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Portage Theater Owner Changes Course, Will Run Movie Palace Himself

PORTAGE PARK —  Portage Theater owner Eddie Carranza said Friday he plans to run the theater in the heart of the Six Corners Shopping District himself.

A month ago, Carranza told DNAinfo.com Chicago that a new operator would take over the landmark theater in April, and that current operator Dennis Wilkowicz would stay on to program movies at the 1920s movie palace. 

Instead, Carranza said Friday he and Wilkowicz, who breathed new life into the crumbling landmark when he took it over eight years ago, have joined forces. Carranza said he would book musical acts for the theater, while Wilkowicz would program films.

"[Wilkowicz] and I are the perfect combination," Carranza said. "We know what this community wants."

Carranza said he has spent about $100,000 to remodel the theater and repair its mechanical systems, with "much more to go."

In addition, Carranza plans to purchase a digital projector for the Portage, and begin showing first-run movies.

"This place has a lot of potential," said Carranza, who also owns the Congress Theater in Logan Sqaure. "We want to expand the frequency and the diversity of shows."

Once the theater starts booking musical acts and drawing crowds, Carranza said vacant storefronts near the theater are set to become a specialty food market and an upscale diner.

"The theater is the anchor," Carranza said. "We want to make this a destination."

Wilkowicz said he was excited to work with Carranza and praised him for taking a "giant leap of faith" in buying the digital projector.

"We've developed a film community here, and we want to go beyond that," Wilkowicz said.

Carranza, who bought the theater in September, said he planned to bring "contemporary" musical acts designed to appeal to all ages to the theater, as well as comedians and popular movies.

"It won't be as hipster as the Congress Theater," Carranza said.

Carranza could lose his liquor license at the Congress over concerns about fights, noise and underage drinking outside the theater after events. City officials have also alleged a concertgoer was assaulted by a security guard and a theater employee dealt drugs.

Although Carranza told DNAinfo.com Chicago March 11 Wilkowicz had "willingly transferred" the theater's liquor license to the new operator, he said Friday Wilkowicz had retained the license.

Carranza said he would like to be added to the liquor license, but acknowledged that might not be possible because of the issues at the Congress.

Renovations at the former movie palace have already begun, and Northwest Side residents got their first look at them Friday night at an event to raise money for a father of four who was a victim of a vicious baseball bat attack after a traffic dispute on St. Patrick's Day.

The lobby has been painted a light green color, and new chandelier has been hung. In addition, the marquee has been repaired, and work to refinish the floors is ongoing, Carranza said.

Carranza said he pushed forward the renovations in order to host the fundraiser for Dennis Tisdale, who was left bloodied and temporarily comatose after the attack near Milwaukee and Sunnyside avenues. It cost about $20,000 to put the fundraiser together, Carranza said.

About 500 people paid $30 to see three comedians and Yesterday, a Beatles tribute band, at the benefit.

"We wanted the community to see what we want to do," Carranza said, adding that the lineup for the benefit was similar to what people can expect the Portage to offer.

Ald. John Arena (45th) said he was pleased to see the investment in the theater, but still had concerns about Carranza's plans for the theater.

"One coat of paint isn't the end of the story," Arena said. "He has to come forward with a plan that is acceptable to the community."

In December, 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.

Police are looking for a 5-foot-7-inch, 160- to 180-pound bald man between 25 and 32 years old in connection with the attack on Tisdale, who is expected to make a full recovery.

Oscar Torres, who came to the fundraiser with his wife Rosa and friends Phillip and Angela Cisneros, said he was horrified to learn of what happened to Tisdale, who is friends with one of Torres' co-workers.

"Something like that shouldn't happen anywhere," Torres said. "It is hard to comprehend."

Jon Borkan, who plays softball with Tisdale, said he was in utter shock when he heard about what happened.

"I'm looking forward to playing softball with him again in 2014," Tisdale said. "And I hope they catch the guy who did this."

Tisdale said he was overwhelmed and humbled by the turnout. More than $15,000 has been raised for the family's medical expenses in a separate online fundraising effort

"I don't know how to thank everyone," Tisdale said. "I can't."