The Patios open for business.
  • The Patio’s open for business.

For a little while there, back at the end of May, the fortunes of the Northwest Chicago Film Society were looking a little shaky. For one thing, it was locked out of the Portage Theater where the group had been showing films since 2011, after Eddie Carranza, who’d bought the place six months earlier, decided to shut it down after wrangling with Alderman John Arena over a liquor license.

Unfortunately, Carranza had neglected to warn the film society—or James Bond, the projectionist who owned the theater’s two 35-millimeter projectors. Those projectors, plus prints of two films, one on loan from the Library of Congress, were locked in the theater.

The Patio Theater, just two miles away, happened to have 35-millimeter projectors. But owner Demitri Kouvalis had announced just a few days earlier that he was shutting down his theater too, at least for the summer, because his air-conditioning system had broken down.

But the whole situation turned out to be more screwball comedy than film noir. Owing to the cool weather, the society was able to finish its summer series at the Patio, and the Patio will be back in business with its own programming next month.

The members of the Northwest Chicago Film Society had always had a good relationship with the Patio. President Julian Antos saw his first-ever movie there. (It was The Secret Garden.) When Antos found out that the Patio was being renovated in 2011, he and executive director Becca Hall and vice president Kyle Westphal went over and met Kouvalis and his father, Alexander.

“They showed us the theater,” Hall remembers. “It was so perfectly preserved. Up in the projection booth, there were old posters and clippings the old projectionist had put there. It was a special place. But we had a good thing at the Portage.”

Hall, Antos, and Westphal realized things weren’t so good the night of May 24, Friday night of Memorial Day weekend, when Hall saw an article on DNAInfo about how Carranza had just lost his liquor license for the Congress Theater, which he also owns. At the end there was a short paragraph about how Carranza was having problems with the liquor license at the Portage too, and planned to close it indefinitely. Hall was on her way to work (she’s a projectionist at the Gene Siskel Film Center), but she called Antos and Westphal, and also Dennis Wolkowicz, the Portage’s former owner, who was still acting as manager. Wolkowicz was the one who told her that the locks on the theater had been changed.

“Dennis was taken by surprise as much as we were,” says Hall. “We had film prints in the theater. We didn’t think anything crazy would happen. It was a cinematic scene, Kyle driving from his place on the north side and Julian from the south side, both trying to get there so they could get inside.”

Carranza, Hall says, was uncooperative about giving the society members access to the theater so they could get their stuff (which also included an empty cash box and other box-office supplies). Later that weekend, though, one of Wolkowicz’s assistants got inside and let the film society, and also James Bond the projectionist, in long enough to reclaim their property.

The society also called up Kouvalis and asked permission to show their next film, All I Desire, at the Patio on Monday as scheduled.

“He was up for it,” says Hall. “We didn’t know what was going to happen. It was a holiday weekend and DNAInfo had said the shows were all canceled. We were there at seven on Monday night to see if people would come. We had 150.”

Since then the society has screened 17 films at the Patio and two more at the Music Box. The audience has remained loyal and consistent throughout the summer, even without air-conditioning. Even if the Portage reopens, says Hall, they’re not going back.

Kouvalis, meanwhile, has decided to change the Patio’s format. Previously it had screened second-run Hollywood movies. But now he’s going to start showing older films. The film society usually picks films from the 30s, 40s, and 50s, so he’s decided to go with movies from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. The new Patio repertory will debut on September 12 with Bonnie and Clyde. He’ll also rent out the theater for premieres of indie movies. He expects the air-conditioning will be fixed by next summer.

“I still can’t believe we pulled off this move,” says Hall. “It’s so cool we didn’t lose our entire audience. It’s the craziest thing: another movie palace with the appropriate special film equipment that not every theater has was only two miles away.”