Anyone who’s taken on a building renovation and gotten in too deep can sympathize with Jerald Gary.
He’s been in that situation to the extreme since at least 2014 when he got control of the Avalon Regal Theater, 1641 E. 79th St. The place is magnificent, a Chicago landmark for its Middle Eastern-influenced design and its history with African American entertainers, but it’s been unused for years and has fallen into disrepair. Every system and decoration needs repair, replacement or cleaning if the theater is to host performances again. Gary has dealt with building code violations and there’s a pending court case involving repair of the façade, which the city regards as an urgent matter.
In short, there are huge costs in plain sight and more hidden in every wall, parapet and minaret. Give Gary his due, though. When he led a tour of the theater in September, it was clear he loves the building perhaps more than reason should allow. He’s provided stop-gap repairs and tried to find financial backers. Back then, he estimated it would take $10 million to make the theater shipshape. While he has some connections and a banking background, he doesn’t have that money at hand. In 2018, the rapper Ye, known then as Kanye West, pledged $1 million to support Gary. Ye said the theater, often called just the Regal, was a cultural monument like Harlem’s Apollo. But it’s not known how much money, if any, he has given.
Gary has intimated that “big news” from Ye is just around the corner. But right now, the news involving the property is that Gary stands to lose it if he doesn’t act quickly. He hasn’t paid property taxes on the Avalon Regal. Records show he owes at least $210,000 dating from 2013, not including interest the county charges on late payments. The Cook County Land Bank Authority put a no-cash bid on the property, giving it a lien that entitles it to ownership if Gary doesn’t settle the debt in six months. It’s what the land bank was created to do — take control of problem properties and wipe out the tax debt so a new owner gets clear title. Gary did not return calls last week.
The city of Chicago is involved too. The Avalon Regal could be the first application of an ordinance sponsored by the mayor that the City Council passed on March 23. It allows the city’s planning and housing commissioners to deal directly with the county land bank, acquiring its properties for little more than administrative costs.
Eleanor Gorski, executive director of the land bank and a former planner at City Hall, said the ordinance figured in her agency’s action. “This is on behalf of the City of Chicago. They do have some plans that involve repositioning the theater and the lots around it,” she said. Peter Strazzabosco, spokesman for the planning department, said if the city gets the property, it would probably offer it in a public request for proposals, with all comers welcome. It would fit the mayor’s Invest South/West program, which includes South Shore and the 79th Street strip as a target area.
But does someone have an inside track? Barely three blocks from the theater is where developers plan a $60 million film studio complex. The project at 7731 S. South Chicago Ave. got approved last year with strong community support. It’s from Regal Mile Studios, run by Hollywood producer Derek Dudley and with backers that include Chicago investment banker James Reynolds Jr.
Despite the name, the studio venture has no stake in the Avalon Regal — yet. Sources said there was an offer but no deal.
The website for Dudley’s project explicitly connects it to the theater and to a revival along 79th Street. The main photo on its home page shows the theater’s mural that depicts Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and others who performed there. Susan Cronin, head of real estate at Reynolds’ investment firm, Loop Capital, said the theater “has been and is of interest” to the partnership and it will see how the lien process plays out.
Gorski and Strazzabosco said there is no understanding with the studio owners.
Owning a live stage would make sense for a studio venture betting on the popularity of streaming. The city, once it gets the theater, can be expected to be an eager seller and with a pocketful of subsidies. It already has committed $20 million in tax increment financing to redo the Congress Theater on the North Side.
As for Gary, he’s being elbowed aside. The tax lien makes it hard for him to get investors. Who would help him when they could just wait a few months and deal with the city?
Maybe with his preservation streak, he’ll find satisfaction one day paying his way into his beloved venue.