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As Patio Theater Prepares To Serve Booze, Neighbors 'Cautiously Optimistic'

By Heather Cherone | September 8, 2016 5:55am
 Patio Theater
Patio Theater
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DNAinfo/Heather Cherone

PORTAGE PARK — On the rare occasions that the Patio Theater's marquee is lit up, Joe Basilone's heart swells for Portage Park.

Unfortunately, the marquee at the former movie palace — which is in need of a coat of paint and repairs — has been dark far more often than not during the last several years.

"There is a noticeable difference when the theater is open," Basilone said, who owns three stores on the western edge of Portage Park. "When I see the marquee lit up, it really fills me with pride, and creates a sense of place."

Now that the theater at 6008 W. Irving Park Road has a green light from Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th) to serve booze during shows, Basilone hopes those dark days are a thing of the past.

"The theater is the largest piece of real estate in the neighborhood, and the entire area was built around it," said Basilone, who co-founded the Irving Austin Business District several years ago in an effort to breathe new life into the commercial district. "A thriving theater will absolutely help the businesses and their neighborhood. We found a way to survive without the theater, but it was hard."

Basilone and other representatives of community groups that helped craft the host of restrictions on how the theater can serve beer, wine and liquor said they were hopeful that the ability to serve booze would give the 90-year-old former movie palace a new lease on life, boosting the entire area around Irving Park Road and Austin Avenue.

"I'm cautiously optimistic that it will be a great thing," said Basilone, who owns Perkolator Cafe, Sputnik Books and Records and the Thrift & Thrive resale shop with his wife, Melissa. "We've got to give it a chance."

Theater operator Charlie Burns has said being allowed to serve liquor during shows is the "only way" to make the theater profitable.

Many other similar venues in Chicago — including the Music Box Theater in Lakeview and Thalia Hall in Pilsen — have liquor licenses.

The restrictions required by Sposato included a ban on booze sales after 11:30 p.m. during the week and 12:30 a.m. on weekends. In addition, liquor sales for all live performances must end at 11:30 p.m.

A typical liquor license allows booze to be sold until 2 a.m.

The agreement was designed to ensure "that the next generation of 38th Ward residents will be able to enjoy this great old theater," Sposato said.

Ed Bannon, the president of the Dunning Neighborhood Organization — who urged Sposato to block the liquor license at a contentious community meeting in March — said he was pleased with the agreement.

"It is a good compromise," Bannon said. "It will prevent the theater from turning into a nightclub."

Among the restrictions now included in the Patio Theater's liquor license is a ban on serving shots or straight alcohol not mixed with water, ice or another liquid, according to the agreement.

In addition, the operators of the theater must install a video surveillance system that covers "critical areas" of both the interior and exterior of the building. The recordings must be provided by the theater to the police on demand, according to the agreement.

Theater employees must also routinely patrol the theater's perimeter to prevent loitering, noise, littering and criminal activity, according to the agreement.

Operators are also prohibited from removing any seating from the theater, or changing its configuration by adding additional concession stands or selling liquor outside the lobby.

The theater must also arrange with nearby businesses to provide enough parking near the theater to allow 15 percent of patrons at each show to park their cars. The alderman can also order the theater's operators to add additional spots, according to the agreement.

Before booking any performers at the theater, the operators are required to provide Sposato's office with research into their Internet and social media presence in an effort to prohibit "unacceptable" performers, according to the agreement.

Jason Quaglia, a Dunning resident and a member of the West Portage Park Neighbors Association, said Sposato did the best he could to protect the community.

"He was between a rock and a hard place," Quaglia said. "It will come down to enforcement. Now we'll see what happens."

Before the agreement was finalized, it was signed off on by Jefferson Park Police District Cmdr. Bill Looney and reviewed by members of several community groups including Basilone and Bannon, Sposato said.

The first event at the Patio Theater when booze will be allowed to be served will be a screening of "It's So Easy and Other Lies," a documentary about Guns N' Roses guitarist Duff McKagan, at 8 p.m. Friday.

Bannon said many of his concerns were allayed when Burns hired Dennis Wolkowicz to manage the theater. Wolkowicz restored the Portage Theater at Six Corners and ran it from 2006-14 without incident.

"That shows they want to run a quality establishment," said Bannon, who worked with Wolkwicz when he served as the director of the Six Corners Association.

While Burns operates the theater, the property is owned by Eddie Carranza. Many opponents of the liquor license said Carranza's record of violations at the Congress Theater in Logan Square and problems at the Portage Theater made them wary of his plans for the Patio Theater, which he bought last fall for $2.5 million.

Carranza has said he is not involved in the operation of the theater.

Even though he urged Sposato to support a liquor license for the Patio, Basilone said concerns about the ability of the theater's operators to serve alcohol without creating a nuisance were "valid" in light of Carranza's reputation and history.

"There will be a tremendous amount of oversight" to ensure the theater honors the agreement, Basilone said. "They have the opportunity to do the right thing. They've got one chance to impress the community."

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