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Patio Theater Gets Cool Cash from City to Fix Air Conditioning

 A busted air conditioning system could have forced the Patio Theater to close during the lucrative summer months.
A busted air conditioning system could have forced the Patio Theater to close during the lucrative summer months.
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flickr/Emily Barney

PORTAGE PARK — A busted air conditioning system that threatened to close the Patio Theater during the lucrative summer months will be fixed thanks to some cool cash from the city, the owner said Thursday.

The grant from the city is a lifeline for the theater, which was teetering on the edge of closure, owner Demetri Kouvalis said.

It will cost between $70,000 and $100,000 to fix the air conditioning system at the 86-year-old movie palace, which has been struggling to attract enough moviegoers to break even, Kouvalis said. 

"There is no way I would have been able afford to fix it," Kouvalis said, adding that he was hoping that the weather stays cool while the work is completed. "We're hoping we don't have to close for too long."

The Patio Theater, 6008 W. Irving Park Road, hasn't turned a profit in the two years it has been open since being closed for a decade. The theater draws the most flick lovers during the sultry summer months, making the problem with the air conditioning especially aggravating, Kouvalis said.

"No matter what movie I show no one will come if there is no air conditioning in the summer," Kouvalis said, adding that he also plans to use the grant to improve the theater's heating system.

The Patio Theater was one of 13 businesses to win a lottery for a Small Business Improvement Fund grant from the area's Tax Increment Financing District because there was not enough money to fund all of the applicants, Kouvalis said.

The grant will reimburse the theater for 75 percent of the cost of the repairs, up to $100,000, which means the theater must take out a loan to cover the upfront cost, Kouvalis said.

The theater also must renew its Public Place of Amusement license with the city, Kouvalis said, adding that he did not think that would be an issue.

The uncertainty surrounding the theater's future prompted the Chicago Cinema Society to put its lineup of classic films on hold. The society joined forces with the theater in March.

In a post on its Facebook page, the group said it would wait to announce screenings until the issues had been resolved so events would not be postponed or rescheduled.

Neil Calderone, the founder of the society, declined to comment about the issues at the Patio.

A prolonged closure of the Patio Theater would be a blow to the area's Irving Austin Business District, which has struggled to fill empty storefronts but has recently been enjoying a resurgence.

A number of new stores have opened recently, including Thrift & Thrive, a resale shop, and Leadbelly Burgers, which has gotten good reviews for its menu of burgers, fries and craft beers.

A year ago, Kouvalis used Kickstarter to raise $50,000 to buy a new digital projector. But since then, attendance has dwindled, leading Kouvalis to question whether the format of second-run Hollywood movies and classics can work. The theater can also be rented out for special events.

"I don't know, maybe it was just a nostalgia thing" rather than a real demand for movies at the Patio, Kouvalis said.

The theater rarely attracts the 70 people to each show that it needs to break even, Kouvalis said. One recent showing of "The Rep," a documentary about a historic theater in Toronto trying to survive in an incredibly competitive market — much like the Patio — drew only three viewers, Kouvalis said.

But the real problem is the aging 1,500-seat theater, which "is too big for its own good," Kouvalis said.

"One or two bad months has really put us in a hole," Kouvalis said.