The Show Goes on at Chicago's Glamorous Portage Park Movie Palace

For a while it looked like the historic Chicago theater would be converted into a church. Landmark status puts it back on cinematic ground.

Photo by: The Portage Park Theater The magnificent Chicago Portage Park Theater movie palace in Six Corners, the center of a contentious preservation battle, received landmark designation in May.

When it opened in 1920, the neoclassical Portage Park Theater, designed by architect Henry Newhouse, could seat 2,000 and was the first built in the neighborhood just for movies in the waning days of Vaudeville shows. The Milwaukee Avenue cinema surfaced as a second-run movie house in the '60s and '70s and re-emerged as a 1,300-seat classic film and shoddy live event house in 2006. 

Six years later it landed on Preservation Chicago's 2012 list of endangered historic movie theaters. Owner Eddie Carranza, who’s been called a “slum lord,” and also has the Logan Square Congress Theater in his portfolio of nuisance complaints, was hammered in the press for his erratic business and perceived slipshod handling of the Six Corners palace. Then he flipped 180 degrees and decided to run it, not sell it. The scandals at the Congress and Portage received an infamous slap, named one of the top stories of 2012 by the Chicagoist.

Jonathan Fine, executive director of Preservation Chicago, says when the troubled Portage landed on its radar, the building was threatened by a slow “death by a thousand cuts.” They pushed to get it on a landmark designation track and the Save the Portage Theater group shouted loudly and often.

On May 8, the city council passed legislation to grant the Portage landmark status. Alderman John Arena of the 45th Ward was instrumental in the fight and made the announcement in a Facebook post, thanking the community for its efforts to "preserve a historic building that is a cornerstone of our community." It’s hard to make a building a landmark, Fine said, commenting on Arena’s “bold and courageous” leadership. “It’s not an easy process.”

Landmark designation also means the Portage must continue to show films. Fabulous news for the cinephiles of the Silent Film Society of Chicago, which uses the movie palace to screen silent era gems. In late April, Douglas Fairbanks animated the beaux arts auditorium in The Black Pirate (1926) with rousing photoplay pipe organ accompaniment. 

Play on.

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