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Feature Wed Feb 23 2011

The Return of the Patio Theater

This article was submitted by Gordon McAlpin.


Portage Park's gorgeous Patio Theater opened in January 1927, what was then a mid-sized movie palace, with a mere 1500 seats. Designed by Rudolph G. Wolff in the Spanish Renaissance style, its atmospheric canopy is dotted with twinkling "stars" and projected moving clouds, like the 850-seat Music Box's, which opened two years later.

At the time, the Chicago movie theater business was largely controlled by large, national chains Lubliner & Trinz, Balaban & Katz and Essaness, but the Patio was started by three Greek immigrants — William, John and George Mitchell (originally Michalopoulas) — at a cost of $750,000. Its first film was The Blonde Saint, an adaptation of a Stephen French Whitman novel.

The Patio flourished for decades as a first-run theater, until television started to eat away at the movie business. John Mitchell, who took over in 1942 after his brother William died, reluctantly allowed the building to fall into disrepair. To save on taxes, a vertical section of the marquee — like those seen on the Music Box or the Davis — was removed. In 1970, the Patio turned into a second-run movie house. In 1976, after the death of George Mitchell, the Patio was turned over to outside management. After John Mitchell passed away in 1981, the Mitchell family put the theater (along with the rest of the building) up for sale.

Alexander Kouvalis, a commercial real estate broker, bought the building in 1987 for $380,000 in back property taxes. He ran the theater until August 2001, when the theater was closed — but the reason didn't seem to be a matter of public record. A decade later, the Patio has a fresh coat of paint, and is set to reopen in the next few months, under the management of Demetri Kouvalis, Alexander Kouvalis's 22-year-old son.

The younger Kouvalis showed Gapers Block around the restored Patio and help filled in the gaps.

Did the Patio close because of slow business?

Demetri Kouvalis: No, it closed because the air conditioner broke down, and during that time, the [Public Place of Amusement (PPA)] license was a new thing in Chicago. And so he was trying to go through all the procedures and the forms that you need to go through to obtain this license, but I guess he wasn't quick enough.

And then he had trouble with the air conditioner, trying to fix it, so on top of the air conditioner breaking down, the city came and closed us down, because we didn't file for the license fast enough.

That was in the end of July, beginning of August of 2001. He couldn't find anybody to fix it. Everybody wanted to just put in a new air conditioning system, which would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace. And then Sept. 11th happened, and then nobody wanted to go out for a few months. We didn't even want to bother opening at that period.

And then around 2003-2004, two of the partners that had the building with my father, they wanted to back out. They didn't want to put in the money to reopen the theater, so my dad had to buy them out. Because he spent a lot of money buying them out, he couldn't fix the theater [and] try to fix the air conditioner, because his priority was trying to put me through college and my sister through high school. And he was getting older. He was about 67 at the time. He put all this work in, and he said he wanted to retire.

I recently graduated from UIC with a business degree, and I said, "Well, you know, we have this building. It's a great opportunity. Nobody I know can say the same thing — that they have a theater that they could open." So I convinced my father that I would help him reopen the theater, and he trusted me, that I could run it. That's how we started, in May, trying to renovate the theater and try and open it.

So you basically grew up here.

I born here and raised here until about 12, then we moved to the northwest suburbs. But we came here a lot, because my dad owns the theater and the apartment building and the stores in front, so he would take care of those.

Do you know what kind of movies you'll be showing?

The same like before — the only difference is, back then, my father had $2 or $3 admission prices. We're going to put it at $5 now — all day, for all ages. We might have some deals... We don't know yet.

Because it's a $5 admission fee, the film distributors, they have all these rules. You can't get first run unless you charge at least $7.50. So we're going to be second run, like before, but I think we're going to get the movie maybe a week before we used to. So you can expect to see us show a new movie two, three, four weeks at the most later.

With the $5 admissions, we have the ability, then, to charge less for concessions. Because, you know, AMC and all those big theaters — if they charge $10, the distributors take, like, 95 percent of the profits from tickets, so they have to charge a ridiculous amount for food and popcorn and drinks. So we'll have a much more convenient price for concessions.

This is mainly a community theater. The community, back when my father had it, that was the main audience, but then we'd have people coming from the north suburbs, the west suburbs, from downtown, just to see the place and come watch a movie in this kind of atmosphere.

The only competition we have now is [the AMC Loews Norridge 10], and they're doing worse and worse every year. I don't think they're going to be too big of a competition for us. And the next one is Logan, and that's a bit away from here.

They're a small theater. They have four screens—

—Yeah, they cut it up.

Everybody has been telling me that they're so surprised that we didn't chop this theater up, that kept it in the original one screen. My father had good business before with one screen, so I think we could continue the same business. Especially with one screen, we can choose which movies we can play. The better movies, we can play. Then we don't have to split four movies with four screens and have two bad movies and two good movies.

Have you thought about doing short-run revival screenings, like midnight Raiders of the Lost Ark?

That's definitely an idea... Probably not within the first six months. We're just want to try to get all the money back that we put into the place. But yeah, I could see us maybe one or two Sundays a month, playing classic movies, or maybe midnight showings of something — and hopefully being in the circuit for Chicago film festivals and independent films, to attract more people from outside the neighborhood.

Do you have a closer timeframe to when it's going to be open?

It's totally up to the city, because we're about 95 percent done with fixing the inside. We started filing papers with the city right after Thanksgiving, and we already have our food license and everything, but the PPA takes a long time. Until all those papers are done, we cannot open the theater at all. We hope to open in the beginning or middle of March, if the city doesn't give us any trouble, which I don't think they should.

I'm surprised we had so many people join the Facebook page so quickly. I'm glad word of mouth is spreading quickly. We don't expect anything from the community; we just want them to be excited and get ready for us opening.

Photos by Charlene Epple and Gordon McAlpin.

Gordon McAlpin writes and draws the online comic Multiplex, which currently features a storyline involving the renovated Patio Theatre.


This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.

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arkonbey / February 23, 2011 10:47 AM

wow. Just wow. I'm jealous and I wish them the very best of luck!

Gregory Hess / February 23, 2011 11:53 AM

Very well done, and great photos. Sad to hear there will not be revival stuff right off the bat, but hopefully we can twist their arm eventually. :) Can't wait to get in there and prowl around.

Liza G / February 24, 2011 10:43 AM

I am a Portage Park resident and I am so happy to hear this. I wish the management the best of luck and I will try to patron The Patio as much as possible.

What a beautiful interior at The Patio. Can't wait!

More and more Portage Parkers are craving stuff for their hood - just look at the wild popularity of The Portage restaurant!

Barbara Vitacca / May 28, 2011 8:16 AM

We spent many Saturdays at the Patio. My Grandchildren can't wait to share my memories.

victor / June 18, 2011 6:05 AM

glad tour back. i was there last sunday. great job. you can add screans by emptying some of the stores and put in smaller screens,but leave the main auditorium as is. sort of what the pickwwick theater did. i will be coming to the patio often. welcome back!

Ken / October 15, 2011 1:47 AM

I lived at 3934 N Narragansett. Most Saturdays my mom would give give me a dollar, I would walk past he Stretch Inn, carefully check the alley for speeding Postal trucks, pass Preuter's Standard gas station and stand on the corner to wait for the east bound, Irving Park Rd bus, it was still a trolly bus back then. It cost me twelve cents to ride the bus, and I'd get off at Austin Ave, cross Irving Park, and enter the Patio Theater. Because I was 8 or 9 admission was 25 cents (I think children under 12 were a quarter),anyway, that left me with 63 cents. Popcorn was a dime, it was very good and didn't need butter, and it was just salty enough. It was Mello's-Brand popcorn, and they're still in business today. Soft drinks were a dime, and they had this green machine in the lobby that you put a dime in, selected your flavor (it had Green River in it too), a paper cup would fall down from a chute behind a plexiglass sliding door, ice would drop from another chute, then the selected flavored syrup would squirt into the cut as would seltzer which would blend them into a soft drink. It was quite comical, when it would screw up, cup would come down sideways, or no cup at all, and you got to watch the ice, syrup, and seltzer go where a cup was supposed to have been, and then try to convince Mr. Mitchell to give you a dime refund. Candy bars were a nickel. I usually got 2 boxes of popcorn. There would be 2 movies with 3-4 cartoons in between, and sometimes newsreels. If you came in, in the middle of a movie, you'd sit down, watch it until the end, watch all the stuff in between, watch the second movie, watch all the stuff in between, and then watch the first movie until "The Part Where We Came In", and you could leave or stay and watch the whole thing. Sometimes you'd get there early and watch every thing twice. I'd still have 13 cents left, 12 for the bus, and a penny left over to buy a piece of bazooka bubble gum or a pretzel stick. I graduated from Saint Pascal's, just a block or 2 from the Patio, class of 1967. I used to have a crush on the Mitchell's (the original owners) daughter who lived a couple of blocks from me, she was a very pretty girl.
I have a lot of memories of the Patio, and must have watched 100's of movies there.

Linda / May 26, 2012 5:06 PM

Was the Patio really a first run theater? I remember that back in the '40's we had to wait a couple of weeks before the downtown movies got to the Patio. My favorite memory now, and as a kid, was the gargoyle drinking fountains - and they're still there. Post a picture of that.

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