BY CHARLES BERMAN August 8, 2011 10:32PM
Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering talks about her childhood memories at the Highland Park Theater Friday. | Curtis Lehmkuhl~Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 13, 2011 9:04AM
With each step through the Highland Park Theatre, the scene shifts abruptly from a historic and timeless venue on the verge of a return to glory to an aging and costly relic of a bygone era.
Mayor Nancy Rotering rode that emotional roller coaster July 29 while leading the Highland Park News on a “lights on, warts and all” tour of the 85-year-old movie house.
Walking from room to room, floor by floor, Rotering shared glowing tales of childhood afternoons at the theatre, memories now reinforced by appreciation for the beautiful wood-carved details that encase the venue. her next observations, however, including torn seat covers, missing floor tiles, a water logged basement, crumbling crown molding and mounting operating losses, cloud the still-evolving picture.
The enigma that is the Highland Park Theatre is set to be the focal point of a city-directed restoration or redevelopment effort of 64,300-square-feet of prime Central Avenue real estate in downtown Highland Park. Purchased in 2009 for $2.1 million, the new City Council has agreed that its budget has no room for the movie business.
“It’s a tremendous space with great history,” Rotering said within a few steps of entering the main theatre. “Anybody of a certain age will remember first dates up in the balcony, or watching cartoons in the afternoons on weekends.
“That’s why there is an interest in preserving it.”
but that balcony is now closed — and has been for many years. Theatre managers explained that the top poses a safety hazard, worsened by the deteriorating plaster molding that wraps the projection room. the theatre seat upholstery remains in shockingly poor shape and the sound equipment is out-of-date, too.
“Those are two major pieces that would have to be resolved if this would continue as a theatre,” Rotering said, with theatre general manager Kevin Anderson in full agreement.
But before Rotering could exit the dramatic main theatre, which once boasted 1,200 seats, she again pointed out the detailed wood carvings and mural-covered walls that can’t be matched by new stadium multiplexes.
The tour continued into the remaining three theatres, the old-fashioned reel spindle projection room, 1980s-era offices, modest bathrooms and two attached retail storefronts.
The city’s theatre management company — Northbrook-based KemperSports — recommended that the in-depth theatre analysis leave out the basement, citing additional safety concerns.
“It’s a risk,” said John Erickson, Kemper’s regional operations manager.
“It’s like a whole other world down there,” added Rotering before leading the group down a steep, narrow and damp staircase hidden under a nondescript stage door.
Down below, the original Central Avenue marquee rests along a dark wall, a few feet safe from the nearest basement puddle. the old dressing room’s wood floor has rotted away and a second staircase, which formerly provided a quick route up to the live performing stage, is now blocked.
a $3 million project
In total, the maintenance and safety improvements needed to bring the theatre back up to city standards is estimated to cost more than $3 million, according to a facility assessment report conducted in July 2008.
The three-year-old report states that $843,000 is needed to address code violations and safety hazards, while an additional $2.66 million is required for necessary construction work aimed at tackling maintenance issues.
According to the findings, asbestos and mold damage needs to be rid of throughout; structural concrete needs restoration, the steel foundation needs reinforcement; the site’s drainage needs improvement; and the electrical, heating and cooling systems need to be replaced.
The document also details the seating, stage and balcony deficiencies. the good news is the city’s Phase 1 Environmental Site Assessment report — conducted after the council voted to purchase the theatre, but before the transaction closed — “revealed no recognized environmental conditions.”
The other piece of the puzzle is the financial attention the city has given to the theatre. According to the city’s 2011 budget, the theatre is expected to bring in $557,250 this year, from ticket sales, food and beverage receipts, retail leasing and marketing fees. on July 11, however, total revenue stood at $186,062, far below the seven-month pace to reach the budgeted amount. So far this year, the city has spent $194,939 of $534,013 worth of planned expenditures on the theatre.
the city lost $7,058 on the theatre in 2010, according to the budget, but Rotering added that the figure does not include city staff members’ time spent overseeing the venue. Deputy City Manager Patrick Brennan works with Kemper overseeing operations and Bob McCraren, the city’s superintendent of facilities, handles weekly maintenance needs.
The city has not provided the Highland Park News or Mayor Rotering with the full, adjusted cost.
Going forward, Rotering explained that the Highland Park Theatre’s litany of age-related needs is no different than the demands on vintage community theatres nationwide.
“The issue is limited resources, emotional ties to past days of glory in these movie theaters and real costs of maintaining them or restoring them,” said Rotering, noting one difference remains the fact that taxpayers own Highland Park’s movie house.
Still, Rotering hopes the right investor or arts company steps up to keep the venue a theater or live performing arts center. She won’t, however, approve additional city funds to finance upkeep and operations.
“I wouldn’t support spending that kind of money,” Rotering said, “but my understanding from talking to people in the community is that there is a very strong interest in restoring the theatre. So we will see what comes from our (request-for-proposal) process.”
Council back at work
on Monday, Council members were back at the worktable detailing the document interested developers will draw on before submitting proposals. the council previously expressed openness to all ideas, preferring the existing theatre use but also a willingness to entertain proposals of a dramatic shift to a hotel, retail or mixed-use residential complex.
Sweetening the development odds is the fact that the theatre site also offers additional prime space above the main floor as well as two large parking lots next door. Above the outdoor marquee sits a perfect setting for a dance or rehearsal studio, Rotering envisioned. two retail storefronts flank the theatre entrance, and office space is plentiful.
“The outside of the building is beautiful,” she said. “It’s absolutely beautiful.”
After recently visiting Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom, Rotering sent a picture of her dream Highland Park Theatre scenario featuring a large, live performing stage in front of a capacity crowd.
not a project for the city
“It’s just a really old building that needs some tender love and care, but by the same token the city is not the entity to put taxpayer dollars into restoring an old theatre,” Rotering said. “The goal is to see who’s interested and see what they want to achieve here. Lots of community theaters have gone in new directions; we just need to find the person with the means to achieve the goal.”
Similar to the dichotomy between the theatre’s remarkable potential and exhausting physical drawbacks, Rotering’s view of the ongoing process is split between past and future.
“The whole story to me isn’t just what are we going to do, it’s how on earth did we get to this place and how was that decision made,” Rotering said. “I never understood why the city bought the movie theater. I never understood why it was so difficult to get information about the financials, and I never understood why Kemper Golf Management was put in charge of the Highland Park Theatre when they had no experience in running movie theaters.
“There is just so much about all of this that has never made sense to me and I am really looking forward to moving forward.”