Seems my recent blog post on my dream production of Follies, as staged in the lobby of the Uptown Theatre, has hit a nerve. It’s quickly made the rounds, and I’ve received some lovely and supportive emails from people who’ve visited and raved about the space, have somehow been connected with the Uptown throughout its storied past, or simply wanted to express how much they liked my idea.
One of those emails came from the Uptown’s facilities manager who offered me the opportunity to tag along with a tour arranged for Art Institute of Chicago students, who were studying the space for their restoration class (or something like that). So before I headed into work yesterday, I took a detour uptown to tour the Uptown.
The Uptown is apparently under new ownership, and he’s taken steps to get the electricity fully restored and get the giant fans blowing in the basement (essentially, the central air system of the theatre) to rid the place of any moldy smells and dust. And it works — the place didn’t feel or smell musty at all. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
At 9 a.m., we all gathered under the Uptown’s marquee, and were greeted by three men: the owner, the facilities manager and some guy who led the tour (whose name escapes me) who knows all there is to know about the Uptown.
We were then led into the lobby. Wow. The place is a castle. The photo I included in my last post is pretty representative. It’s a glorious, fading jewel. As I stood in the center of the lobby, I couldn’t help but imagine my dream Follies. I pictured gloriously decked out tables — like a party — arranged in the lobby. And that’s where the audience, and the actors, would mingle and sit. As for the orchestra, I was pleased to learn there’s a space on the upper level, just above the entranceway doors, where a band used to play while people mingled in the lobby during the theatre’s heyday.
A band in the lobby? Yes. The Uptown was the hub of the thriving Uptown cultural scene. In 1925, when the Uptown opened, the red line’s Lawrence stop was the hot spot for dining and entertainment. Shows — both live shows and movies — played all day at the Uptown, and the lobby offered a place to shop, eat and hang out while you waited for your show — which explains the lobby’s size. In addition, you could even leave your children at a nursery area (which we also toured) as you enjoyed the show. It seems they thought of everything!
We then went to the auditorium, marching down the left-hand aisle and right up to the stage. As expected, the venue is huge. There are 4,381 seats, the ceiling is 140 feet high, and the stage is 71 feet wide. Why an odd number like 71? Well, the Chicago Theatre, which opened four years earlier in 1921, boasted a stage 70 feet wide, and the Uptown wanted to be able to say it had the “widest stage in the city.”
Furthermore, the auditorium isn’t in nearly the dire state I’d anticipated. There is hope! And the stunning Spanish Baroque architecture still packs a wallop. Interestingly, an area in the back corner of the space that was all blackened and soot-stained was actually the artifact of Hollywood magic. The film Backdraft used the Uptown’s auditorium for a few fire rescue scenes, and black paint was applied to create a charred appearance.
It’s impossible to fathom how they built the entire thing in just 18 months. Also, the grand opening of the theatre included a parade with 200-plus floats. Oh, the roaring ’20s! Additional factoids are included on the theatre’s Wiki page. There’s even a documentary about the Uptown (the guy who appears 00:39 led our tour):
Of course the Uptown is in need of major love and care. The plaster’s crumbling and water damaged in areas due to years of neglect, the wiring needs to be redone, and I’m not sure what else. Also all the chairs need to be replaced in the auditorium (not just because the upholstery’s disintegrating, but because we have wider asses now then they did in the 1940s when the Uptown had its last major renovation). I’ve heard up to $70 million are needed to restore the Uptown. I wish them the best of luck in realizing their dream (as I continue to mull over my Follies dream).