Writing a new chapter for Avalon Regal and Congress theaters

Redevelopment plans for the Congress and Avalon Regal theaters represent a big change in Chicago’s attitude toward its classic old theaters.

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The Avalon Regal Theater, 1641 East 79th St., could thrill new audiences if a plan by the Cook County Land Bank Authority and the city comes to fruition.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

We applaud the city’s proposal to kick in $20 million to help fund a major restoration of Logan Square’s Congress Theater.

But we’re also watching with interest what could be a compelling follow-up act: an effort to bring new life to the South Side’s grand, but long-dormant, Avalon Regal Theater.

The Cook County Land Bank Authority purchased the back taxes on the 95-year-old Moorish Revival theater, 1645 E. 79th St., within the last two weeks, the Sun-Times Editorial Board has learned.

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The agency would own the property for the next three years while Chicago officials put together a redevelopment plan for the 2,250-seat theater.

If successful, the redevelopment of the Congress and Avalon Regal theaters would represent a remarkable sea change in Chicago’s attitude toward its classic former movie theaters.

The city built some of the nation’s finest movie theaters between 1910 and 1930 — then callously wrecked almost all of them when the venues began falling into disuse in the closing decades of the 20th Century.

A storied history

The Avalon Regal Theater, built in 1927, was designed by architect John Eberson, who gave the building Middle Eastern architectural details — inside and out — inspired by an intricate metal Persian incense burner he found in a Royal Street antique store in New Orleans’s French Quarter.

The theater hosted movies and live shows before closing and being converted into a church in the 1970s.

But in 1985, the theater was bought by Soft Sheen hair care products founder Ed Gardner and his wife Bettiann.

With help from Mayor Harold Washington’s administration, the couple restored the theater, located on the border of the South Shore and Avalon Park neighborhoods, and re-opened it as the New Regal in 1987.

The new name honored the legendary Regal Theater at 47th Street and King Drive that was demolished in 1973. And for the next decade, the upstart theater drew major R&B acts such as Smokey Robinson, Gladys Knight and Phyllis Hyman, and drew hip-hop performers as well.

The theater went though a series of owners after the Gardners, the last being entrepreneur Jerald Gary, who rebranded the venue as the Avalon Regal and admirably kept the unused building in the public eye for a decade.

Gary fought to reopen the theater while struggling with the crumbling venue’s near-monumental maintenance — but falling behind on its real estate taxes, which allowed the Cook County Land Bank Authority to seek ownership.

Gary can still pay the back taxes within six months and win back ownership of the building, however.

If that fails, and the lights return to the Avalon Regal, Gary deserves to take a few bows, and perhaps have a role in the theater’s new incarnation.

The right move

According to a source, city and Land Bank officials are concerned about the building’s condition, especially its roof, parapet, minaret, and facade.

The officials are looking to do a walkthrough to see how much of its still-stunning interior and auditorium might need repair.

The Land Bank also acquired nearby lots that can be used for event parking, something the venue largely lacked under previous owners.

And let’s not kid ourselves: Putting the Avalon Regal back into use will be an expensive proposition.

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At the Congress Theater, 2135 N. Milwaukee Ave., the city’s $20 million would help developers Baum Revision cover the $70.4 million cost of rehabbing the building’s 2,900-seat auditorium, plus constructing 20 residential units in the building that houses the theater.

But the city is right to kickstart these efforts, particular out in the neighborhoods, which have been deprived of resources — public and private — for decades.

“The [Avalon Regal] theater is a strategic part of a broad, community-based vision to revitalize the 79th Street commercial corridor through Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s INVEST South/West initiative,” city Department of Planning Commissioner Maurice Cox said.

When downtown theaters such as the United Artist’s, the McVickers, the Clark and others began falling in the 1970s and 1980s, the equally-doomed Chicago Theater was spared — with city help — and is a jewel of the Loop.

The city’s few remaining neighborhood theater buildings such as the Avalon Regal, the Congress, the Ramova — not to mention North Lawndale’s Central Park, which was listed Wednesday on Preservation Chicago’s annual most-endangered buildings list — deserve the same positive ending.

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