Portage Theater may rise again

Portage Theater may rise again


Thousands adored it, and not just for the 300 parking spaces in back.

Thousands more never visited it, and may have driven by the unassuming bank building located at 4901 W. Irving Park Rd. in Portage Park without realizing that inside, tucked away on the second floor, in a venue originally designed for employee training presentations, the building housed a 300-seat auditorium. For years that theater hosted movies presented under different auspices with a shared devotion to film over digital, and smart over stupid.

The venue known variously as Bank of America Cinema, and LaSalle Bank Cinema, hasn’t screened a film since the building shuttered in 2010. On Twitter, Chicago film writer Jason Coffman spoke for many when he said: “I loved that weird old theater so much.”

But it may be coming back and may be piggybacking on a $16 million mixed-use development proposal anchored by a Retro Fitness center and an Aldi grocery store. The proposal depends on many things, chief among them the renovation of the Six Corners neighborhood bank building.

Ald. John Arena (45th) has championed the proposal. It relies on $2.5 million in public money being requested through the Portage Park Tax Increment Financing District. This money, Arena told DNAinfo.com, is necessary to “preserve the theater for community and non-profit use.”

Arena’s chief of staff, Owen Brugh, is bullish on the Six Corners revitalization effort. The public/private proposal for the bank building, he says, “fits right in with the master plan for the Portage Park community…to bring in cultural attractions and sustain the restaurants, shops, coffee houses everyone wants to see in our community.”

Toward that end, Starbucks has signed a letter of intent to add a coffee emporium near the bank building. Also, Culver’s, known for its butter burgers, its milkshakes and its name value in the realm of Wisconsin road trips, has expressed interest in the neighborhood.

The fate of the proposal is presently with the City of Chicago. Arena’s office anticipates a response to the TIF request by mid-May. As for the Northwest Chicago Cinema Society, he says, “we certainly expect they would be a user, and we’d love for them to return to that space.”

So what about it, folks? Four years ago Kyle Westphal and his co-founders Rebecca Hall and Julian Antos incorporated the film society as a nonprofit. It was, and is, an outgrowth of the cinema society that flourished for years at the bank building on Irving Park Road, under the stewardship of Michael W. Phillips Jr. (no relation), currently running South Side Projections.

Since the shuttering of the bank building the film society has screened its eclectic wares at the Portage Theater, the Patio Theater and other venues. Reached in Rochester, N.Y., where he was introducing a screening of the early Robert Altman oddity “Corn’s-a-Poppin” at the George Eastman House, Westphal said they’re close to an announcement of the film society’s summer/fall 2015 slate, to be presented at a educational institution they can’t disclose just yet.

The summer plans sound very promising. And yet to this critic, the idea of the film society becoming an anchor tenant, or the spearhead of a nonprofit arts consortium, in a renovated Irving Park Road auditorium a year or two down the line sounds pretty sweet.

“That building,” Westphal says, “contributed four decades of service to that community, where there wasn’t regular movie entertainment nearby. They had a remarkable audience congregating in that space. And we think it should be preserved. It’s been lying dormant for too long.”