Driven by dreams but strapped for cash, owner strives to restore Avalon Regal Theater

Jerald Gary has been the landmark building’s steward, but he needs reinforcements to bring the onetime center for African American performers back to glory.

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Owner Jerald Gary peers from the stage at the Avalon Regal Theater, 1641 E. 79th St.

Owner Jerald Gary on the stage at the Avalon Regal Theater.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

When Jerald Gary unlocks the doors of the theater now called the Avalon Regal, he enters a wonderland, almost a museum, from another age in culture and escapism. But he carries with him heavy burdens from today.

The theater near 79th Street and Stony Island Avenue is a Chicago landmark, eminently deserving the honor. It’s an exotic stew of styles — Arabian Nights meets King Arthur — and is largely preserved despite many years of disuse and neglect. Much of that is to Gary’s credit.

Since taking over the property in 2014 in a still-evolving private venture, Gary has secured the place and overseen the start of plumbing work. There is vast restoration left, but it starts with a fabulous canvas and a place in the heart of African Americans who remember it as an elegant showcase for performances by Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and many others, some depicted on an outdoor mural along one wall that dates from the 1980s. For most of its life, the theater was the Avalon. A revival made it the New Regal in 1987 as a homage to a lost venue serving the Black community. Gary’s new name blends the eras.

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“Look how ridiculous that ceiling is,” Gary said, pointing above the lobby to a design like a Persian rug that includes glass fixtures so fine they hang like threads. In the auditorium, the walls suggest patrons are seated in a palace courtyard beneath a starry sky. Signs for long-ago patrons are in English but with Arabic styling. “Be seated, I beg you,” says one.

Everywhere, there is a need for new paint and plaster that requires not just labor but craftsmanship. Gary is planning on improvements to the heating and air conditioning and he’d like solar panels on the roof, figuring he can take one of South Shore’s largest and tallest buildings off the grid.

Gary said it’ll take maybe $10 million to get the place ready for a close-up. Thirty-six years old and with a background in finance and music, Gary doesn’t have that kind of scratch. He’s got connections, having previously worked at LaSalle Bank and served as an intern for Barack Obama when he was a U.S. senator. There, he got to know Ken Williams-Bennett, better known today as the dad of Chance the Rapper.

The auditorium and proscenium of the Avalon Regal Theater.

The auditorium and proscenium of the Avalon Regal Theater.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

There’s also the matter of Kanye West, who now wants to be called Ye. West surfaced in 2018 with a $1 million pledge for Gary’s vision. That pledge is a work in progress. Gary declined to discuss it but said he hopes to provide an update soon.

During a tour of the theater, I asked Gary about any connection with the planned film studios nearby at 7731 S. South Chicago Ave. Its promoter, TV producer Derek Dudley, called it Regal Studios and talked grandly of building a cultural and entertainment district including the theater. But when asked, Dudley curtly denied any financial tie to Gary’s venture.

Regarding those studios, Gary said only that he’s after other partners. “We need all hands on deck. I think the entire civic fabric of the city of Chicago needs to get behind this project right now.”

It’s a lot to ask. COVID-19 has knocked so many business plans askew. Gary also has to address how to regularly fill a 2,500-seat auditorium in an age of streaming and social disconnection. Movies used to fill the calendar at the Avalon, but the business hasn’t worked like that in decades. Some remember that a former owner of the theater lost it in foreclosure and went to prison in a government grant scam. Experts in development and preservation praise Gary’s diligence but doubt his prospects.

He reveres the theater. A trip with him through its catacombs is like an archeological expedition. There’s a sign for a Smokey Robinson gig in 2010 and stained-glass windows dated in 1987, evidently to honor visits by Anita Baker and Gladys Knight. A money chute above a safe in the basement was where box office workers dropped the cash.

Gary gets the skepticism but chalks up some of it to pushback whenever a disadvantaged community seeks self-sufficiency. He tries to focus on the possibilities. “We’re three minutes from the Obama [Center]. … It just takes time. This is going to be the new Harlem, the new Brooklyn. I’m just hopeful that we can hold on.”

He needs that money chute to work again, and for a certain Ye to have more than a little faith.

A detail of the lobby’s ceiling at the Avalon Regal Theater.

The lobby’s ceiling at the Avalon Regal Theater.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

A fountain at the Avalon Regal Theater.

A fountain at the Avalon Regal Theater.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The marquee and mural at the Avalon Regal Theater.

The marquee and mural at the Avalon Regal Theater.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

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