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Theater's closing pulls the curtain on a special era

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    From: =Lou= ... Theater s closing pulls the curtain on a special era ... Dawn Turner Trice July 7, 2003 Last week, when I learned that the New Regal Theater in
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 7, 2003
      From: =Lou=

      Theater's closing pulls the curtain on a special era

      Dawn Turner Trice

      July 7, 2003

      Last week, when I learned that the New Regal Theater in the South Shore
      neighborhood was closing, the news struck a nerve.

      I was disheartened because the old, grand theater hadn't succeeded
      despite the millions of dollars Ed and BettiAnn Gardner, the wealthy
      founders of Soft Sheen Products, had poured into it. I was sad that yet
      another piece of black history was about to fall by the wayside. I also
      was disappointed that though I had driven by the New Regal on several
      occasions, I had never gone in. Not for a play, or a comedy, or a

      The ornately decorated 2,300-seat theater was named after the original
      Regal Theater that used to stand at 47th Street and South Park Way (now
      King Drive).

      Back in the day, the grand arts venues were so important in the black
      community. Yes, they were places that nurtured and displayed artistic
      talent, but they also were places where blacks could go at a time when
      they weren't allowed in the white establishments.

      I grew up listening to stories of family members who had spent evenings
      at the old Regal. They happily recalled memories of being entertained by
      the likes of Duke Ellington Count Basie, and Lena Horne, who would come
      to Chicago, play for white audiences downtown, then make their way south
      to perform for African-Americans.

      My mother, who had visited the original Regal on several occasions, said
      singer and actress Pearl Bailey used to kick off her shoes on stage,
      making herself at home. My mother's favorite performer was Josephine
      Baker, whose elegance and lavish costumes wowed the crowd.

      The architecture of these old movie palaces--the bejeweled walls, marble
      floors, gold trim--perhaps was as important as the people on the stage.
      Women who may have had to scrub toilets during the day could cover
      calluses with satin gloves, don high heels and spend an evening in

      After the show, political and social issues of the day often were mulled
      in the smoke-filled, bluesy taverns down the street. "Sometimes we'd
      talk politics," another family member was fond of saying. "Sometimes
      we'd just sit around simply retelling old lies."

      It was that spirit that the Gardners were trying to rekindle in the late
      1980s when they renovated the old Avalon Theatre on 79th Street.

      But that era has passed. There are so many more options and
      opportunities for middle-class blacks. There are so many things
      competing for time.

      The entertainment industry itself has changed. Why would an artist who
      could draw a large crowd perform over several nights at a theater when
      he or she could do one humongous performance at, say, the United Center?
      These old theaters, though full of historical significance, may just be
      heading toward extinction.

      The Regal isn't alone in its drama. The Chicago Theatre, which the city
      has bailed out financially, has a history of struggling. And there are
      many nights when the Oriental and the Palace Theaters also have seen too
      many empty seats. Over the last several years, Chicago has experienced
      an explosion of arts venues around the city. Most are smaller and much
      more modest in decor. They are less expensive to build and sustain. They
      also offer programming that is much more diverse.

      The ETA Creative Arts Foundation in South Shore, for example, is
      building a $12 million performance arts center that will feature a
      550-seat theater whose exterior will replicate an African village and
      have an art gallery and cafe next to a sculpture garden.

      Ed Gardner told me that in addition to trying to get the city to help
      with funding in the same way it had helped the Chicago Theatre, he had
      wanted to form an alliance with the city's schools and Park District for
      extra programming. Those efforts also failed.

      But in the end, the New Regal had myriad other challenges. Its location
      isolated it a bit. And its shows didn't appeal to a wider audience, even
      within the black community, its target market. My mother, for one, said
      shows there never piqued her interest.

      The New Regal is now on the market. There's always the chance that a
      buyer can come forward and pull off a last-minute miracle.

      My head says theaters like the New Regal may not make the soundest
      investments. Still, I can't help feeling a sense of loss. It's like the
      passing of an older, distant relative.

      Though I had been meaning to call, I regret now not having done so.

      Copyright (c) 2003, Chicago Tribune

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      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~ **-=\/=-** ~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      The opposite of bravery is not cowardice, but conformity.
      – Robert Anthony
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