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Uptown Peregrine Falcons

In Memory of Joe DuciBella

If You Were Here

If you were here

(-- On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Uptown Theatre, Chicago.)

People who watch out for important old buildings are often accused of caring more about bricks and mortar than people. Those known to this writer simply want to help keep old buildings in good shape because they see that people are usually happier in them. It is unfortunate that their passion for protecting the landmark designs and construction of our forebears is often mistaken for obsession, lunacy or a reluctance to accept change. It’s true that the thinking of some people with this passion is somewhat out of time, but they often work to keep our built history with sound reasoning and forward-thinking agendas.

One of the biggest and best old buildings in Chicago is the Uptown Theatre, at Broadway and Lawrence. It’s a closed theater palace where little things mean a lot. Many people have been doing good turns for a long time to keep the Uptown viable since before it closed to the public in 1981. The spirit of the place runs deep in peoples’ lives and they are protective of it. They hope it can be revived. Asking people in Chicago if the Uptown should be saved is like asking kids if they want Christmas to come back next year. It is an easy sell with no recorded opposition.

Four years ago, this writer and others got the bright idea to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the theater’s opening day with an “Uptown Community Portrait.”  We hired a local photographer, distributed posters and handbills, and then called and wrote the faithful – people who want to celebrate the Uptown neighborhood and its largest historic venue.

“An Acre of Seats in a Magic City – One of the Great Art Buildings of the World – Not for TODAY, but for ALL TIME!” the boys-down-in-publicity shouted for Balaban and Katz, the Uptown’s owners and showmen, in 1925. All we have to say is “Uptown Theatre.” People turn out in droves. Imagine what it will be like when the Uptown is hosting shows again.

It was a unique feeling, sitting alone, proofing the negatives of this large and loud event so everyone could order a print of the portrait. I spent a lot of time looking back into those many eager faces, trying to pick the print in which a majority of them were visible. It made me wonder if any of them – any of us – would live to see the Uptown renovated.

So many photographs of great buildings – new and old – show empty streets and vacant seats. Photographers, architects and clients must think that people mess up the view, or the concept, or something. Well, the experts are wrong. Take a look at this one. People had fun with it. These 300 people are some of the best one could hope to meet. They make the buildings they use or admire.

When these people chat about the Uptown, one gets to know them by sight and sometimes know what their day jobs are. Usually, one is only privy to hear about their passions. That’s what people want to talk about anyway when they are in having fun in Uptown.

If you were here, you would see three baby carriages and a half-dozen toddlers; Mimi, who runs the development corporation; a nice older man who lives on Magnolia, played drums for Dolly Parton when she was a teen, and busses at the family restaurant next door to the Riviera Theatre; Jimmy, who manages that theater; Jennifer and David (in the orange sweatshirt), who are new in their jobs with the Uptown Chicago Commission; Danny, who is a phone or computer whiz and helps with the Chicago International Film Fest every year; Chris, who lives in the flats in front of the nice older man and hosts relaxing summer parties in the yard; Hal, who is into computers and recording rock concerts; two people just passing through; Charlie Chaplin, who made it here from Minneapolis and is starting a new job at Essanay Studios on Argyle Street; two friendly Chicago police officers, who are holding traffic and keeping patrons out of harm’s way; three darling lady oldies, who were all mischievous out in front of the post office as they danced to the old jazz music and said “Hey, we’re from the ’30s and ’40s. We remember the Uptown” – then they shook it some more; Mike and Laura, who are working to keep the Congress Theatre from being wrecked for condos; Ed, who is a businessman and wants to see the Uptown become some kind of educational center for kids; a smart, beautiful woman, who likes old stuff; a clean, young hippie couple, who have their pretty and combed heads closer together than anybody else; a Native American man this writer met some years ago; a few yuppie couples, who are strangely without dogs; Joe, a designer who knows a lot about Chicago and has the same godfather as Mayor Daley; Bill, who retired from teaching in Oak Park and wears a fine tuxedo in his job at the Chicago Theatre; an Asian businessman, who is standing alone with his arms crossed; Claudette, who sometimes rode her bicycle down the aisles when she was a candy girl for the Uptown – now she has a girl of her own; Dave, chief of security, who is driving up just now with our music for the event, a donated 1915 Wurlitzer concert band organ that travels in the back of a large, under-powered truck; Mark, a newspaper reporter, who is late but walking; Carol Jean and her Irish relative, they are into art and drama; a short senior lady, who was so cute dancing with Chaplin; a helmeted cyclist, who rode up just now; Mr. Solomon Chu, who has the patience of a saint and runs the chamber of commerce; a young Anglo-Asian mixed couple, who couldn’t look happier; Rudy Horn, the 90-something-year-old Vaudevillian who made his “eccentric dancing” famous across the globe; a very nice woman with short gray hair, who is here with a friend and a baby; Felicia, a reporter, who is here with her kids but will soon go home to take care of mom; a quiet, smiling man in an Uncle Sam hat, who I don’t think was with the Ralph Nader people who crashed the event; Dennis, who is a lawyer paying close attention to the Wilson Yard TIF development; two young women beside him; Ric, who is a Chicago rock-n-roll insider and runs the Book Box; a snappy older European man, who is wearing a colorful beret; at least three people who are giving the “peace” sign with their hands; a preppie guy standing alone; two guys who drove 150 miles to be here, one of whom served in World War II; Marty, a college prof, who worked hard to help establish the Uptown Square National Register Historic District; a man in a Cubs jacket; a woman who looks like my landlady but isn’t and is holding a poster Mike printed for the event; three or four neighborhood regulars from the street; Perry, a Merchant Marine, who is a volunteer usher for theaters across the city – one of the youngest theater “saints,” and who is a professional framer; and an unsure grade-school girl, who is fixing one of her pigtails.

If you were here, you would want to tell other people about it because it’s fun and people have a ball. There’s only one Uptown at Broadway and Lawrence, and people know what’s good here. Maybe you will get hooked sometime. And maybe, someday, the theater will be renovated -- and everybody will have a great time here together.

(The “Uptown Community Portrait” event was repeated in 2005 for the Uptown Theatre’s 80th anniversary. This story is courtesy of Friends of the Uptown volunteers; 2004, 2006. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction without permission of the writer is prohibited.)


All material copyright 1998 - 2006, Friends of the Uptown