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Harper Theater Readies to Reopen After 10 years

By Sam Cholke | January 2, 2013 8:58am | Updated on January 8, 2013 6:26am

HYDE PARK — After sitting vacant for 10 years — and one month — the historic Harper Theater was set to reopen in December, but not before it had overcome one last obstacle.

The new four-screen theater was expected to open for Christmas, but because of a mix-up with licensing will reopen in late January.

“We would have had ‘Les Miserable,’ ‘Cirque du Soleil,’ ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Lincoln,’” said Tony Fox, owner of the new theater. “We could be open right now.”

The theater opening was delayed after Fox did not receive a sign to post on the door saying he was applying for a public place of amusement license.

“Until I panicked and started making noise, I didn’t get the sign to put up at the job site,” Fox said, adding he was frustrated with reticence of the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection to help resolve the issue. “It’s my fault, I should have panicked earlier, and I apologize to the community.”

In just five months, Fox has converted the shell of the vaudeville house into a state of the art four-screen cinema.

“You walked in and it was just like ‘whoa,’ it was gutted two stories up and two stories down,” said Matt Robeson, project manager for Premier Design and Build Group, of seeing the gutted building for the first time in March of 2011. “It was just one big hole.”

On a visit to the new Harper Theater on Friday, an electrician was working around a new espresso machine and popcorn popper finishing off connections for a row flat-screen TVs along the hallway, all financed by the University of Chicago, which also owns the building.

Upstairs in the projection room, an old 35-millimeter projector sits at the end of a row of four high-performance digital projectors.

“In the old theater there were no good sightlines, now every seat has a perfect sightline,” Fox said.

What you can’t see from the plush new seats is the former vaudeville-turned-movie theater rising another two stories overhead. Up a side staircase, the building opens up with to a massive hanger of a room that was the top half of the former one-screen theater.

Theatergoers will soon get to see the new cinema for themselves. The public comment period on the new Harper Theater ended last week and, after one more public hearing, the theater will open.

Fox expects the last meeting to go well after five positive meetings with the community since the theater project was announced in February 2011. He said he knows the lengthy hearing process comes with the territory, but was unprepared for it to take this long.

“It happened at the New 400 Theater, but we got through it much quicker,” Fox said of his Rogers Park theater, adding that he was now unsure whether he would pursue the liquor license he once wanted.

“We can’t even get our regular license, I don’t know if I have it in me,” Fox said.