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Portage Theater Operator: Venue Will Be Place 'Neighbors Can Be Proud Of'

 Shows are scheduled to take place at the Portage Theater through July, according to its website.
Shows are scheduled to take place at the Portage Theater through July, according to its website.
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Facebook/Portage Theater

PORTAGE PARK — Electronic dance music shows similar to those that led to the closure of the Congress Theater will not be held at the Portage Theater, which is set to reopen next month after being shuttered for nearly a year, the owner and operator of the theater said Tuesday.

Charlie Burns, 43, who is leasing the Portage Theater, a 94-year-old former movie palace, from owner Eddie Carranza, said residents of Portage Park should not be concerned that his former role at the beleaguered Congress Theater in Logan Square spells trouble for the Six Corners Shopping District.

“I see the incredible potential of the theater and Six Corners,” Burns said via email. “The theater itself is an amazing piece of architecture and history. The neighborhood is a gold mine waiting to come back to life.”

Heather Cherone discusses what the owner had to say and why some neighbors are worried:

Burns said he would be willing to work with EDM artists and promoters that do not cause a nuisance for the neighborhood and fit with his vision for the theater.

"I would never consider anything less, for obvious reasons," Burns said. But "I do not have any plans right now to work with [EDM] promoters and would proceed with extreme caution if that were to arise."

Burns, who was a production manager at the Congress Theater, said he was not directly involved with the EDM shows at the Logan Square theater, which drew a host of complaints from the surrounding neighborhood. Carranza owned and ran the Congress Theater.

“I truly believe [EDM] was the Congress' downfall,” Burns said.

Instead, the Portage Theater will offer “unique programming that visitors and neighbors can be proud of,” Burns said.

“Watching the way that theater was run by [Carranza] taught me a lot of what residential communities want in terms of programming, security and order,” Burns said.

More than a hundred tickets for the first month of shows at the 1,300-seat Portage Theater, which will reopen as part of the Six Corners BBQ Fest June 14-15, have already been sold, Burns said.

The Congress Theater, 2135 N. Milwaukee Ave., lost its liquor license in May 2013 after city officials determined the theater "created a nuisance" because of five separate illegal incidents involving drugs from September 2011 to April 2012.

Several weeks later, city officials closed the Congress because of building violations.

All of the nuisance charges upheld by city officials stemmed from EDM shows, Carranza said.

“I should have made better judgment on the type of frequent live programing I allowed at Congress,” Carranza said via email.

Some EDM shows, which often feature computerized thumping beats, wild dancing and outlandish costumes, have also been havens for the use of party drugs like ecstasy and MDMA. 

But not all EDM shows will bring an undesirable crowd to the Portage Theater, Carranza said.

"Not all [EDM] is problematic," Carranza said. "I'm confident [Burns] will work with the right promoters. There's a lot of [EDM] that is very mainstream pop music. I trust [Burns'] judgment."

Burns agreed before leasing the Portage Theater not to allow EDM shows like those that caused the issues at the Congress to take place at the theater, Carranza said.

Because Carranza lost his liquor license at the Congress, city ordinance prohibits him from serving booze at another venue, requiring him to lease the theater.

The news of the theater’s reopening — with a liquor license — came as a shock to many Six Corners business owners and Ald. John Arena (45th), who has been at loggerheads with Carranza since he bought the theater in September 2012 and moved to evict its longtime operators, who helped restore the theater.

Carranza closed the Portage Theater a year ago after Arena said he would not allow Carranza to take over the liquor and public place of amusement licenses at the Six Corners theater based on Carranza's pockmarked track record at the Congress.

The day the theater announced it would reopen, Arena, Jefferson Park Police Cmdr. Roger Bay and two representatives of the Six Corners Business Association met with Liquor Commissioner Greg Steadman to object to the license being issued to the Portage Theater without community input.

That meeting became heated when Arena demanded to know why the license was renewed, according to a knowledgeable source who asked not to be named for fear of damaging his relationship with local officials.

During the meeting, Steadman did not respond to questions about why the city worked so hard to yank Carranza’s license at the Congress, but allowed the Portage to reopen with such minor scrutiny, the source said.

The meeting ended abruptly after 15 or 20 minutes, several sources said.

City officials “grossly misjudged” the community’s concern about the Portage Theater turning into a “second Congress Theater” and should have only awarded the liquor license after a transparent, public process, the source said.

Mika Stambaugh, a spokeswoman for the city's Business Affairs Department, declined to discuss the subject of Arena’s meeting with Steadman.

Owen Brugh, Arena’s chief of staff, declined as well.

The Portage Theater’s liquor license, public place of amusement license and food consumption licenses were issued May 13 when Burns bought Portage Theater Management Inc. from Carranza and filed the appropriate paperwork to notify city officials, Stambaugh said.

Arena’s statement on May 22 that Steadman allowed a firm controlled by Carranza to renew the licenses before it was sold to Burns was “completely off base,” Stambaugh said.

Burns followed the normal process to take over the licenses controlled by a company he bought and was fully investigated and found eligible to hold the licenses, Stambaugh said.

The city has an interest in allowing businesses to open as quickly as possible, especially one that would bring such a large, important theater back to life, Stambaugh said.

Bay, who recently took over the Jefferson Park Police District, said Friday he wanted to meet as soon as possible with Burns and Carranza to discuss a security plan for the theater.

“I’ve dealt with problem businesses in the past,” Bay said. “I know what tools are available to address those concerns.”

Neither Arena nor Bay were notified that city officials were considering allowing the Portage Theater to reopen with a liquor license because liquor commission officials were not required to do so, Stambaugh said.

But city officials routinely tell aldermen about the status of sensitive or high-profile liquor licenses in their wards.

Carranza said Burns, whom he has known for 10 years, was the first person to approach him about leasing the theater.

Burns, who lives in the South Loop and rents an apartment in Portage Park, said he graduated from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse after studying art and marketing.

The son of a Chicago police officer, Burns said he has produced shows for nine years after holding a variety of jobs, including a technical consulting position at the consulting firm Accenture and working as a bike messenger and a high-rise window washer.

Carranza said he is working to lease the storefronts he owns adjacent to the Portage Theater to businesses that complement the theater and its programing.

“We are in talks with investors and hospitality operators to partner on the Portage Park properties,” Carranza said.

But progress on rehabilitating those storefronts — many of which are empty — has been blocked by lawsuits filed against Carranza over the pending sale of the Congress Theater to Michael Moyer, a developer responsible for the Cadillac Theater Downtown.

Moyer was not involved with the decision to lease the Portage to Burns, or the license application process, Carranza said.

Carranza declined to say whether there was a chance he would settle the lawsuits to allow the sale of the Congress Theater to proceed.