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Supporters Rally To Save Portage Theater

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The Portage Theater's movie-revival operation would cease if a North Side church buys the property. (CBS)

The Portage Theater’s movie-revival operation would cease if a North Side church buys the property. (CBS)

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CHICAGO (CBS) — Supporters rallied Monday to save the Portage Theater, one of the city’s oldest movie houses.

As WBBM Newsradio’s Lisa Fielding reports, the Portage, at 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave., opened on Dec. 11, 1920, and remains active as a cinema.

LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s Lisa Fielding reports

The historic building was purchased in 2006 and has been serving as a center point of the Chicago independent film community. It is also the home of the Silent Film Society of Chicago.

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

On Monday evening, hundreds of residents and theater goers poured into the movie house in hopes of saving the beloved landmark in the heart of the Portage Park neighborhood.

“And these are some unique theater experiences that you can’t get anywhere else in the city or the state,” said Ald. John Arena (45th), who has been working to preserve the historic theater since September when Chicago Tabernacle church spoke to him about plans to purchase the theater.

The church wants 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 told CBS 2’s Mike Parker last week. “We need a sanctuary space that seats about a thousand.”

A nondenominational Christian church affiliated with the Assemblies of God, Chicago Tabernacle is located in the Albany Park neighborhood and has been looking for a larger space.

Arena says he has 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.

Arena is urging residents and theater goers to contact the Zoning Board of Appeals, which is set to take up the issue next month. The meeting was organized by the Six Corners, Portage Park Neighborhood and Old Irving Park associations in order to save the Portage Theater.

The Portage Theater was the first venue built only for movies, and not vaudeville shows, in the Portage Park neighborhood. It became a second-run theater in the 1960s, and was divided into two cinemas with a wall down the middle of the auditorium in the 1980s, Cinema Treasures recalls.

The box office was eventually shuttered, and tickets were sold in the lobby from a table and a set of folding chairs “set up school bake sale style,” Cinema Teatures says.

The Portage closed in 2001, but reopened five years later after an extensive renovation.

If the plan for the church goes ahead, it would not be the first time an old movie theater would be reused as a house of worship.

The Central Park Theater, 3535 W. Roosevelt Rd. in the North Lawndale neighborhood, was Chicago’s first movie palace, opening as part of the pioneering Balaban and Katz chain in 1917. It was converted into the House of Prayer, Church of God in Christ in 1971, and the church remains in the building to this day.

And after closing in 1990, the Nortown Theatre, at 6320 N. Western Ave. in the West Rogers Park neighborhood, was converted into the Rest for the Weary Ministries church for several years. The church was criticized for gutting the theater.

The Nortown later became a Pakistani-American Community Center, and ultimately sat vacant and decaying for several years before finally being demolished in 2007.

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