PORTAGE PARK — Ald. Tim Cullerton (38th) ripped the owner of the Patio Theater on Friday in the wake of an announcement the venue will close at the end of the month because the air conditioning is too expensive to repair.
Cullerton said he "jumped through hoops" to get the theater's owner Demetri Kouvalis a grant to fix the air conditioning at the 87-year-old former movie palace, considered by many to be the linchpin of the effort to revitalize the business district around Irving Park Road and Austin Avenue.
“He left the grant sitting there,” Cullerton said. “It would have paid for the whole heating and air conditioning system.”
Cullerton called Kouvalis a “wet noodle” who did nothing to “market the theater or work with the community.”
But Kouvalis, 25, said he had no choice but to close the theater because he cannot afford $50,000 to fix the theater’s air conditioning system, which has been broken for nearly a year.
“I’ve tried my best,” Kouvalis said. “It is just something I can’t do by myself anymore.”
Cullerton said Kouvalis did not respond to the alderman's efforts to help Kouvalis obtain a Small Business Improvement Fund grant from the area’s Tax Increment Financing district to cover the cost of the repairs.
Kouvalis disputed that, but acknowledged he did not complete the process to obtain the grant.
“It is a lot more difficult than people think,” Kouvalis said. “There are too many rules and regulations.”
The Patio Theater, 6008 W. Irving Park Road, reopened in 2011 after being closed for a decade. A successful Kickstarter campaign raised $50,000 for a new digital projector, allowing the theater to show second-run Hollywood movies.
Describing his decision to shutter the theater for the summer, Kouvalis said a good businessman knows when it is time to cut his losses.
Kouvalis said he hopes to find a partner or an investor who can repair the building and renovate it to allow live events to be held. That would require a public place of amusement license and liquor license from the city.
Kouvalis said he would consider selling the theater — despite the happy childhood memories he has of the ornate building, which has been owned by his family since 1987.
“I don’t want to let go of this place,” Kouvalis said, adding that he would not want to see the theater torn down and turned into a drugstore or condominiums.
Cullerton said he and the ward superintendent swept the sidewalk in front of the theater on Wednesday to remove trash and debris. Kouvalis did not respond to his requests to clean up his property, the alderman said.
The theater needs a “more aggressive, pro-active” owner or operator, Cullerton said.
“Given the right person, a lot could be done with the theater,” Cullerton said.
The closure of the theater is a huge blow to efforts to revitalize the Irving Austin Business District, said Melissa Basilone, one of the district's founders.
“It has been one major problem after another,” Basilone said. “I hope [Kouvalis] finds someone who values what the theater is.”
Basilone said she hopes the city's plans to resurface Irving Park from Neenah to Austin avenues and spend $600,000 to spruce up the district's streetscape will attract an investor for the Patio.
“I hope it will inspire people,” Basilone said. “I’m just keeping my fingers crossed."
The series of “misfortunes and bad luck” at the Patio Theater began nearly a year ago, when the air conditioning broke, forcing it to close for regular shows, Kouvalis said.
But the theater stayed open during the summer to allow the Northwest Chicago Film Society to hold its screenings after the abrupt closure of the Portage Theater in May.
In the fall, the theater reopened with a new business model focusing on classic films and special events and no longer showing Hollywood movies, which were attracting few filmgoers.
That was successful, and business improved — until the theater’s boiler broke in November, forcing the film society to relocate to the Gene Siskel Film Center and cancel several events and shows, Kouvalis said.
“With the heat and the air conditioning failing in the same year, it just became too much money,” Kouvalis said.
With a $16,000 bank loan in the name of Kouvalis’ mother, the heat was restored, and the film society returned to the Patio, along with regular shows.
But in January, the theater was forced to cancel several screenings because of water damage to the bathrooms and other parts of the building caused by the extremely cold weather.
“The horrible winter made matters worse,” Kouvalis said.
The film society has known for several weeks that the Patio will close at the end of April, Kouvalis said.
Rebecca Hall, executive director of the film society, could not immediately be reached for comment.
A 16-hour marathon "Sci-Fi Spectacular" that starts at noon Saturday will take place as scheduled, as will the Silent Film Society of Chicago showing of the 1921 Charlie Chaplin silent film "The Kid," accompanied by a 40-piece orchestra at 8 p.m. on April 18.
The Northwest Chicago Film Society will show the 1932 crime drama "The Strange Love of Molly Louvain" at 7:30 p.m. on April 23 at the theater.