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A New Regal Theater Comeback Welcomed by Black Leaders

By Wendell Hutson | March 6, 2014 8:19am
 The New Regal Theater, 1641 E. 79th St., was purchased Feb. 12 by Community Capital Investment LLC.
The New Regal Theater, 1641 E. 79th St., was purchased Feb. 12 by Community Capital Investment LLC.
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DNAinfo/Wendell Hutson

SOUTH CHICAGO — Now that the New Regal Theater has a new owner, local community organizations are hoping it opens this year to help improve the South Side.

"The Regal Theater means a lot to the community, and to get it back in shape and operational again is a win-win for everyone," said Dan Lira, executive director of the South Chicago Chamber of Commerce.

The 22,000-square-foot theater at 1641 E. 79th St. was purchased last month for $100,000 by Chicago-based Community Capital Investment LLC, Greg Hernandez, a spokesman for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., said Wednesday.

Jerald Gary, president of the investment firm, was unavailable for comment.

South Shore Chamber Inc. Executive Director Teyonda Wertz said she would like to see the property  "redeveloped into an upscale theater where musicals and jazz concerts could perform."

 This small, empty lot on South Chicago Avenue was previously used as parking for the New Regal Theater.
This small, empty lot on South Chicago Avenue was previously used as parking for the New Regal Theater.
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DNAinfo/Wendell Hutson

 "A venue like that would bring tourism to South Shore and that could benefit the local economy," Wertz said.

She added that once the theater did open it should replace lighting around the building to make it more appealing.

"Those light fixtures are old. And what makes crime increase is darkness," she said. "The Regal is more than a building. It is a staple in the community."

She points to the success of the upscale Eta Creative Arts Foundation Inc., a 200-seat performing arts theater at 7558 S. South Chicago Ave., which is the only such theater on the South Side where black performances are shown, according to Phillip Thomas, president of the Eta.

A parking lot was what Roosevelt Vonil, president of the nonprofit Greater Chatham Alliance, said nearby residents would appreciate most from the Regal's new owner.

"This way [residents] don't have to worry about losing parking spaces every time there is a concert" at the Regal, Vonil said. "And having the building back open would be a boom economically for the area."

Vonil added that a small, fenced in lot behind the theater on South Chicago Avenue was previously used for parking, but most patrons would park on the street.

Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), whose ward includes the theater, was unavailable for comment.

But before the decaying theater could reopen it would need extensive renovations, according to Eli Washington, chairman of the nonprofit Chesterfield Community Council on the South Side.

"I don't know who the new owner is but hopefully he is African-American and can relate to the needs of the community," Washington said. "But even if the new owner is not African-American I would hope African-American contractors are used for renovations."

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

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

The original Regal Theater in Bronzeville showcased several prominent black entertainers, including Lou Rawls, Nat King Cole, Etta James, Miles Davis, Curtis Mayfield and Cab Calloway. That building was torn down and the Avalon was renamed the New Regal in the 1980s.

Once the Regal moved out of Bronzeville, fewer and fewer big name entertainers were performing.

"That's why it should have stayed in the heart of the black community, and that's here in Bronzeville," said Harold Lucas, president of the Black Metropolis Convention & Tourism Council in Bronzeville. "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."