Portage Theater redevelopment plans revealed

By BRIAN NADIG

Under new redevelopment plans for the 93-year-old Portage Theater, 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave., its current manager will be maintained, a wider range of movies will be shown, and a restaurant and banquet hall will be added to the building.

New Portage owner Eddie Carranza recently said that he will operate the theater as part of a joint venture with the theater’s existing management team, which includes theater manager Dennis Wolkowicz. Carranza, who also owns the Congress Theater, 2135 N. Milwaukee Ave., announced last winter that he was seeking an outside company to run the theater, but those plans have been dropped.

Carranza said that he will be in charge of booking live entertainment at the 1,300-seat theater, including music and comedy acts, while Wolkowicz will continue to manage movie programming.

Wolkowicz’ management company holds the theater’s liquor and entertainment licenses, and a transfer of the licenses to Carranza is not expected to occur soon due to issues regarding Carranza’s operation of the Congress Theater. Under the city rules, people who are not listed on a liquor license can only share in a small percentage of liquor revenue.

Carranza has been at the center of controversy due to issues of reported building and licensing violations at the Congress Theater, and he has had a dispute with Alderman John Arena (45th) over the future of the Portage. The city is trying to revoke the liquor license at the Congress, and it has held a series of nuisance-related hearings about the theater, but Carranza said that those issues will be resolved due to the progress he is making in renovating the Congress and addressing the city’s concerns.

Last year Carranza tried to evict Wolkowicz’ management team due to back rent being due, but if that were to occur, the theater would remain closed until a new operator obtained licenses, which can be a lengthy bureaucratic process.

Wolkowicz said that, despite the eviction dispute, Carranza has never wavered on his support for film programming at the Portage and that his plans to spend more than $50,000 on a digital projector means that the theater can start showing recently released movies. The theater currently shows movies in 35mm, but new movies are not available in that format.

Carranza said that his desire to keep movies as a vital part of the Portage’s programming led to his decision not to bring in an outside management company. He said that it is unlikely that a new management company would invest in a digital projector and that there would be no guarantee that the company would want to partner with Wolkowicz.

“If I stay involved, Dennis has his job and his movie programming secured,” Carranza said in a statement. “This is better for me, him and the community. Since I own the building and know music, and Dennis has a movie audience established, we are the perfect, most motivated, passionate, established operators for the Portage Theater. There is no better option, or anyone who deserves more to operate this theater than Dennis and I.”

Carranza has been making “first class” improvements to the theater, including the recent addition of chandeliers that nearly duplicate the originals, which have been missing for more than 30 years, Wolkowicz said.  Other improvements include repairs to the ceiling of the lobby and to the heating system, he said.

To promote the redevelopment of the theater and to combat negative publicity, Carranza recently began a community outreach campaign that included hosting a group of local residents and business owners at a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert at the Congress Theater.

Renderings of the redevelopment plans were on display at an April 5 fund-raiser that Carranza held at the Portage Theater for the family of Dennis Tisdale, who suffered head injuries during a recent attack that occurred near Milwaukee and Sunnyside avenues. More than 400 people attended the event, which featured a Beatles tribute band that Carranza paid to fly in from Las Vegas.

Carranza said that he purchased the Portage and several buildings across from the theater because he feels that Six Corners can become the entertainment center of the Northwest Side and that the Portage should be the centerpiece of the revitalization of the shopping district. Carranza said that the theater was not realizing its potential as an entertainment venue by catering mostly to film festivals.

Carranza is identifying operators for a brew pub in the former Mr. Steer Steakhouse, 4031-33 N. Milwaukee Ave., a 1950s-style diner in one of the storefronts of a building at 4047-55 N. Milwaukee Ave. and a possible food market and cafe at 4029 N. Milwaukee Ave. The plan for a market may be dropped if a grocery store moves into the former Bank of America building, 4901 W. Irving Park Road, Carranza said.

“I’m out there promoting Portage Park and trying to bring businesses to Portage Park,” Carranza said.

Carranza is planning to open a restaurant in the theater building that will be accessible from the lobby. The restaurant will take up several storefronts at the north end of the building, and it is scheduled to open before the end of the year, he said.

Plans also are being made to convert a former Masonic lodge hall on the second floor of the theater into a banquet room and to add an elevator connecting that space to the theater. Over the years the 5,000-square-foot space also has been home to an archery range and a children’s theater company.

Arena has expressed concern that Carranza has a history of broken promises and that he might turn the Portage into a “beer hall.” Nearly all of the main-floor seats at the Congress have been removed, and liquor bars line the sides of the auditorium.

Arena said at the April 5 benefit at the theater that Carranza should “show me a business plan.” Last year Arena said that he was “cautiously optimistic” that the Portage will continue to offer entertainment that will help the revitalization of the area, and he recommended that Carranza work with the theater management team for about a year before seeking a transfer of the theater’s licenses.

However, after the eviction notice was served, Arena charged that Carranza had broken a promise not to evict Wolkowicz. “In short, Mr. Carranza lied to me, and he lied to the community,” Arena wrote in his weekly newsletter.

Carranza’s former attorney later said that his client would never again talk to Arena and that the alderman’s approval was not needed for any of the redevelopment plans because they do not require zoning changes. The fund-raiser marked the first time in six months that Arena and Carranza have talked, although both said that their conversation was brief.

Carranza said that if he cannot get the alderman’s support for his projects, it could force him to lease the Portage to an outside company.

Arena said this week that it is difficult to comment on Carranza’s plans because they frequently change and that he will continue to monitor the licensing situation at the theater. He said that he is not aware of any applications being filed with the city for a transfer of the licenses.

Arena said that the city has very stringent rules on liquor and public place of amusement licenses because it wants to hold the license holders accountable when there is a problem. “It’s all about responsibility,” and until Carranza files for a transfer of licenses, “everything is status quo” at the Portage, he said.

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