By Jeffrey Felshman

Michael Conway picked up a newspaper a few weeks back and was struck by a front page story on the recent sale of the Oriental Theater. It said the new buyer was planning to spend almost $30 million to fix the place up. Conway was amused. “Thirty million to refurbish the Oriental Theater?” He couldn’t believe it, figuring 10 percent of that amount would be enough to completely renovate the Congress, the northwest-side theater he’s helped to manage for the last year. There’d be money left over to buy a parking lot, he thought.

The Oriental and the Congress were both built in 1926 and were designed by the same architects–Rapp and Rapp. But while the Oriental won’t reopen until 1998, the Congress Theater is open and ready for business at 2135 N. Milwaukee Ave. Yet it’s not listed under theaters in the phone book, and a lot of people don’t even know it’s there, proving that it’s possible to be both huge and invisible at the same time. The Congress was closed for a while back in the 70s and had a couple of different names–it was once dubbed the Mexico Theater, then the Vincente Fernandez–but it went back to its original name in 1990. One reason it’s overlooked is that for the past eight months the Congress wasn’t even a theater: It was a church.

The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, an evangelical group based in Brazil, was on the verge of buying the theater, but the deal fell through in December. The church continued to rent out the Congress until Sunday, January 21, when it held its last service there. A week and a half before that, Ray Spasenovski, one of the owners of the Congress, told Conway that the church’s lease wouldn’t be renewed. Conway resisted an urge to shout hallelujah. They were going back into show business.

Before the church moved in, Spasenovski and his partner, James P. Petersen, were doing practically anything to keep the place open. When they took over the property in 1990, the theater was more of an afterthought than a selling point. Neither partner had ever run a theater before, nor did they have much interest in getting into the theater business. They were in real estate. They’d bought a block with 46 apartments and 18 storefronts that just happened to also have a theater on it, and the theater was already leased. “When we bought it from the owner of the Aragon, we thought he was going to lease it for the rest of his life, and the rest of our lives,” Spasenovski says. “The agreement was a one-year lease, with one-year options. So 15 days before the expiration of the first year he sent us a note saying he doesn’t want to renew.”

Spasenovski and Petersen rented the theater out to nonprofit groups for fund-raisers, leased it to promoters who staged plays from Mexico, helped organize concerts, and purchased satellite feeds of boxing matches and soccer games. The Congress held a few raves, and they let Medusa’s use it until the neighbors asked them to stop. They ran movies and hosted conventions of pipe organ enthusiasts (the pipe organ has since been removed). International Mr. Leather has held its title competitions at the Congress for the past two years. When the rock group Kiss did an autograph signing there in late 1993, nearly 2,000 people lined up on Milwaukee Avenue. One day each year it’s packed with kids, parents, and teachers for a Goethe School event. But that’s a donation. Two years ago, Spasenovski leased the theater to Conway for a New Year’s Eve party called “Bucktown Bash.” They’ve been working together ever since.

Spasenovski, 49, moved to Chicago from the former Yugoslavia in 1969, the same year that Conway, who’s 26, was born. While Spasenovski went into theater through necessity, Conway had already worked in theater administration. “I did a lot of production and developmental work,” he says. “I sat on a few boards of theater companies. I loved doing it, but it just doesn’t pay the bills, so I got into real estate.” But when Conway went to work for Spasenovski’s company, he wound up in theater management again. He felt that finding multiple uses and varied audiences was the best way for theaters to keep their doors open. Then in May of last year the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God contacted Spasenovski.

“I said, ‘My God, do you realize it’s almost 3,000 seats in here?'” Spasenovski recalls. “But they sent a fax with what kind of churches they had in Los Angeles and New York, and they use the biggest stadium in Brazil for Christmas and Easter, and they fill that stadium, 140,000 people.”

The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God boasts 3.5 million members in 34 countries. With a reported $735 million in assets, it’s also Brazil’s 34th largest business. And the church is still less than 20 years old. When the Universal Church decided to buy the Congress, it asked Spasenovski to stop booking shows. “They didn’t want churchgoers to see performers listed on the marquee at night,” he explains. “That could give indication of a fly-by-night church.” He couldn’t argue with its reasoning. Though the church had been paying for four days a week, once it decided to buy the theater Spasenovski allowed it to use the space for the full week at the same cost. “The price they offered was very attractive, to be honest,” he says. Then the deal began to fall apart.

In October Sergio Von Helder, a Universal Church bishop in Sao Paulo, assaulted a statue of the Virgin Mary on national television. As reported in the magazine Christianity Today, Bishop Von Helder whacked a three-foot-tall icon 22 times on the Feast of Our Lady of Aparecida, which celebrates the patron saint of Brazil, saying, “This is not a saint. This is not God. Could it be possible that God, the creator of the universe, be compared with a puppet like this, so ugly, so horrible, and so wretched?”

In Brazil, there’s a law against that sort of thing–you can get a year in jail for attacking a religious image. Catholic bishops accepted an apology, but then a videotape surfaced that purportedly showed Universal Church founder Edir Macedo training pastors on how to best get money out of their congregations. The tape was played on a Brazilian television network that competes against the Universal Church’s station. But these charges were soon overshadowed by a Brazilian government investigation into church finances.

On December 12 Spasenovski received a letter from a Chicago attorney that said the Universal Church no longer wanted to buy the theater. A spokesman for the church explained that “the rent was too high,” so the Chicago congregation ended up moving to a new space on Ashland. That’s when Spasenovski realized he had to fill the theater again.

But he and Conway are excited by the prospect. They’ve already been through a lot with the place–if not hell, then high water. Leaks once sprang from the roof during a performance, drizzling dirty water over the first ten rows of the theater, and those were the expensive seats. “I ran up and try to patch up, just temporarily, so there’s no rain on the audience,” Spasenovski recalls. The heating unit broke down once. He used kerosene heaters, “just to keep the chill off,” until it was fixed.

“When you look back,” Spasenovski says philosophically, “starting from zero and not knowing much about the theater, after four and a half years of running the theater it’s still open. Still here, intact. It might need some beautification here and there, but mechanical’s working. Everything’s still functioning. That’s an achievement by itself.”

Conway says Spasenovski and Petersen “came in here not knowing a thing about theater, and it was probably the best thing in the world. Because if they did know anything, I’m sure they would never have done it.”

The lobby of the Congress is still among the largest theater lobbies in the United States. Light streams in through five tall windows shaped somewhat like fingers. The vaulted ceiling is 75 feet high. Two gargantuan chandeliers are suspended between the ceiling and the floor, and they’re still 35 feet overhead. There are seven large painted panels on the walls. The three on each side wall are abstracts, dirty and faded. The seventh, painted at the head of the staircase leading to the balcony, is a rendering of curtains opening onto an empty stage. In the dim light of a gray afternoon, it looks just like the real thing.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos / J.B. Spector.