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Thursday
Apr052012

The First Church of Celluloid

The Portage Theatre is located at 4050 North Milwaukee Avenue Chicago, IL 60641 (773) 736-4050

Help Save Chicago's Historic Portage Theatre!

UPDATE: Alderman John Arena just announced that Chicago's Landmark Commission has granted preliminary landmark status to the Portage Theatre. This is great news, but we're not out of the woods yet. If you can take just a few minutes to "like" the Portage's Facebook page and sign the letter of petition (instructions in the article), you'll go far in helping save the theatre. If you're able to write a letter to the Zoning Board, even better.

Here's Alderman Arena's statement:

"I'm happy to share a great victory with you today: The Landmark Commission just voted unanimously to bestow preliminary landmark status on The Portage Theater. This change will protect the building's facade, lobby areas and theater space from alterations until the city completes a longer and more extensive study.

This is an important step in the effort to preserve this community anchor, and I'm proud of all the work we've done in the past few weeks to get this safeguard into place. So many of you stepped up to help research the building and its history, as well as get the word out about the possible alteration of this unique slice of Chicago's past.

I also want to thank the folks at Preservation Chicago, who designated the Portage as one of their Seven Most Endangered Chicago Buildings. In addition to their support for the historical status of the theater, they also note that Chicago Tabernacle's plan to convert The Portage to a house of worship will "take it off the tax rolls and could jeopardize the nascent economic revival currently occurring at Six Corners. Despite major community opposition, the Zoning Board of Appeals will soon be considering whether to grant the church a Special Use Permit to operate in the Portage Theater space."

As Preservation Chicago wisely notes, the landmark status will protect the building, but not its use. The Zoning Board of Appeals lists Chicago Tabernacle's Special Use Permit request on their April 20 agenda, and I hope you can come out to City Hall that morning at 9 am to voice your opinion. Also, Chicago Tabernacle has now submitted the required paperwork to go through our community-centered zoning review process. We will be sitting down with church representatives next week as part of that process, and the church will present their plans to the community shortly thereafter. I will keep you posted as the situation unfolds.

Thank you for your continued community engagement."

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What does God need with a starship?

--James Tiberius Kirk

The Chicago Tabernacle Church loves movies almost as much as preaching the Word of God.

Need proof? Despite alderman John Arena's offer to help find a suitable location for their new home--including the eleven vacant churches within walking distance of the city's Portage Theatre--the organization has pushed ahead with plans to buy the building outright.

You might wonder why the congregation is interested in snatching up a ninety-two-year-old movie house that, in recent years, has hosted silent film festivals, horror marathons, and the world premiere of Evil Bong 3D. Are they a special flock of penitent cinephiles?

Sadly, no. According to pastor Al "Holy" Toledo, their plans for the Portage include removing the marquee, evicting the residents of the building's apartments, and converting the space into a full-on house of worship--complete with classrooms and staging areas for religious pageants and other Christ-approved creative endeavors. "We have art that we bring forth as well," he said, in a manner of phrasing that suggests his view of creativity is of something conjured instead of channeled.

In addition to harshing the mellow of local movie-lovers, the church's new digs would severely hamper the neighborhood's plans for economic growth. A counter proposal to transform the moth-balled loft above the marquee into a swanky jazz club (keeping the downstairs theatre intact) is on the table. Four restaurants have also expressed interest in moving into the area. Neither of these would be possible under Chicago Tabernacle's ownership, thanks in part to the wonderful church-and-state-separating law that prohibits alcohol sales within one-hundred feet of religious institutions.

Under normal circumstances, I'd suggest raising a crap-ton of money to buy out the buyers. It doesn't seem too far fetched to use social media's myriad, sticky tendrils to ask three million people for a dollar apiece. But this fight isn't about cash; it's about ideology.* Chicago Tabernacle wants the building, not the theatre. Which is why, short of applying for landmark status (the matter comes up for discussion tonight), the best that fans of classic theatres can do is make our voices be heard.

Currently, we have three avenues to work with--all viable, all important:

Start by"liking" the Save the Portage Facebook page for updates and to show support.

Then, sign this letter of petition to the Chicago Tabernacle Church and share it with friends.

Finally--and this requires the most effort--write a brief, sincere letter to Jonathan Swain at Chicago's Zoning Board of Appeals. Ask him to deny Chicago Tabernacle a special use permit for the theatre:

City of Chicago
Zoning Board of Appeals 
Attn: Jonathan Swain, Chairman
121 North LaSalle Street
Room 905
Chicago, IL. 60602

I don't get over to the Portage often. But the handful of times I've attended screenings there in the last few years, the feeling of community and the love of movies have always impressed me. More than that, they've impressed upon me the notion that a church doesn't have to involve the recitation of dogma, the snapping in two of bread, or speeches by dubious moralizers.

From any one of the theatre's thirteen-hundred seats, one can admire the classic architecture and sheer grandiosity fashioned by people who came together in the last century to give film lovers a comfortable, beautiful venue in which to appreciate art. The best movies can elevate the spirit as much as an impassioned sermon, and we're losing more and more places in which to experience films as they were meant to be seen.

Even if you've never been to the Portage, or to Chicago, or to Illinois, I implore you to join me in helping preserve this great, old theatre. And don't worry about God not getting His hands on the space: I'm sure if He reeeeally wanted to, He could figure something out.

*I think. If anyone knows a billionaire who would--for kicks or for real--offer Chicago Tabernacle, say, $20 million, I'd be very interested to see if Toledo and the rest get "moved by the Spirit" to give up the building.

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