Windy City Music Theatre to re-open Jefferson theater as playhouse; site was once home to area’s first movie house
by BRIAN NADIG
The site of the first movie theater in Jefferson Park will return to its roots next month when the Jefferson Playhouse opens inside the 100-year-old building at 4766 N. Milwaukee Ave.
The Windy City Music Theatre, formerly Youth Company Chicago, has signed a long-term lease for the site and has been renovating the building since January. The performance center, which will include a lobby, a concessions counter and dressing rooms, will have 77 seats, about 200 fewer than when the Jefferson Theater, a silent film house, operated there.
A second-floor projection room remains from when the building was constructed. It is not know when the movie theater closed, but it may not have operated past the 1920s since it is believed that movies with sound never played there, said Northwest Chicago Historical Society researcher Frank Suerth. The Milwaukee-Lawrence intersection was once home to four movie theaters, he said.
In the 1980s the building was home to Imperial Fruit Market, and about 25 years ago a fire damaged portions of the building, whose name “Jefferson” is a permanent fixture along the top of the façade.
The building’s storefront has been vacant for about 10 years, while the rear portion of the building in recent years has had several uses, including a woodworking shop and a rehearsal studio for a band. In 2010, the building caught the attention of inspectors due to reports of an unlicensed business there, and two building code citations were issued.
“The building has been a bit of a mystery. We’re glad we can open it up,” said Windy City founder Jerry Foust. “There is no reason why people have to go Downtown to see good theater.”
Foust said that Jefferson Park already has several, successful performance and cultural centers. The area’s other storefront playhouse is the Gift Theater, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave., which opened about 10 years ago, and art and cultural shows also are held at the Copernicus Center, 5216 W. Lawrence Ave., and the Ed Paschke Art Center, 5415 W. Higgins Ave.
Windy City’s performing arts school opened in 2012 at 5340 W. Lawrence Ave. It previously operated at temporary locations in Lincoln Park, but Foust said that it was more cost effective to lease a permanent space. He said that a for rent advertisement drew his attention to Jefferson Park and that the program in just a few years has grown from seven children at a summer camp to 550 participants.
Foust, a Northwest Indiana native, said that he was working in Berkley, California, after college but that he decided to move back to Chicago to be closer to family members. He said that he helped build a successful acting company in California and wanted to start a similar theatrical group in Chicago.
Initially Windy City’s programs were only for children, and the company manages musical productions at more than a dozen area schools. However, it recently expanded its programming to include adult workshops.
The first performance at the Jefferson Playhouse is scheduled to be the musical “Cinderella” on Saturday, April 18. While the venue will be available for rent for outside productions, it is expected that eventually it will only house shows produced by Windy City, Foust said.