PORTAGE PARK — As the operators of the Patio Theater continued Tuesday to make their case to city officials that they should be allowed to serve booze during shows, they hired a familiar face to manage the former movie palace.
Dennis Wolkowicz, who restored the Portage Theater at Six Corners and ran it from 2006-2014, will be the general manager of operations for both the Patio Theater and the Portage Theater, announced Charlie Burns, who leases both theaters.
Wolkowicz said Tuesday he reached out to Burns and Eddie Carranza, who owns the Patio Theater, after a community meeting March 29 revealed a community split over Burns' application for a liquor license.
While opponents said they feared the former movie palace would be transformed into a "nightclub" with a liquor license, supporters said they wanted the theater on Portage Park's western edge in the Irving Austin Business District to thrive, and the ability to serve beer and wine would allow the theater to make ends meet.
"People were throwing all sorts of rotten tomatoes and eggs at the guys, and I wanted to see if I could turn all that energy into something positive," said Wolkowicz, the founder of the Silent Film Society of Chicago and a renowned theater organist under the name Jay Warren. "I plan to run it as a traditional theater and bring it back to its heyday."
When Wolkowicz ran the Portage Theater, the theater served alcohol.
Wolkowicz said it "got on his nerves" that the Patio at 6008 W. Irving Park Road was closed and dark every time he drove by, despite being in relatively good condition.
"I have great affection for these old theaters, and I want to turn the Patio into something great," Wolkowicz said.
The news of Wolkowicz's new position drew a rapturous response on Facebook and dozens of celebratory emails, which he said was "humbling."
In a response to a question on Facebook about why Wolkowicz was hired after the meeting, Burns said, "Your voices were heard."
In addition to programming the theater, Wolkowicz will run a weekly "classic film series" at the Patio Theater, according to the announcement.
Wolkowicz said he was already working to reinstall soft drink fountains at both the Patio and Portage theaters.
"It is a small thing, but it is so much nicer to get a pop in cup with a straw than be handed an aluminum can," Wolkowicz said. "And we'll have popcorn in brightly colored bags rather than brown-paper bags. It seems silly, but those are such important things at a theater."
Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th) said he planned to met with Burns on Tuesday to hammer out an agreement designed to limit the hours that alcohol could be served at the theater.
Until that agreement is in place, Sposato said he would recommend that the application for the liquor license be denied by Liquor Commissioner Greg Steadman.
That agreement, based on a similar one in place at the Portage Theater, could impose a host of other restrictions on theater operators, including a prohibition on "trashy shows," Sposato said.
However, Ald. John Arena, whose 45th Ward includes the Portage Theater, has said that Burns and his team routinely violate the terms of that agreement.
Arena's concerns give him "pause" about approving a similar agreement at the Patio Theater, Sposato said, noting that Arena is one of his closest allies on the City Council.
Sposato said he was struggling to weigh Arena's complaints with reports from Jefferson Park Police District Cmdr. Bill Looney that the Portage Theater has been problem-free since he took over the district in December.
In most cases, the city's liquor commission follows the recommendation of the ward’s alderman when deciding to issue a liquor license.
Sposato said he was frustrated that although Burns said at the community meeting that he had made a deal with two nearby parking lots to allow theatergoers to park there and not on residential side streets near the theater, those agreements are not in place.
"I'm frustrated about that," Sposato said.
Arena and Carranza were long at odds over the management of the Portage Theater, which Carranza sold for $2.5 million on March 18.
In 2012, Carranza threatened to evict Wolkowicz and his partner, angering Arena and many longtime residents of Six Corners. Eventually, Carranza bought them out, and took over operations at the theater.
Wolkowicz said he wasn't concerned about working at a venue owned by Carranza again.
"They know I play by the rules," Wolkowicz said. "There's no smoke and mirrors with me."
While Carranza no longer owns the Portage Theater, it is still managed by Burns. Wolkowicz said he expects to play a smaller role in its operations, since many of the shows at the theater at 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave. are live events.
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