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New Regal Theater's Future Uncertain as Neighbors Hope for Rebirth

By Wendell Hutson | March 20, 2013 10:45am

SOUTH CHICAGO — Samuel Bankston would like nothing more than to see the New Regal Theater at 1641 E. 79th St. reopen one day.

"It is a beautiful building with a unique design going to waste. When it was open we had more police presence and less shootings," recalled Bankston, 60, who owns a two-story apartment building on the block.

But once the New Regal Theater closed in 2003, "more shootings started and less police were around — that's why I would like to see it open back up," said Bankston.

He'd also like to see it remain under black ownership, he said.

"Most of the businesses in the black community are owned by Arabs, not blacks, and that needs to change," said Bankston. "Black ownership is now a thing of the past. Hardly anything in the black community is ours anymore."

The fate of the '20s-era, 2,300-seat theater is unclear now that its owners, Ronald and Regina Evans, have been indicted by the U.S. Attorney's Office.

The couple is charged with misusing a $1.25 million grant their foundation, We Are Our Brother's Keeper, received in 2009 from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

Regina Evans, a former Chicago police lieutenant, resigned in October of 2011 as police chief of southwest suburban Country Club Hills. And her husband, Ronald, who also is a former Chicago police officer, had worked as the inspector general for Country Club Hills until August of 2011 when his position was eliminated.

The Evans were unavailable for comment.

Businesses near the decaying theater said sales dipped after the 2003 closing.

"It would be nice to have it back open. Ever since they closed, business has been slow," said Paulette Mendez, manager of Caribbean Jerk & BBQ Pit restaurant, which sits across the street from the theater.

"People would come in here and eat before and after the show. This place was packed on the weekends. Not anymore though," said Mendez.

Area residents, who agreed parking was an issue because the theater does not have a parking lot, were undecided about what they'd like to see replace the New Regal if it doesn't reopen.

"Short of a church being put there, I think a banquet hall would be a nice touch for the area," said Ann Smith, 66, who lives in the 7800 block of South Constance Avenue. "But I'd really like to see a church open there. We need more of that around here."

Langston Alexander, 39, of the 7700 block of South Bennett Avenue, said he prefers a retail store.

"Walmart would go good there. Look around and what do you see? You see fast-food joints, liquor stores and one bank," said Alexander, a desk clerk at a West Side retail store. "Whatever takes its  place, it has to be something that would attract people to the area."

Redeveloping the New Regal Theater is unlikely, said Harold Lucus, president and chief executive officer of the Black Metropolis Convention & Tourism Council in Bronzeville, where the theater was located before moving to 79th Street in the 1980s.

The Moorish-style building on 79th first opened in 1927 as the the Avalon Theater, designed by movie palace architect John Eberson.

The city granted the New Regal landmark status on June 17, 1992, which prohibits it from being demolished or its exterior altered extensively unless for safety reasons.

"That's why it should have stayed in the heart of the black community, and that's here in Bronzeville," said Lucus. "The [original Regal in Bronzeville] was replaced with the Harold Washington Cultural Center, another iconic institution we [blacks] won't let fall to the wayside like the Regal."

Several prominent black entertainers performed at the Bronzeville theater, including Lou Rawls, Nat King Cole, Etta James, Miles Davis, Curtis Mayfield, and Cab Calloway.

Before the Evans bought the New Regal, it was owned by Soft Sheen Products founders Edward and Bettianne Gardner.

"We sold it [the New Regal] around 1987 if I recall for financial reasons. It takes a lot of money to run an entertainment venue," Edward Gardner said. "I would like to see it reopen because it holds so much black history."

Ald. Michelle Harris of the 8th Ward, where the New Regal is located, did not return phone calls seeking comment about the theater.

The preservation group Landmarks Illinois put the building on its 2011 Ten Most Endangered Places, though it described its theater space as "in good condition and largely operational."

However, the group said, "vacant assembly spaces, when unused and not routinely maintained, can quickly deteriorate due to unheated air in the building and possible damage due to broken plumbing or unmaintained equipment, as well as the threat of scavengers."

"There is a small window of opportunity to prevent this theater from that fate and becoming a ‘white elephant’ that would be economically difficult to salvage. A capable new owner is needed immediately," the group said.

Whatever happens to the theater building, the New Regal will always have a place in the black community, said longtime South Chicago resident Mildred Meyers, 83.

"The rich history that was created with this theater could never be replaced or forgotten. I remember when it was located on 47th Street. I went there to see Al Green perform," recalled Meyers, who has lived in the 7900 block of Luella Avenue for 51 years.

"Black history is made every day in Chicago, and those of us old enough to remember when blacks had to ride in the back of the bus know this," she said.