History of the Avalon Regal Theater South Shore Chicago
Eleanor Truex lives in the southern suburb of Flossmoor, and sometimes, when the traffic is particularly bad, she gets off the highway and wanders through the city streets. On this road, you pass a building on 79th Street in the South Shore neighborhood that looks like it belongs on a movie set.
“It’s ornate, with beautiful tile work,” says Truex. It seems to me that he is Middle Eastern and even Arab. There is no name on the building. I don’t know how to figure out what it’s for, it doesn’t seem to be in use now.” Truex noted another unusual detail: “She has a tree growing [on] So I have the feeling that the building is abandoned.”
Truex has arrived at Curious city Wanting to know more about this extraordinary building, and whether there are ongoing conservation efforts.
The building Truex is talking about is the Avalon Regal Theater which was built in the 1920s as an eclectic entertainment venue.
This ancient theater has had many different names and different lives over the years. Less than a decade after opening, it has moved away from live performances to primarily show films.
Later it became a church – before coming full circle as a live performance space in the 1980s and 1990s when it hosted a host of African American artists including Ray Charles, B.B. King, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Patti Labelle and Tupac.
The Avalon Regal Theater closed its doors to the public in 2003 for a number of reasons, including low attendance and high maintenance costs. Since then, there have been some notable events in the theater, such as the Obama Election Night party to celebrate his first presidential victory. It is a regular stop at the annual Chicago Architecture Center Chicago Open House Tours.
Several owners have attempted to restore the building to its past grandeur including current owner Gerald Jarry of Community Capital Investment LLC. Gary’s dream is to turn the space into a hub for art and culture on 79th Street.
“I get surprised every time I enter the building and notice something new every time I enter the building,” says Gary, who grew up close to the theater.
But Avalon Regal’s reopening was a true story. His ownership of the theater is currently hanging by a thread.
Built in 1927, the theater was known as the Avalon Theatre. Architect John Epperson, one of the pioneers of the “atmospheric” theater style, designed this building to make people feel as if they were immersed in a magical place. It was inspired by something he found at an antique store.
“He came across an incense burner from Persia looking at this intricate metalwork and all the geometry and detail in this artifact,” says Adam Rubin, director of interpretation at the Chicago Center for Architecture. “That was part of the inspiration.”
Floor-to-ceiling mosaics and decorative latticework give the building a glamorous touch. The ceiling above the main lobby is like a flying carpet with iridescent colored rocks shimmering giving people the impression that they are on a movie set. “It kind of had a kitsch factor before we used the term kitsch factor,” says Rubin.
The auditorium, where the main stage is located, has some 2,300 velvet seats in rows across the first floor and balcony. The canopy over the stage evokes a circus tent and gives visitors the impression that they are camping outside under the stars.
When Epperson was designing this building, people were commuting to big cities like Chicago from the south and other countries in Europe. The area in which the South Shore neighborhood is located was predominantly German, Swedish and Irish.
Robin explains that many of the residents were processing what they saw during World War I. Americans who fought in Europe witnessed the destruction of Gothic churches and other historic architecture. Creating theaters like the Avalon Regal, Rubin says, was a way for architects and builders to process the trauma of war, but also to celebrate things they had not yet seen in American architecture.
From Live Animal Acts to Westerns (1920s-1960s)
Stage design was also part of the larger trends happening at the time. “Because big theaters were so important,” Kristen Thompson and David Bordwell write in their book, “big companies made them rich by attracting patrons, not just through the movies shown but through the promise of an exciting cinema viewing experience.” Film History: An Introduction. “The architecture of picture palaces gave working and middle-class patrons an unusual taste of luxury.”
According to the ads in Chicago Daily TribuneThe theater showed films and live theater performances in its early years. For example, a 1929 advertisement advertised the Western movie in old Arizona as well as stage performances by singer Roy Dietrich and vaudeville artist Charlie Crafts.
And in 1935, the theater hosted vaudeville entertainer “Little Jackie” Heller, a live animal show featuring Prosky’s Royal Bengal Tigers, and a screening of the film imitation of life It stars Lana Turner, according to one of the ads.
By the 1940s, the theater had shifted to showing films almost exclusively, according to archived press articles and advertisements from Chicago Daily Tribune and the Chicago defenderShowcasing everything from musical comedies to adventure war films.
Royal Renaissance (from the 1980s to the 2000s)
After a brief stint as a church in the early 1980s, the theater once again took on new life.
That’s when Soft Sheen business owners Edward and Betien Gardner bought it and poured a lot of money into the theater to revive it as a cultural gathering space. By this time, the neighborhood around 79th Street was home to mostly African American residents.
“We’ve spent a lot of money there,” Edward Gardner said during a 1993 interview, “but the point was to bring art entertainment into the inner city, it’s certainly not a money-maker.” Archived by History Makers. “It’s a very difficult business to manage now because you have so many big venues downtown. … [W]E need to rethink… what can be done to make it happen [the theater] A successful part of our lives as far as African Americans are concerned because I believe you measure … the success of a community by the ability to appreciate the arts.”
The Gardners renamed the venue the New Regal Theater in honor of a popular Bronzeville music spot that had been demolished. The building was designated a Chicago Historic Landmark in 1992.
Robert Howell, who is in his fifties and is the current superintendent of the theatre, grew up in this area. He remembers the excitement of attending events during this time period.
“Every time we came here it was a new adventure,” Howell says. “Every time I came here, there was someone special that I wanted to see.”
Among them are Tyler Perry and George Clinton. “Every point of navigation is an experience,” Howell says. “Coming to the ticket booth sitting under the canopy. It’s all facade. And it’s just something I’ve never seen before, not even on TV.”
After 18 years of live shows that featured performers such as Gladys Knight and the Pips, Patti LaBelle, and Tupac, The Gardners closed the stage in 2003. Attendance waned for years as residents left the neighborhood and businesses closed. Since then, the building has remained mostly still.
The unknown future of theatre
Gerald Gary has been on a mission to reopen the Avalon Regal Theater since purchasing it for $100,000 in 2014. He believes the closing of the theater played a large role in the neighborhood’s decline.
“The area was bustling when the theater was open,” he says. “As you can imagine, there were a number of different businesses that depended on operating the building. At this time on the building, the only business open is a liquor store.”
Gary’s vision is to help turn 79th Street into a version of Beale Street, Memphis’ popular entertainment district known as the home of the blues. The theater also wants to be a community center for the arts.
But buying the building and dreaming about the possibilities is the easy part.
These days, Gary has been tackling one problem after another, including renovations, repairs, and meeting building code requirements. Renovating an old theater is much more difficult than building a new one, says Jerry Mickelson, who runs the Rivera and Vic Theatres. Michelson was trying Reopen a file Uptown Theatre, a 1920s gem on the North Side, but it was tough.
In general, the rehabilitation of ancient theaters is a complex matter. First, you have to calculate all the costs of electricity, plumbing, elevators, air conditioning, and the heat. Then comes the licensing process in the city. Then he says you have to collect all the money.
Gary had a similar experience at the Avalon Regal Theatre. He’s been fundraising for years with some success including around $600,000 from rapper Ye, formerly known as Kanye West. He also received federal funds under the Payment Protection Program and rental fees from the production companies that filmed there.
But none of this is enough to pay for the monthly maintenance costs or the investments the building requires. That, and the hundreds of thousands of dollars he owes Cook County in back property taxes. If he does not pay soon he may lose the building.
Funding, he says, is hard to come by, especially in predominantly black neighborhoods.
“I think stigma is … a negative perception people have about investing in black communities, except for black people themselves,” says Gary. “And even sometimes, there are people who live in society because of the desperation they see… and all business, [they] You want to surrender.”
This same lane on 79th Street that Gary wants to help revitalize has also been chosen by the city as an area for investment. But, so far, this has not been a boon for the theatre’s future.
The city turns down several requests from Gary for help. in an email to Curious cityPeter Strazabosco, deputy commissioner of the Chicago Department of Planning and Development, writes, “Priority is given to proposals that demonstrate a high level of project readiness, ownership expertise, private financing, and other factors.”
Despite all the challenges, Gary remains committed to this famous but well-worn theater.
Mickelson says he’s been following the Gerald saga, and that there should be more support for older theaters like the Avalon Regal.
“Our buildings are the art we try to preserve,” says Mickelson. “And this isn’t art on the wall. It’s art in the ceiling, it’s art in the floor. It’s art in the way bathrooms are designed, it’s art in any aspect of those beautiful old movie mansions.”
Adriana Cardona-Maguigad is a Correspondent for Curious City. follow her @tweet