Film Buffs Fear Curtain May Be Lowering On Iconic Movie House

CHICAGO (CBS) — A venerable old movie theater in Chicago’s Portage Park neighborhood may soon be shutting down its projectors and begin hosting a Chicago church congregation.

As CBS2’s Mike Parker reports, many in the community are not happy about that, including the local alderman.

“This has been serving this neighborhood since 1920 and certainly deserves to live on,” says Dennis Wolkowicz, the manager of the Portage Theater, 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave.

But it may not live much longer.

The old movie house has seen its better days, and nowadays mostly plays things like indie film horror festivals, movie classics and silent films. Don’t look for “The Hunger Games” at the Portage anytime soon.

Now a North Side church, the Christian Tabernacle, is moving to buy the theater and the half-block-long commercial and apartment building on either side.

“It’s very difficult to find assembly space on the North Side of Chicago,” associate pastor Matt Reneau says. “We need a sanctuary space that seats about a thousand.”

For Wolkowicz, saying goodbye to the Portage would be an emotional loss.

“I came here as a kid,” he says. “My older brother took me here to see ‘Ben Hur’ on a Wednesday afternoon back in 1960 … We want to see it remain, not just for my own enjoyment and amusement, but for future generations.”

The head of the 6 Corners Association wants to see the Portage remain because patrons help surrounding businesses.

“They don’t just buy a ticket at the show,” executive director Ed Bannon says. “They buy clothes, they buy food. There’s all kinds of spin-offs.”

One businessman, hair dresser Leroy Silva, says if he loses his shop in the theater building it’s OK with him.

“I’m a man of God myself,” Silva says. “If the church does expand to buy the building, then God will put me where he needs to put me.”

Ward 45 Ald. John Arena says he opposes the loss of what he calls an “historic icon.” Arena says he’s tried to help the church find other potential locations in the neighborhood, but that the church insists on the theater location.

The church has reportedly offered the current owner a little more than $2 million for the theater property.

Preservationists who hope to keep the Portage Theater in the film-showing business will hold a 7 p.m. meeting Monday at the theater.

More from Mike Parker
  • JC Bussard

    I wish they had said something about the rally this Monday the 26th of May at the Portage to organize to try and stop the church from buying the theatre. Please pass the word.

    • ocslist

      Ya mean the 26th of MARCH?

  • D

    As a resident of Portage Park I am against this move. The portage park theater is an iconic part of our community. The theater has been a part of our lives for years. Sure, they had “horror” movies over the Halloween season and Svengoolie came by for a visit, but they also show movies from the 20’s 30’s 40’s. They sponsor other events there as well. Many times they show films free to the public and the businesses around the theater reap the benefits. The first time I ever saw the movie Casablanca was on t.v. How can I describe the thrill of actually getting to see Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman on the big screen just like my parents did back in the 40’s. This associate pastor hasn’t done his homework very well. There are other places on the north side of the city where they could move their church. I know our Alderman has tried to work with them to find other places, but as it states in the article they’re not willing to listen. “It’s very difficult to find assembly space on the North Side of Chicago,” associate pastor Matt Reneau says. “We need a sanctuary space that seats about a thousand.””…what about the Bank of America building. We have heard that a grocery store has shown some interest, but nothing’s come of it. That’s a huge building that could seat well over a thousand people and they have two parking lots so there wouldn’t be any parking congestion or traffic jams on Milwaukee Ave. The community is NOT HAPPY with this and there is a petition on Fact book rapidly gathering signatures to show this church what we think of their proposal. Their unwillingness to listen to alternatives let’s me know that they are for themselves and not interested in the community they are looking at.

  • Film Buffs Fear Curtain May Be Lowering On Iconic Movie House | Daily Internet News

    […] CBS Chicago […]

  • theanalogdivide

    For more information on what the Portage Theater means to local residents (and how you can help), please visit

  • Chicago Joe

    They didn’t mention the church would gut the building and basically destroy the movie theatre. That’s not speculation. We know this because that is what they did in Brooklyn.

  • JDC

    It’s exactly because of attractions like The Portage Theater that I moved into the Ward 45 and set up my own small business and residence there.

    I heard this somewhere else but I thought it should be repeated:

    “The Portage already is a church.”

  • davesgurl72

    Please come to the Portage on Monday March 26th to show your support for our community and find out how you can help save the Portage. Also realize that if the Chicago Tabernacle gets the building they will put 36 residents on the street, close the businesses currently on the street level and $77,000 dollars will come off the tax roles. The remaining small businesses on Six Corners and the area homeowners will have to make up for the lost tax dollars. This will put a lot of struggling businesses under for good. Ask yourself, What Would Jesus Do? Certainly not what Chicago Tabernacle is doing!!!

  • Barry Kaufman

    It’s fascinating to see the lack of understanding of the Portage’s significance from superficial news reporters like Mike Parker. As in the Tribune article of March 12, 2012, there is a disdainful tone in discussing the theatre’s programming, without really knowing what that programming is. Parker cites “The Hunger Games” as the type of sophisticated programming you won’t see at the Portage. It’s a completely unecessary “angle” which he chooses to base the story on, meant to put down the type of cinema featured at the theatre, as well as those who would choose to attend it.
    Parker’s angle is meant to prejudice opinion against the Portage Theatre before the story even begins.
    Perhaps parker doesn’t know the Portage has screened a restored 35mm print of King Kong (1933), just a monster movie I know. As well as Written on the Wind (1956), just a silly Douglas Sirk Soap Opera. Upcoming on April 4th they are screening Max Ophal’s riventing “lost” classic Liebelei (1933), just a historic film by a Jewish director in Nazi Germany. Perhaps Parker was alluding to the Universal horror films of the 1930’s being shown on March 31st. I could go on about all the programming there for degenerates and simpletons, would that I had the cinematic taste and frame if reference of one Mike Parker.

  • individuala

    I wonder how many supporters who have suddenly emerged from the woodwork have actually been in the Portage Theater in the past ten years? Our family has attended events there ranging from the Svengoolie appearances to movies, a dance recital, a fashion show and even a wedding. Every time I’m in there I wonder how the place stays in business. The floors are sticky, it has a sewer odor and is very cold in the winter because the concession lady said they can’t afford to heat it. Even with the renovation it still needs a lot more work and a whole lot of cleanup. It is simply not the place it once was and given the blighted stretch over there on Milwaukee Avenue, its never going back to the hayday. So let’s be real the area has been blighted for a long time. If the alderman would have permitted legit businesses to move in over the past several years, there would be a lot more businesses to fight a non-conforming use. It appears that15 – 20% of the storefronts are functional. Maybe the area needs a 1,000 member megachurch anchor to drive consumers to the local businesses. Can it really get any worse over there?

    • davesgurl72

      Speaking of my family personally, we are at the Portage 2-3 times a month. They offer great chances to see family friendly movies as well as black and white classics.

      The church will not be bringing new revinue to the area. They currently bus their 400 members in from remote parking areas. Why would that change when they change locations? These 400 (not anywhere near 1,000) people will get off a bus, attend a church service and get right back on the bus to leave the neighborhood. How does that contribute to Portage Park?

    • JC

      Youhave an interesting vision of blight. I don’t think you have ever been to Aa blighted area. That area has many vibrent businesses that are only going to improve. Bring a church there and it all goes away. Restaurants cantserve drinks so they will go. That theatre is an important part of the economic engine of that area and an important part of our history. We can not let it close.

      • individuala

        Remind me which restaurants there have liquor licenses and “will go”?

      • davesgurl72

        In no way was I implying they’d be good neighbors. I’m simply pointing out that they will not be spending money in the neighborhood. In actuality their buses will make in quite inconvenient for traffic on Milwaukee. I smell a plant. What’s your association with Chicago Tabernacle?

      • individuala

        I have no affiliation with the church. My original point was that as a Portage patron, I appreciate where some may have an affinity for nostalgic “good old days”, however the reality is the theater does not attract a steady crowd and is more than a bit shabby. The area is shabby. Maybe a new stream of 1,000 steady patrons will bolster local businesses. I’m seeing the glass half full. You stated “restaurants cant serve drinks so they will go”. When I sincerely asked “which restaurants” (being that I don’t recall any in that stretch of Milwaukee) you responded that I am “a plant” to dissuade my point. Again I ask “which restaurants will go?” If “none”, stop throwing bombs and find a new angle.

      • davesgurl72

        I never replied to your post regarding restaurants. I simply stated that 400 people busses in and leaving immediately will have no effect on the neighborhood.

        There is a new Italian restaurant in the finishing stages of their build out across the street from the theater. There are other restaurants expressing interest in other open spaces along Milwaukee.

        Just last weekend over 2,000 people patronized the Portage. That’s pretty good considering how decrepit you consider the building.

      • JC Bussard

        I was speaking of the overall plan of revitalizing the area which the aldermen and the business assoc. have been trying to do for quite a while. the Portage theatre runs in the black and is a profitable business. Why close something that is succesful? Again, our versions of blight are pretty far apart. I live in this ward and I try to spend my money in the area when I can. Bused in church goers will spend nothing ine the area and we will lose thousands of tax dollers because for some idiotic reason churches pay no taxes. We need good busnesses like the Portage, not another church.

  • albanypark

    If the church buys that property they will not be paying any taxes,sewer or water fees.That in itself has huge implications. All the buisnesses,property owners who have a stake in the city and pay for its services should have the priority in deciding the zoning and usage.Any sense of a neighborhood feel will be gone. Where will they put all these people and cars? Milwaukee Ave is so congested now as it is.If you care about the direction the neighborhood will take please attend the meeting.

    • individuala

      Please see DavesGurl72 response about the cars as it implies they attempt to be good neighbors by encourage their flock to park in a remote location and provide bussing to minimize traffic and parking impact. Are there that many traffic and parking problems on church days anyhow?

      • Root Variable

        This right there proves you are a plant. Yes there are problems on church days. Go live near one. I have. They .. park… everywhere. They stand around and block the sidewalks too.

        The busing might *help* the parking issue but the only way they’re going to patronize local businesses is when the “pastor” makes them.

        Yes, this place is a scam and will use tactics like this. “This sunday you must patronize local business to prove the critics wrong.” Next week they get on the buses. Al toledo’s mansion isn’t big or gilded enough yet so they are trying to copy Brooklyn. The large theater also gives them more credibility to attract more worshipers and extract more money.

        They hired a high priced lawyer against us. Benevolent community organization? Not even close.

  • Supporters Rally To Save Portage Theater « CBS Chicago

    […] But the venue could soon be shutting down its projectors and begin hosting a Chicago church congrega… Many neighbors are none too happy about that possibility. […]

  • Albany Resident

    I live a half block from the tabernacle. Let me tell you, the people that go there are self entitled, rude, obnoxious a**holes. We’ve asked many times to please stop taking all our parking. Not only do they take all the spots they park so bad they take 2 spots for one car. they never respond to our complaints and when asked face to face just give you a line of bs. These people are beyond stupid and have no idea how much money Al Toledo and the rest of his cult leaders are raking in from them. BTW he charges his cult followers extra $$ for what they call premium parking served by their bus! what a scam. I pay taxes here they don’t, f em.

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