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Patio Theater, Chicago Cinema Society Join Forces

 The Chicago Cinema Society and the Patio Theater are teaming up to offer rare films and cinematic gems at the Portage Park movie palace.
The Chicago Cinema Society and the Patio Theater are teaming up to offer rare films and cinematic gems at the Portage Park movie palace.
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PORTAGE PARK — The Chicago Cinema Society will make the newly restored Patio Theater its new home, boosting the 86-year-old movie palace's efforts to regain a measure of its former glory.

Neil Calderone, the founder of the society, said he grew up near the theater at Irving Park Road and Austin Avenue and went there every weekend with his mother.

"My earliest memories of film are from the Patio," Calderone said. "It is like a dream."

The society had been holding its screenings at the Logan Theatre and the Portage Theater, but hadn't been able to craft a consistent schedule, Calderone said. The Patio, which has both a 35 mm film projector and a digital projector, is an ideal fit, he added.

"We love 35 mm film very much," Calderone said. "We want to present the films the way they were intended. Otherwise, it is like dragging nails across the chalkboard."

The society promises to showcase independent films as well as family favorites and cult classics late night on Fridays and Saturdays, in the afternoon on Saturdays and Sundays, and on Monday evenings. 

Portage Park is becoming known as a hub for independent and diverse films. The Northwest Chicago Film Society launched its seventh season in January at the Portage Theater, and the Silent Film Society has called the theater at Six Corners home for many years.

Calderone hopes movie lovers drawn to the area to take in a film at the theater built in 1927 will also help revitalize the area's Irving Austin Business District, which has struggled in recent years. 

"We're hoping the empty storefronts will fill up with bars and restaurants," Calderone said. "We want to serve the community."

That is music to Demetri Kouvalis' ears. The Kouvalis family has owned the theater since 1987, but the former movie palace was closed between 2001 and 2011, when Kouvalis renovated it after borrowing money from his father.

"If we can make the immediate area come alive, that's the key to the theater's success," said Kouvalis said.

The 24-year-old launched the theater renovation project when he couldn't find a job after graduating from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2010 with a marketing degree. The family was able to hang on to the theater, despite its long closure, by renting out the building's storefronts and upper-floor apartments.

The theater won't be able to survive if it just shows Hollywood movies, Kouvalis said.

"We need to build a base of film lovers and draw a regular crowd," Kouvalis said. "We want to offer something that people can't see anywhere else."

The theater will use its 35 mm projector — which Kouvalis rescued from a trash heap at Princeton University — for the first time to show cult classic "The Warriors" from March 22-25.

Kouvalis, who lives in Lakeview but lived in Portage Park until he was in high school, used Kickstarter to raise $50,000 to buy a new digital projector in June. More than 600 people donated between $75 and $80 to support the theater.

"We found a bunch of people from the neighborhood who see the Patio is worth saving," Kouvalis said. "There is no way we could have done it otherwise."

Despite that support, is has been difficult to turn a profit, Kouvalis said. The theater was closed for a few days in February thanks to a leaking gas pipe, Kouvalis said.

"When you run an 85-year-old building, things crop up," Kouvalis said. "There's only so much I can do. It's stressful."

The partnership with the cinema society will allow Kouvalis to pick the movies and launch an advertising and marketing campaign.

"It would be a shame if we only showed what Hollywood is putting out," Kouvalis said.