PORTAGE PARK — Hundreds of people rallied Monday night to help the operators of the Portage Theater raise money for their legal fight against the theater's new owner.
In September, Eddie Carranza, the owner of the Congress Theater in Logan Square, bought the Portage Theater and tried to evict theater operators Dennis Wolkowicz and Dave Dziedzic, who breathed new life into the 1920s movie palace when they took it over eight years ago.
Wolkowicz told the crowd he needed help paying about $10,000 worth of legal bills incurred during the eviction proceedings.
“We believe in what we are doing here,” Wolkowicz said.
Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Save the Portage Theater,” Ald. John Arena (45th) said he wanted to ensure that the Portage Theater continues to be part of the ongoing revitalization of the Six Corners Shopping District and helps preserve the neighborhood's identity.
“We’re going to maintain the quality of the neighborhood, give the new owner a chance to earn a return on his investment and protect the communities that call this theater home,” Arena said.
Carranza announced Monday that he was on the verge of securing a corporate partnership for both the Congress and Portage theaters that would expand the type of shows offered at each venue. However, he declined to reveal details about the deal and it was unclear what more it would mean for either theater.
“It needs a lot of work, but it has a lot of potential,” Carranza said, adding that he wants to show films and offer live theater and comedy shows there. “It should be a true entertainment center and the catalyst for commerce at Six Corners.”
Carranza also bought several storefronts near the theater and plans to develop them, perhaps with restaurants.
Although their lease runs through 2015, Wolkowicz said he and Dziedzic are about $100,000 behind in rent because they were forced to make repairs to the theater and its heating system that the previous owner should have paid for.
Carranza said he has asked the theater operators to verify the repairs they made to the theater, but has gotten no response. He said the operators owe $110,000 in rent.
“That being said, I have always been willing to work with them,” Carranza said.
The Congress Theater, at 2135 N. Milwaukee Ave., had been the subject of numerous complaints from neighbors about loud music, trash, drunk patrons and other safety issues. Although improvements have been made and fewer complaints lodged in recent weeks, Carranza’s record at the Congress and rumors that he planned to remove the 1,300 seats from the theater drew vehement community opposition.
“We need to keep the tradition and keep the seats,” Wolkowicz said, adding that he was looking for a way to work with Carranza.
Carranza said he has “no new plans for the theater seating right now.”
Marc Sussman, the owner of a building across Milwaukee Avenue from the Portage theater that is the new home of the National Veterans Art Museum and the Filament Theatre Group, said the Portage Theater is a good neighbor.
“The plans are to run a 4 a.m. nightclub,” Sussman said. “That would be awful. Nothing good happens after midnight.”
Sussman said he wasn’t opposed to having music performances at the Portage, but wanted the character of the theater to remain as it is.
“The Portage is a treasure,” Sussman said. “It is wonderful and eclectic.”
Carranza said he planned to attend community meetings to work with Portage Park residents. However, Carranza said he would not work with Arena, who called the theater owner “a liar” in an email message to 45th Ward residents in September.
Arena said Carranza promised him and other community leaders that he would not evicit Wolkowicz and Dziedzic, but started legal proceedings against them days later.
“I really hope the community will embrace the theater and its diverse programing, as it is really the highest and best [use] of the theater,” Carranza said.