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Renovations Well Underway At Old Hyde Park Movie Theater

53rd Street

53rd Street in Hyde Park. (Credit: CBS)

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CHICAGO (CBS) — Work is well underway to convert the old Hyde Park Theater building into a fancy art-house cinema.

The Hyde Park Herald reported this week that the theater building at 5234 S. Harper Ave. has been gutted, and is ready for its transformation.

The University of Chicago, which owns the building, announced in February that the new Harper Theater will screen a mix of art, children’s and wide-release films.

The new 10,419 square-foot theater will feature five screens with digital projection. One screening room will have tables between the seats for lunch and dinner options, the U of C said.

The Hyde Park Herald says theater operator Tony Fox hopes to expand the offerings at the theater beyond movies, from poetry slams to blood drives. Metropolis Coffee has also come in to operate a café in the theater, the Herald reported.

Fox also plans to hopes to serve alcoholic beverages in the theater, although not right away, the Herald reported.

Currently, the Harper Theater cannot legally sell liquor because it is too close to the United Church of Hyde Park, around the corner at 1448 E. 53rd St. But Fox is seeking an exception, the Herald reported.

Students will be offered discounts, as will children and seniors, but general admission will also be below market prices, the U of C said.

The U of C bought the Hyde Park Theater building in 2002, and has been seeking to renovate it as part of a greater plan to revitalize 53rd Street. Fox’s New 400 Theaters company already operates a theater at 6746 N. Sheridan Rd. in the Rogers Park neighborhood.

The U of C is also involved in the renovation of the Harper Court retail complex just across the street from the theater building. The plans for the complex call for about 80,000 square feet of retail space, a new Hyatt Hotel, and a 12-story, 150,000 square-foot office building that will be used by the university. The groundbreaking for the new development was held last month.

The theater building opened in 1915 as the Harper Theater, with a single-screen, 1,201-seat cinema. The theater screened a live production of the play “Enrico IV” by Luigi Pirandello in 1964, and drew record-breaking crowds to see Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” after a renovation in 1975, but was shuttered in 1983 by Hyde Park Herald publisher and building owner Bruce Sagan.

The theater reopened in 1985, as a three-screen venue, and a fourth screen was added in 1988. By 1990, neighbors were complaining about the teenage audiences that were flooding the theater for R-rated crime movies, the Herald reported.

By the late 1990s, the theater had grown seedy, and was a source of mockery among U of C students.

The Meridian Entertainment Group bought the theater in 1999, only to see it closed by the city the following year due to tax problems at the company.

The theater reopened a second time in the fall of 2000 and remained in business for another year and a half, before finally closing for good in the spring of 2002 when Meridian went out of business, the Herald reported.

The new Harper Theater will open around Thanksgiving of next year, the Hyde Park Herald reported.