. In 1920s Chicago, Mike Royko's unofficial city motto, "Ubi Est Mea — Where's Mine?" was in full, unmitigated effect.

During construction, the Aschers were beset by labor issues. Strikes arose at inconvenient times, and were remedied with a thousand or so greenbacks slipped into the right hands. One pair of hands belonged to Tom Kearney, head of the Chicago Building Trades Council, per testimony given before the Dailey Legislative Committee in June 1921. An unnamed witness claimed that Nathan Ascher paid Kearney to settle strikes not only for the Portage, but also the Forest Park Theater and Ascher's Palace in Peoria, paying up to $450 in Roaring '20s money to the Fisher Electrical Co. to cover various "maintenance charges." Other theater owners of the time ran into similar difficulties. The Shakespeare and President Theaters on the South Side suffered regular stink bomb attacks until they too agreed to sign maintenance agreements with Fisher Electrical.

In 1921, state's attorney office detectives raided the Aschers' offices, seizing all records when it was revealed that local labor leaders pressured the Aschers to destroy their files regarding more than $15,000 "strike insurance" paid to Kearney. By some estimates, the Aschers shelled out $2,700 or more to various union business agents. Everybody was getting their share.

During construction, the Portage couldn't get its doors installed. On August 8, 1922, the Tribune reported that union business agents regularly visited the Portage (and other local theaters) with outstretched palms. Builder/witness Edward Drowaski testified that on August 18, 1920, a worker died in an accident on-site (my research suggests it didn't make the papers). When sheet-metal worker business agents Thomas Walsh and Frank Hayes showed up, they asked what was up. Drowaski informed him of the death, only to be waved off when Hayes saw several iron doors ready for installation. But as another witness explained, if sheet metal doors were installed, the carpenters would strike; but if iron doors were used instead, the sheet metal workers would strike. And so it continued if a contractor didn't "come across."

Seeing the iron doors, Walsh told Hayes to tell the sheet-metal workers to walk off at 4:30 and not come back, then pointedly told Drowaski he was a "_________ double crosser" (the expletive was deleted by the Trib's editors; I encourage the reader to add their profanity of choice), and that it would cost twice as much to get them back. Later that night, Drowaski met Hayes at the old LaSalle Hotel. Hayes said if he used the iron doors, the sheet metal workers wouldn't be back. "Pull out the doors and I'll do business with you," concluded Hayes. By the way, he also wanted three grand, the charge for being a _________ double crosser. Drowaski withdrew $1,500 from the bank and brought it to Hayes at the Hod Carriers Hall (formerly located at Green Street and Harrison, but apparently consumed by the U of I campus). Hayes accepted the cash, and the workers returned the next day.

Hayes testified otherwise. He claimed Walsh's car wasn't working that day, and after giving him a lift to the theater, the business agent saw that the doors used weren't in accordance with union rules and ordered the workers to stop . As for the money... well, that just never happened, per Walsh's statement. The jury disagreed. A few days later Walsh and several other agents were found guilty of strike fixing and sentenced to a year in the pen. Walsh and Hayes were the latest in a string of 40 convictions of, as the Tribune put it, "labor officials, jury fixers, crooked jurors, and labor terrorists."

The more one reads about Mr. Thomas J. Walsh, the more one discovers a man suspected of much unpleasantness. Individuals who tussled with him tended to go missing, and while on trial for extortion, he also faced charges for gunning down Loop "wine room" owner Adolph George, Jr. and waiter Georg Gast in front of 50 witnesses in an argument over a chair. He got off on that one too, despite several eyewitnesses saying they saw him draw a gun and plug both men. As an annoying coda, Walsh and Hayes didn't serve a single day of their one-year sentence for over five years. It was a different, nastier time. Should you visit the theater, keep in mind that all that gorgeous French neoclassical ornamentation and pretty terra cotta was hard-won, not to mention the work of hard men.

Note, however, that not all the doors at the theater are the original, controversial sheet-metal ones. The glass doors between the lobby and rotunda come from the old Marbro Theater, demolished in 1964. Recycling fragments of other showplaces was common practice. The current marquee, by the way, came from the long-gone Tivoli Theater (formerly located at 6328 S. Cottage Grove Ave.), replacing a wider electrified marquee installed in 1939. Never you mind that it's not the original though. It catches the eye. It works.

Graft and gloom aside, opening night took place at 6pm on Dec. 11, 1920, and it sounded absolutely spectacular. Advertisements promised "The grand opening of the beautiful and elaborate Portage Park Theater" with an "invitation extended to all" to enjoy:

"Musical and Vocal Specialties
PHOTOPLAYS DE LUXE
Comedies — Weeklies."

The opening night film, a silent comedy titled Just Out of College, hasn't survived in the public memory, though its writer George Ade was a popular columnist of his day. Hailing from Indiana, and good friends with famed Chicago cartoonist John T. McCutcheon — whom he worked with at the Chicago Record newspaper and collaborated with on a book or two — Ade was best known for writing plays and "modern fables," many of which, like Just Out of College, were translated to film. Reading Ade's work online, much of it rendered in mind-boggling 23-skidoo slang, one takes it on faith that our parents' parents thought the guy was freaking hilarious.

According to newspaper ads the Portage had a house band as well: George E. F. Koehler's Symphony Orchestra. Jacobs' Band Monthly, Vol. 6, a musical trade publication, reported that:

"A symphony orchestra directed by George E. F. Koehler was one of the big attractions at the opening of Ascher's new Portage Park Theater on Dec. 11. The new theater has a seating capacty of 2,500 or more, and the big audience in attendance on the opening day was entertained with a varied and interesting musical program."

Mr. Koehler is harder to pin down than Mr. Ade. Based on the few available sources mentioning him (no photos, and it's likely he didn't record), he may have headed a territory band, covering the Illinois and Minnesota region by traveling and performing in theaters, dance halls, and city park band shells, undoubtedly playing the pop hits of the day.

By 1922, the Tribune reported that the Aschers were near bankruptcy, owing to "mismanagement of corporate funds." The company went into receivership, but the Portage wasn't sold until June 1929 to the Fox Chicago Theater Company, along with the Aschers' 10 other theaters, including the Chateau, Adelphi, Calo, Lane Court, Rosewood, Terminal, Forest Park, Oakland Square, Metropolitan, Frolic, Crown, Commercial, and West Englewood Theaters. All have been either demolished or repurposed as stores or the like (Lane Court, however, became the Park West). To provide further perspective on the Portage Theater's rarity, it is the last operating movie theater in the Ascher chain.

Two years later the Greater Chicago Shows Circuit — who also ran the New Drake Theater on Montrose and the pre-stripper Admiral Theater on Lawrence — leased the Portage, closing it in July to replace the seats and make other adjustments. At this time the theater dropped the "Park" from its full name and became the Portage Theater. The original name, however, remains emblazoned in terra cotta outside.

The Portage fell out of the news for a few years until, in October 1933, it was reported that the State Realty Trust purchased it and five other playhouses from Fox. For $142,252 State Realty Trust representative Harry Krauspe acquired the building, as well as the West Englewood, Frolic, Metropolitan, Oakland and Crown Theaters. Krauspe wouldn't reveal who the new owners were, though it was likely a local chain.

In the interim, the Six Corners shopping district thrived — especially with the construction of the new million-dollar, Art Deco-inspired Sears store at ‪4730 W‬.‪ Irving Park ‬Rd., just around the corner from the theater. The neighborhood also began to experience a bit of the old ultraviolence when a group of ne'erdowell youths known as the Sunday Gang — so called because they mostly operated Sunday night through Monday morning — announced their presence with a $4,200 street car token robbery and a minor haul of cash and guns at another Sears store down Milwaukee Avenue. On September 18, 1934, the gang went on a crime spree, robbing the Portage of $20 before moving on to plunder three other theaters, a beauty salon and a gas station, netting $400.

The Sunday Gang didn't last long. Two members died before the Portage robbery. Howard Allen, 16, was shot by a chef while trying to rob the man's restaurant. The other, Harry L. Walder, 19, was gunned down by the cops in his apartment, surrounded by guns and loot. By November 6, nine members were arrested, including Ann Dean, mother of gang member Thomas Dean, 15. The police found her wearing clothes and listening to a radio sonny-boy shoplifted for her.

The gang was accused of perpetrating a total of 100 robberies and more than 200 cases of grand theft auto. The gang ranged in age from 14 to 19 (with one out of place 32-year-old), but their youth didn't cut any ice with Chief Justice Denis Sullivan, a judge not known for tenderness. Asked to consider leniency for the young hooligans, especially since it was so near Christmas, Judge Sullivan said nothing doing, stating, "I have just as much right to do that as I would to turn a mad dog loose at a Sunday school picnic." Most of the Sunday Gang received sentences of a year to life. The only member of the gang to make the papers again was Sunday Gangster Beryl Dill, who served five years before being paroled on September 4, 1941, with 198 other inmates. As a strange bit of trivia, one of Dill's fellow parolees was a 6-foot, 7-inch fellow named Thomas Oman, described as "Chicago's tallest auto thief."

Waves of Modernization

By 1938, in order to keep up with the slick look the Sears brought to the neighborhood, the Portage received another makeover. The lobby was modernized and given its current, sleek Art Moderne appearance. By March 24, 1940, an ad turned up in the Trib announcing "An Easter Gift for Northwest Chicago" in the form of a "BEAUTIFULLY MODERNIZED" Portage Theater. "New Foyer, New Lobby, New Lighting, New Sound, New Comfort" the ad promised, followed by the ballsy claim that the Portage was now the "last word in architecture."

The "Gala Inaugural Program" featured two films: animator Max Fleischer's Gulliver's Travels and Charles Laughton's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. A year later, the Portage Theater was leased from GCS by Chicago theater moguls Balaban and Katz, along with the Drake and, again, the not-yet-equipped-with dance-poles Admiral Theater. The Trib announced that Balaban and Katz were prepared to drop $100,000 to further modernize the joint.

The Portage grew in importance as a community center. The local PTA sold war bonds every night in the summer of 1944, for instance. The theater block further solidified its status as a neighborhood anchor through mentions in local merchant ads as a point of reference. Directions indicating a store's proximity to the Portage became common. Marby Maternities clothing store ("Your favorite 'in waiting' fashion" conducted business next door at 4049 N. Milwaukee. Dream House Furniture sold great big TVs in wooden consoles across the street at 4041 N. Milwaukee. Similarly, the theater became involved in local promotions. Siegel Shoes at 4049 N. Milwaukee promoted Huskies brand shoes by announcing a May 26, 1956 drawing at the theater for a "genuine pure-bred husky pup." Portage Park parents must have loved that one.

Things quieted down during the '60s, with only a single article referring to a cartoon marathon sponsored by nearby Northwest National Bank on Saturday, December 14, 1968. Mommy could pick up free tickets at the bank, then drop off her little rugrats at the Portage for a two-hour program of 15 cartoons (their names are lost to the ages, sorry), before going out and getting some holiday shopping done.

Then the '70s saw an interesting, if out of left field idea for the Portage. On April 13, 1975, Tribune columnist Maggie Daly (no relation to the mayoral Daleys) reported that current owner Oscar Brotman planned to convert the Portage Theater into the Portage Palace. What's more, the venue would feature live acts, rather than show films. And what's more, the programming would feature both kinds of music: country and western.

Wait, what?

Yes, the Portage almost became Chicago's Grand Ole Opry. Conway Twitty was the first to perform there, playing a concert on May 9, 1975. Loretta Lynn followed on May 25, George Jones headlined a week after her, and Dolly Parton was scheduled for later in the summer. Two local impresarios, Bob Briggs, owner of Ratso's — a jazz club formerly located at 2464 N. Lincoln Ave., which received a name check in ‪Aliotta-Haynes-Jeremiah‬'s tune "Lake Shore Drive" — and Ray Townley, ran the Palace and booked the acts.

The switch from cinema to country failed to catch on. Per rock critic Lynn Van Matre's review, the Twitty show was far from packed, and 7:30 show attendees were encouraged to stick around for the 11 o'clock one, free of charge. By May 29, 1975, columnist Aaron Gold reported that Brotman had fired Briggs and Townley and put a booker from Nashville named Jimmy Jay in charge. By June 4, however, the C&W experiment was over. All acts were cancelled, until the Portage Palace changed formats again in 1977 to rock, a little country and western, and children's plays. No mention is made of any name acts, however, until November 10, 1977, when a very young Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played the Portage, with Mr. Eddie Money opening.

The news goes silent until 1979, when we see the Portage offering showings of Breaking Away and Young Frankenstein on Dec. 9, before being shut down again for remodeling by new owners M&R Amusements. In September 1980, reflecting the shopping mall multiplex horrors of the day: the theater was bisected with a wall, and became the Portage 1•2. Second-run films continued to be screened there, but other entertainment oddities sprang up, such as a midnight "laser symphony" show synchronized to live music. The laser act did about as well as the country programming, and swiftly went away. To their credit, M&R's changes sustained the Portage's lifespan, whereas most chains were running for the suburbs and shopping malls. They're also responsible for turning the former Studebaker Theater into the Fine Arts in the '80s, changing it from porn palace to art house.

Over the next two decades the theater operated sporadically before finally being shuttered in 2001, and not reopening until after an extensive $400,000 renovation in 2006 (during which the dividing wall was thankfully removed). Currently, when not employed for weddings, school plays, or live music, the theater is the home of the Northwest Chicago Film Society, the Silent Film Society of Chicago and Spook Show Entertainment, among other silver screen aficionados.

But will it be ever thus? Not if the Chicago Tabernacle Church has its way.

While the Portage's legacy as a silver screen palace can't be exaggerated, despite some reports, it's vital to mention that the case for preservation extends beyond ensuring the cinephiles can continue to enjoy their celluloid fantasies in proper and plush context.

As revealed above, the theater has long served as an economic anchor for the Six Corners shopping district — historically one of the largest shopping areas in Chicago outside the Loop. We must ask: how many businesses will a tax-free religious institution attract to the area? Then there's the fact that if the church moves in, four restaurant proposals proposed for the area may vanish, since, with a church for a neighbor, not a one would be able to procure a liquor license.

And what about all those apartments along West Cuyler Avenue? For another godly perspective, Rev. Kara Wagner Sherer, pastor of St. John's Church (3857 N. Kostner Ave.) and president of Hands to Help Ministries — a neighborhood, church and business coalition that helps the area's poor and homeless — welcomes fellow ministers, but says she is "particularly concerned" about the loss of the 36 affordable apartments in the building, as well as the theater's existence as an affordable public venue.

"It is important to us that any church or business that moves in seeks to encourage the work that has already been done to make this a vibrant place for all people to live and work and visit," says Rev. Sherer. "The Portage Theater is a gift to this community, and to lose it would be a loss to all of us."

In conclusion, think back to an earlier portion of this article, and one particularly salient point: between the church and the theater, I ask you, which one offered the community a puppy?

More seriously, taking out my hotel Bible, I looked up a particular chapter that's always stuck with me. In chapter nine of the book of Luke, before telling his apostles to go forth and to preach the Word. Jesus said (among other odder admonitions not to pack an extra shirt or bring walking-around money):

Luke 9:5 "If people do not welcome you, leave their town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them."

Still welcomed to the community by the theater's many supporters, one has to wonder why the church yet wishes to disturb the historical dust of the Portage Theater Building.

~*~

Acknowledgments: Many thanks to Brian Wolf at facebook.com/revitalizedesplaines for providing background on the Portage Theater Building. Credit also to the Commission on Chicago Landmarks for their incredibly thorough report.

For even more of Dan Kelly's excruciatingly researched articles about Chicago history and architecture, visit the Steppes of Chicago blog at chicagosteppes.com.

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