Can This Eyesore Be Saved?

Bill Morton was looking for a space in Rogers Park for his fledgling label, 4X Records, when he googled Rogers Park and auditorium and “the first thing that came up was the Adelphi.” He hiked over to Clark and Estes to take a look at the 1917 brick-and-terra-cotta edifice and says it was love at first sight. The doors were locked–the theater, most recently known as the North Shore Cinema, showing Bollywood films, was vacant–but Morton says he got the owners to give him a tour of the place and then pestered them for months to give him the key so he could clean it up and try to get it open. In April 2004 he set up shop amid the peeling paint and water stains, held a few events, and launched a quest to turn the old place into a movie, performance, and music venue. He had to move out when temperatures began to drop in November–“the owners weren’t going to heat it,” he says. “But we had every intent of coming back in the spring.” By that time, however, the Adelphi had been sold to developer Chad Zuric for more than a million dollars. Last week the city’s zoning committee approved a variance that will clear the way for a five-story condominium (taller than anything around it) on the site. The proposal will go to the City Council for approval later this month.

Morton, however, hasn’t given up. He’s formed an organization, Citizens for the Adelphi Theater, launched a Web site (, and collected more than 1,000 signatures, many from folks too shy to include a last name or address. Last week, Morton says, Citizens for the Adelphi “actually had the opportunity to meet with Mayor Daley” to plead their case. The meeting–a surprise to the mayor–occurred as Daley left the stage after giving a speech at a Metropolitan Planning Council lunch. “We had a letter for him, and we gave him a gift of a framed picture of the Adelphi interior from 1917,” Morton says. “He seemed genuinely concerned. He said, ‘Oh, this is nice.’ We told him it’s scheduled to be demolished. He said he’d look into it and give us a call.”

Designed by John E.O. Pridmore as a neighborhood cinema and vaudeville house, the Adelphi got a makeover in the 1930s that included a row of arching deco lights in the lobby and trios of terrazzo ushers saluting patrons from the entrance floor and sidewalk. A few of the ushers are still there, along with a plaque honoring onetime owner Ludwig Sussman, but the front of the building has been marred by seriously misguided face-lifts, and the interior bears the scars of what Morton says was a burst pipe and a bad paint job. The original gingerbread trim in the auditorium has been destroyed or obscured; what’s visible now is a scaly, empty cavern with a huge screen at one end. The Adelphi originally had 1,500 seats; more recently there were about 900, but they’ve all been uprooted. Second-floor studio space, once occupied by Ed Paschke, is empty, as are all but one of four storefronts flanking the theater. Morton, who says he’s trying to get landmark status for the building, thinks he’d need something like $3.3 million to purchase it from the new owner (who hasn’t named a price) and restore it. According to him, the damage is “superficial.”

Former owner Mark Magill, whose grandfather bought the theater about 25 years ago, calls the idea of reopening it a fantasy. “No one these days is serious about single-screen theaters,” Magill says–especially one with no parking and a deteriorating building. Forty-ninth Ward alderman Joe Moore says Morton is coming forward at the 11th hour without a feasible plan and with no money on the table. The building isn’t on the city’s list of buildings worthy of being considered for landmark status, Moore points out, referring to a position paper on his Web site. “Its original facade was destroyed many years ago, and most old theaters are not economically viable–all you have to do is look at the Uptown. I’d be doing my community a disservice by turning down an attractive proposal in favor of preserving the Adelphi, which has become a crumbling eyesore, on a hope and a prayer.” As for the height of the proposed condominium–a contentious issue in the neighborhood–Moore says “current zoning permits a four-story building; this is only one story taller. We should also look at what we get in return.” What’s that? “The developer will provide four affordable units out of 32–over 10 percent.” Moore says the affordable units will be priced at about $160,000 each; the rest will be about $350,000.

Crystallizing the A-List

PR pro Jay Kelly says Lookingglass Theatre consulted the League of Chicago Theatres’ calendar before designating November 9 as the press night for Manuscript Found in Saragossa. The date was clear, Kelly says, but soon after the invitations went out Lookingglass got a disconcerting surprise: it looked like neither the Tribune’s Chris Jones nor the Sun-Times’s Hedy Weiss would be attending that night. There was a conflict–Billy Crystal’s one-man show, 700 Sundays, at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. Kelly, who handles press for Lookingglass, says they’d already changed the critics’ night once (when Lookingglass extended its previous production by a week) and had been feeling rushed. If there was a chance neither of the dailies would be there on the ninth, it made sense to give themselves a little breathing room. They decided to call everyone who’d received an invitation and tell them the Saragossa press performance would be moved to 3 PM on November 12.

Kelly says he called half of the 200-person list with virtually no “push back,” but did get one strong response. That was from Jonathan Abarbanel, critic for PerformInk, WBEZ, and the Windy City Times, who found in Kelly’s news two reasons to take umbrage. The first was Lookingglass’s decision to “inconvenience the rest of the media rather than accept second-string critics from the Tribune and Sun-Times.” In Abarbanel’s view, “They’re treating us all as second-class citizens.” To make things worse, when he started asking questions Abarbanel learned that, in spite of clear indications that comp tickets for the press would not be available for the sold-out Crystal show (something he’d commented on in print), Jones and Weiss were, in fact, receiving free seats (as was Reader critic Albert Williams). “That’s unfortunate,” Abarbanel says. “It would have been fairer if everybody paid.”

Kelly says Lookingglass is taking the flak for Crystal’s snub of a significant portion of the press. “Critics are always complaining that we’re all opening on the same night,” he says. “The one time we tried to alleviate that, we’re slapped just as hard as if we forged ahead. What would any other theater company have done when you’re opening up against Billy Crystal?”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson, Anna Kolak, A_Studio.