Efforts to restore and reopen South Shore’s Avalon Regal Theater, mostly dormant since 2010, got a boost this week when Kanye West announced his support for the project.
As part of a string of Chicago-related Twitter proclamations, West, a South Side native mentioned his involvement in a comedy show and declared: “We’re going to restore the Regal Theatre.”
That tweet — which went to his 28 million followers — was good news for another South Side native, Jerald Gary. The 33-year-old entrepreneur has been trying to raise money to fix up the theater since buying it out of foreclosure for $100,000 in 2014. He currently has a Gofundme seeking $150,000, but that has only raised $200 so far.
Gary sent a note to the Sun-Times acknowledging he was working with West but said he couldn’t give more details. In a written statement from his publicist issued Monday night, Gary said he was ecstatic to have West involved.
“I am thrilled to have Kanye’s support as I work to reopen this Landmark venue to the community and world,” the statement said. “His global impact and influence can bring much needed positive attention to Chicago’s South Shore community.”The extent of West’s involvement is unclear. West’s tweet said “We’re doing Chicago Comedy Jam” — but did not give any more details of the event or indicate its connection to the Regal Theater.
We’re doing Chicago Comedy Jam. We’re going to restore the Regal Theatre— ye (@kanyewest) September 10, 2018
The Chi City Comedy Jam — if that’s the show West was referring to — is an annual stand-up festival featuring black comedians from Chicago. This year, it’s scheduled for Oct. 5-6 at the Arie Crown Theater.
Efforts to reach West were unsuccessful.
But West’s involvement could be a significant shot in the arm to the Regal’s restoration after years of difficulties throughout its nearly century-long existence.
Opened 91 years ago as the Avalon Theater, its ornate interior was meant to transport visitors to the streets of Morocco — or at least an Austrian architect’s idea of what Morocco looks like.
Buddy Fisher and his band took the stage opening night with a musical rendition of “Dreams of Araby” followed by a screening of “Soft Cushions” starring Douglas MacLean and Chicago native Sue Carol.
The Avalon has died and come back to life three times since, morphing from a movie palace to a church to a performing arts venue. It was renamed the New Regal Theater along the way, in tribute to the Regal Theater in Bronzeville, which opened in 1928 and where many of black America’s greatest artists appeared until it closed in 1968.
Now, under the stewardship of Gary, the theater is within $150,000 of its fourth act.
That’s how much Gary still needs to start repairs on the plumbing and ventilation systems, and do other touch-ups.
He hopes to have the money by Sept. 26; that’s the day he’s due in court to challenge a vacancy order placed on the Avalon last October. That order prevents him from opening the doors even if he could address the maintenance needs and get the utilities turned back on.
Gary said he’s poured “over $1 million” in getting the 2,250-seat theater back into shape. But he doesn’t want to throw any more of his own money into the project without finding community support — or a wealthy investor — first.
Edward and Bettiann Gardner, who owned Soft Sheen Products before selling to L’Oreal in 1998, once owned the theater, and spent nearly $10 million renovating it in the 1980s.
Thanks to those efforts, “the backbone of the building is intact. There’s not much needed to get this place going,” Gary said. “But I need the community to jump in with me.”
Last year, Gary partnered with Hologram USA, a company that takes live performances and beams them into other locations as holograms.
Hologram USA also has created holographic performances of artists long gone, such as Tupac Shakur, Whitney Houston, and Buddy Holly.
Chicago rapper Chief Keef has announced a week-long “hologram tour” that will kick off simultaneously in Chicago and Los Angeles on Sept. 29. Plans call for Keef’s hologram to be beamed into the Avalon from Los Angeles. (Keef has avoided appearing in person in Chicago because, according to the Cook County Sheriff’s Department, he faces an outstanding warrant for failing to pay child support.)
Gary insisted he has a Plan B if the Avalon isn’t ready for audiences by the time of Keef’s performance.
“We have a ‘hologram truck’ that has a built-in stage on the side that’s able to beam the hologram. We’ll put it in the parking lot and have a free show for the kids,” he said. “Billie Holiday and Jackie Wilson might make a surprise appearance, too.”
Gary’s motivations to bring the Avalon back to life are deeply personal. Having grown up in South Shore, Gary’s always considered the theater, which towers over East 79th Street, within sight of I-94 and the Chicago Skyway, the crown jewel of the neighborhood.
He wants the Avalon to cater to a wide range of audiences and also serve as a youth center, hosting arts programs from across the South Side.
But even Gary admits those dreams are still just that. No matter — “we’re in this for the long haul,” he said.
For now, Gary is focused on getting county permission to open the theater’s lobby — with its exuberant walls, floors, and ceiling filled with mosaics — in time for the Chicago Architecture Center’s Open House weekend, Oct. 13-14. He hopes to pair the tour with a “Grand Opening” of sorts, meant to double as a fundraiser and to dispel misconceptions over the theater’s commercial viability.
“What people don’t understand about the Avalon Regal Theater is that it’s the only theater of its kind in the South Side. People have to take their money and go to the North Side to get some entertainment. It’s a business-in-waiting,” Gary said.
But Gary’s excitement for the Avalon’s potential and news of its possible rebirth haven’t spread to some residents.
At a nearby hair salon along 79th Street, Shequelle Austin, 24, recalled going to the Avalon when she was 3, looking up at the ceiling and gazing at the “stars” — lights strewn across the theater’s blue dome.
Austin, who grew up South Shore, figured the theater would one day be demolished, so she remains hopeful but skeptical.
“It’s not gonna stay open unless the community’s involved, and I’m not so sure if that’s gonna happen,” she said.
So far, Gary’s community fundraising efforts haven’t been too lucrative. Before the current GoFundMe was launched last month, an earlier attempt raised just $40. He remains confident he will raise enough money to get the Avalon up and running by year’s end, but said it has been frustrating to read about the millions being committed to reopening shuttered theaters on the North Side while the Avalon collects dust.
Most recently, Mayor Rahm Emanuel unveiled a $75 million renovation plan for the Uptown Theater, with most of those funds coming from city, state, and federal coffers.
“We only need $150,000 to get the theater up and running — that’s what we’ve been saying for the last four years,” Gary said. “You got the Uptown getting tens of millions, you got the Congress getting tens of millions. … Where’s the support for the South Side?”
Still, Gary believes this round of fundraising will be the last.
“I always think and function as if we’re going to have the money tomorrow,” he said. “That’s the only way this is going to work.”
Carlos Ballesteros is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.