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There were two ringers among the 275 vintage outfits paraded onstage at a gala benefit for the Uptown Theatre last week. The stunning gowns–one black, one red–were the handiwork of the show’s producer and vintage clothing collector William Buster. The rest of the show, drawn from his stash of 10,000 garments and accessories, was the real thing: suits and smoking jackets and red silk pajamas worn back in the 1930s and ’40s, when the Uptown was flourishing. The gala, at Northwestern University’s Thorne Auditorium, was a fund-raiser for the Uptown Theatre and Center for the Arts, a nonprofit organization that’s been spinning its wheels for two years now trying to save the old movie palace. In that time, UTCA has run through most of a million-dollar donation from Albert Ivar Goodman, thanks in part to a ringer of its own–former CEO Michael Morrison, who vanished a year ago after the Illinois attorney general accused him of misusing funds. Now, the gala notwithstanding, current CEO Carol Jean Carlson says UTCA is running out of cash, its operating fund “down to a couple thousand dollars.” And the Uptown is still rotting away.

The story could be one of those melodramas popular in the Uptown’s heyday. The theater, at 4814 N. Broadway, was built in 1925 as part of the Balaban and Katz chain, designed by Rapp and Rapp to accommodate vaudeville and film. At 46,000 square feet, it’s the largest freestanding theater building in North America, with the fourth-largest seating capacity–4,381. It has eight lobbies, a full orchestra pit, a 72,000-pound fire curtain, and a 100-foot domed ceiling. A fantasy palace in what’s been dubbed Spanish Baroque style, it was meant to awe a largely immigrant audience, and for three decades it did, attracting as many as 12,000 viewers a day. Then television arrived, women went to work, and movie palaces gave way to multiplex cubicles. In 1962 the theater sold off its Wurlitzer organ and most of its artwork, and by 1981–after brief reincarnations as a Spanish-language movie theater and a concert venue–it was boarded up. It was purchased in 1984 by Lou Wolf, who let it go a decade later for pennies on the dollar in a tax sale to another speculator. In 1996 it was sold again–reportedly for about $500,000–to a group that apparently included its current owner, Cercore Properties. Carlson says the landmark building has suffered under all of these owners, but the worst damage was done in the 1980s, when it wasn’t heated: pipes froze and burst, and there was “six feet of water in the basement.”

Morrison founded UTCA two years ago, when Goodman, whose family also funded the old and new Goodman theaters, made a donation from the Edith-Marie Appleton Foundation (named for his mother, whose family owned Appleton Electric on Chicago’s north side). Morrison, who claimed to be a former hospital administrator, created the CEO job for himself and hired a top-heavy staff of about eight, including Carlson and Paul Klaeysen, who’s still in place as UTCA’s chief financial officer. Before long, Carlson says, Morrison started “going over the wall about a lot of things,” leasing a Jaguar for himself and taking a trip to Disneyland on the UTCA credit card. She figures he squandered $80,000 to $100,000 in six months or less. Still, as late as March 2002, just a month before the attorney general stepped in, Carlson and Klaeysen defended Morrison’s management in a letter to the Tribune.

Mark Zipperer, who had worked for Arthur Andersen and managed the Joffrey Ballet, replaced Morrison on a contract basis but quit six months later, complaining that the UTCA board was uninsured and unsupportive and that he was owed $10,000. After that, Carlson took over. She says $250,000 of the Goodman money was put in escrow toward the theater’s purchase. The Uptown is priced at $2.5 million, but comes with heavy baggage: a pile of building-code violations and a potential restoration bill of $30 million. And, after Goodman’s intoxicating initial gift, fund-raising has proved difficult: a capital campaign was launched a week before 9/11; a plan to raffle off Morrison’s Jaguar has failed to generate enough sales to cover costs and is now on hold; and attendance at last week’s event–held in Streeterville the day after war protesters massed in the neighborhood–was disappointing.

“About six months ago we realized we’re going to have to think of some other way to put the purchase together,” Carlson says. “Our immediate goal is raising $5 million” to buy the theater and make “essential” repairs. There’s the possibility of a loan from the state, but that would have to be underwritten by a bank, and bankers want to see an income stream. To that end, UTCA is considering the purchase of two nearby commercial buildings along with the Uptown, on the theory that rental income from the offices will support the theater. Meanwhile, Goodman is still in their camp. Survivor of a headline-grabbing murder plot by an ex-wife who tried to hire a hit man five years ago, he seems relatively unfazed by UTCA’s fits and starts. At the gala, he took the stage to tell how he envisions the restored movie palace as a tribute to his theater-loving mom and the Appleton Electric employees who fought the good fight in World War II. Carlson says if UTCA can bring in enough money to buy the theater, Goodman will kick in another million for renovations. “What we have to do in the office until then is tread water,” she says. “If we go out of business nothing will happen.” But former UTCA chairman Paul Warshauer, who was kicked off the board the day after the benefit, claims escrowed funds “have been spent” and says he’s calling for another investigation by the attorney general.

UTCA is hosting an event for current or potential volunteers Sunday, March 30, from 1 to 3:30 at the Rainbo Roller Center. After that, Rainbo will be demolished.

In Other News . . .

Columbia College vice president Woodie White announced last week that after 13 years he’s leaving the school to head up the midwest region office of the United Negro College Fund. White says he was promoted from executive director of Columbia’s Dance Center to his development job when “they realized that most of the corporate and foundation money that was coming into the college was coming through me.” He’s racked up a raft of achievements at Columbia, including his role as founding producer of DanceAfrica Chicago, now headed by Guild Complex founder Michael Warr….Psst–wanna buy a bookstore in Glencoe? Books on Vernon, which has housed the Writers’ Theatre since it was a gleam in Michael Halberstam’s eye, is up for sale. The theater will move into new quarters in the neighborhood next fall but plans to continue a studio schedule in the store’s back room. The bookstore owners say keeping the theater in the space will be a requirement of any sale….The city’s Department of Cultural Affairs will not be looking for another roommate when the Museum of Broadcast Communications vacates its 15,000-square-foot space in the Cultural Center come December. “It’ll be used by Cultural Affairs for public purposes,” says spokesperson Kim Costello, though “nobody’s sure” yet what those purposes are….The venerable Skokie movie theater closed its doors last week. Operator Max Granger, who bought the business (but not the building) five years ago, says he’s been struggling since the Village 18 multiplex came to town: “Crown Theatres took away all my business.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.