the facade of the Harper Theater, a brick building with a horizontal marquee
The Harper Theater in Hyde Park in March 2023. Credit: Eddie Quinones for Chicago Reader

How would early 20th-century Chicagoans react to Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania? Would they marvel at the progress film technology has made in the past 100-plus years, or run screaming out of the theater at the sight of Corey Stoll’s M.O.D.O.K.? Could they make it through an explanation of what the 31-film Marvel Cinematic Universe is without exploding into dust?

Questions like these tend to appear whenever we visit old movie theaters like Hyde Park’s Harper Theater, which naturally connect the old moviegoing experience with the new. The theater first opened in 1915 and was designed by prolific Chicago architect Horatio Wilson. Then a destination for vaudeville shows, the Harper Theater was originally the Hyde Park Theater. It would eventually be converted to a four-screen movie theater, changing names and ownership a few times (it was known briefly as the Meridian in the 90s) before finally being acquired and renovated by the University of Chicago in 2002.

“It was in pretty poor condition,” said University of Chicago executive director of commercial real estate Phil Gold. “I had heard of standing water in the basement, several feet. It was closed at the time.”

A century and some change after first opening its doors, the Harper Theater finds itself at the tail end of another set of renovations and new management by the Nebraska-based ACX Cinemas. The theater closed last November after former operator ADF Capital left after ten years.

ACX owns and manages theaters across the midwest. ACX executive vice president Michael Barstow says that his family’s company and the University of Chicago had a shared interest in modernizing the theater.

“We started talking with the university, and I think there was immediately a connection,” said Barstow. “We were interested in the project, and they were interested in us.”

Barstow said that all the theater’s seats will be replaced with heated luxury recliners. Other additions include new flooring and lighting and an expanded concession area and bar. Taking a cue from spots like Lakeview’s Music Box Theatre, Barstow and company hope to host special screenings and events to help it stand out. 

“When the previous operator took over about ten years ago, the university did a really nice remodel,” said Barstow. “What’s nice about that building is that structurally it was really sound.”

There’s no doubt that the Harper Theater has a lot of support in its corner. ACX and the University of Chicago are eager to make the theater competitive. There’s a built-in enthusiastic audience in the Hyde Park community. The theater has historical significance and a place on the National Register of Historic Places to prove it. It’s an impressive venue, but can it survive the COVID-19 fallout and seismic shifts in movie-viewing preferences?

“The last three years have been a very interesting time for movies,” said Barstow.

A street view of the Harper today. Credit: Eddie Quinones for Chicago Reader

Small theaters especially have become endangered, in Chicago and nationwide. The New 400 Theater in Rogers Park recently announced that its days were numbered, according to the Loyola Phoenix. Former Harper Theater operator and current New 400 Theater owner Tony Fox said that the theater “definitely did not turn a profit the last couple of years.”

The inevitability of changing preferences can seem insurmountable, but Barstow is confident that the Harper Theater should at least put up a fight.

“This is something we think we can pull off,” said Barstow. “That’s kind of step one, [asking,] ‘Is it something we can actually make an impact on?’”

“[The project] was something that became somewhat personal,” Barstow continued, recounting numerous family trips to the city during his childhood. 

It’s also personal to the residents of Hyde Park, who hope that it can be another source of growth for the expanding downtown area. Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce executive director Phil Moy hopes that the face-lifted theater will catalyze more foot traffic for the surrounding bars and restaurants. 

“That theater, it’s in a great location because it’s pretty much the heart of the 53rd Street business district,” said Moy. “There’s about two dozen restaurants within a two-block walking distance of the theater.”

According to Moy, ensuring that older buildings find continued use in the community is as much a practical measure as it is important to preserving the neighborhood’s history.

“We have a lot of older buildings within the Hyde Park community that continue to operate,” Moy said. “For instance, the Penthouse Hyde Park is in the old Piccadilly Building. The Penthouse used to be their ballroom, and now it’s a venue for weddings and parties and anniversaries.”

Harper Theater
5238 S. Harper
Reopening TBD

The fact that a new party was looking to try their luck with the theater was itself a source of excitement. It’s not hard to assume the community breathed a collective sigh of relief that the theater wasn’t falling into the limbo of indefinite closure and “big things coming” Instagram posts. 

“The rumor mill in Hyde Park tends to go pretty fast,” Moy said. “That there were new owners coming into that theater kind of spread pretty quick. I think the excitement is there, and we’ve had so many new things actually in and around that area.”  

Should everything go to plan, the Harper Theater will be a destination for family movie outings, opening-night premieres, and awkward first dates come late spring.