Owner shutters Portage Theater
by BRIAN NADIG
Portage Theater owner Eddie Carranza closed the landmark theater, 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave., on May 24, forcing the cancellation of a monster film festival that had been scheduled for the following day.
The closing came on the same day the city revoked Carranza’s liquor license for the Congress Theater, 2135 N. Milwaukee Ave. Carranza is appealing the revocation, and the Congress can continue to serve liquor during the appeals process.
Carranza, who purchased the Portage Theater building last year, bought the management company which holds the licenses for the theater two weeks ago, and he has until mid-June to apply for a transfer of the liquor license and until the end of June to apply for a transfer of the public place of amusement license, according to Owen Brugh, the chief of staff for Alderman John Arena (45th).
“Under the law there was no reason he had to shut down (the Portage),” Brugh said.
The Portage could be closed for “many months or longer” while a new operator is sought, Carranza said.
Arena has said that he would oppose the transfer of the Portage Theater’s licenses to Carranza until he demonstrates that he can run the theater responsibly. Under city ordinance, Carranza could apply to have the licenses transferred to him, but he would be barred from ever obtaining a new liquor license in the city if the revocation of the license for the Congress Theater is upheld.
Homero Tristan, an attorney for Carranza, said that the Portage Theater was closed after an attorney for Dennis Wolkowicz and Dave Dziedzic of the management company informed Carranza that they had no interest in operating the theater on an interim basis while Carranza attempted to get the licenses transferred. The theater’s licenses are not valid if the individuals listed on the license are no longer associated with the theater, Tristan said.
Dziedzic said that the sale of the management company included no stipulations requiring that he and Wolkowicz operate the theater on an interim basis. He said that he and Wolkowicz were willing to remain during the transition but that, although there were some discussions on the matter with Carranza, there was no formal offer.
Dziedzic was in negotiations to purchase the theater last year at about the same time the building was sold to Carranza. Dziedzic said that he still is interested in acquiring the property.
Carranza said that the transition in management of the theater would have gone more smoothly if Arena had been more cooperative and had not objected to the transfer of the licenses. “The reason it’s closed is because Arena blocked Dennis and I from operating the theater together,” Carranza said in a written statement.
Carranza, who recently purchased several vacant storefronts in the Six Corners shopping district, said, “I’m fixing up (the) theater and bringing in other new business development into Six Corners. Yet Arena is against all the desperately needed new business development.”
“I don’t see anyone else trying this hard to stimulate Six Corners,” Carranza said in the statement. “Even before I invested in Portage Park, Six Corners already had a reputation of being a hard place to open up business because of Arena trying to control and scrutinize anyone trying to open a business in Six Corners.”
Brugh said that Arena has a record of recruiting new businesses to Six Corners, including several new restaurants that are in the works, and that the Arena has worked to preserve the Portage Theater as the centerpiece of the revitalization of the shopping district. Arena opposed an attempt to convert the theater into a church last year, saying that the theater’s mix of entertainment is needed to attract a diverse group of visitors to the shopping district.
“Our understanding was that Dennis, but not Dave, was going to stay on to manage the place for the interim 30 days while a new management team was put together,” Brugh said in a statement. “It was also our understanding that the new management team would not include Eddie, since there is no way on God’s green earth the city would grant him another liquor license right now, regardless of what the alderman said.”
Without his name on the liquor license, Carranza would be limited to receiving no more than 5 percent of the liquor proceeds from the theater, Brugh said.
Arena understood that Carranza was going to transfer his interest in the management company to someone else in the next 30 days, Brugh said. “Unsurprisingly, it seems Eddie is unable, unwilling to find someone willing to work with him,” he said.
Brugh said that Arena wanted Wolkowicz to assist with the transition. “Dennis was eager to remain to protect the longtime users of the theater and his investment of money, time, heart and soul into that building,” Brugh said. “He saw that with the film programming that existed and a more robust music program that befit our demographic, that building could thrive. And we agree with him.”
Tristan said that Carranza is willing to talk with Arena to try to resolve the issue and to discuss Carranza’s plans for other buildings in the area. He said that given the influence that the local alderman has over licensing and zoning matters, “without the blessing of the alderman,” it is extremely difficult for any redevelopment project to move forward.
Tristan described Carranza as “a real player in the ward” given the amount of property that he owns in the shopping district, including the former Mr. Steer Steakhouse at 4033 N. Milwaukee Ave. Carranza has said that he has plans for several restaurants and possibly a small grocery store in the 4000 block of North Milwaukee.
Carranza and Arena have been at odds for several months, as Arena has called Carranza “a liar” for breaking a promise not to file an eviction lawsuit against Wolkowicz and Dziedzic due to a rent dispute. In response, a former attorney for Carranza said that his client was not afraid to close the Portage because he “has the resources to carry an empty building for a long time.”
A spokesman for the canceled May 25 film festival at the Portage said it was unfortunate that visitors had to be turned away from the theater due to a disagreement between Carranza and Arena. In addition, the Northwest Chicago Film Society had to move its May 27 showing of the film “All I Desire” from the Portage Theater to the Patio Theater, 6008 W. Irving Park Road, which itself will be closed during the summer because of a faulty air conditioner.
The city revoked the liquor license at the Congress Theater due to a failure to report a fight which occurred at the theater to police and because of a series of drug-related incidents there. Carranza said that the fight and the drug incidents all were reported to police and that the revocation will send a message to other liquor establishments that they risk losing their license if they do not call 911 to report crime incidents.