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An unhappy final act for theater

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    This story was sent to you by: mrcooby ... An unhappy final act for theater ... Hinsdale group abandons effort By Lynn Van Matre Tribune staff reporter October
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 9, 2003
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      This story was sent to you by: mrcooby

      An unhappy final act for theater

      Hinsdale group abandons effort

      By Lynn Van Matre
      Tribune staff reporter

      October 9, 2003

      When declining ticket sales and deteriorating conditions led to the closing of the Hinsdale Theatre in 1999, talk of leasing or selling it to a retail clothing chain prompted a grass-roots petition drive to save it. But now the marquee has been stripped from the facade, signaling an apparent final curtain on the volunteers' efforts to restore the vintage movie house.

      "We have lots of plans," said George Avgeris, whose family has owned the venue since the 1950s and who maintains a law office there. "But there's nothing definite."

      The theater is one of three 1920s movie houses in DuPage County that have been the focus of grass-roots restoration efforts in the last several years. Led by local residents, the mostly volunteer groups have sought to keep the theaters going to boost the vitality of the downtowns and to promote cultural activities.

      The Hinsdale Theater Foundation wanted to restore the venue as a film and performing-arts center. It had been scheduled to take over payments on a 50-year lease in August from the village, which was renting the site on behalf of the volunteer organization. Instead, the foundation announced it was abandoning the project because of "unresolved differences" with theater owners. It is preparing to return pledges totaling nearly $4 million, according to board member Maureen Hegarty.

      Groups working separately to restore DuPage Theatre in Lombard and Wheaton Grand Theater as non-profit film and performing arts centers remain confident their projects will succeed.

      "Our situation is very different from Hinsdale," said Martin B. Carroll, chairman of the DuPage Theatre Foundation, the non-profit group formed in April to oversee a $6.5 million renovation of the shuttered venue. The foundation and the village recently signed an agreement that gives the group until December 2004 to raise funds and award construction contracts for what is scheduled to become a cultural arts center and restaurant.

      "The Hinsdale Theatre is privately owned. The DuPage Theatre is owned by the village, so we basically are getting it for free," said Carroll, an attorney who lives in Lombard and is a partner in a Chicago law firm. Preliminary tuckpointing on the building is set to begin this fall, he said.

      "We're a completely different animal from Hinsdale," said Ron Richardson, chairman of Grand Theater Corp., the non-profit spearheading a $7 million renovation project at the Wheaton Grand.

      "It's going to take time," said Richardson, an architect who lives in Wheaton and works in St. Charles. "But we own our building, and we're generating some revenues [from shows and rentals]."

      Though rent is not a problem, both groups still face formidable financial challenges.

      The DuPage Theatre Foundation recently hired a grant writer and expects fundraising efforts to accelerate by the end of the year, Carroll said. As part of the redevelopment deal with Lombard, the foundation will receive $1 million in tax-increment financing funds, of which $100,000 can be used for fundraising. The remaining $900,000, designated for construction, will be disbursed after the foundation has raised matching funds, Carroll said.

      "Illinois also awarded us a $1 million grant," Carroll said. "After the grants come through, plans are that the village will sell some land near the theater to developers and donate those funds to the restoration project. We think that will be worth about $1.5 million.

      "We have a very conservative business plan and we expect to be financially self-sustaining."

      Renovation plans call for the auditorium and a restaurant on the first floor, and meeting rooms and theater workshop space on the second floor.

      The foundation's agreement with the village calls for contracts to be signed by December 2004 for exterior restoration and construction of the community rooms and restaurant space. The facility is supposed to be operating by the end of 2007.

      To foster support, the foundation has begun offering public tours of the theater at 7:30 p.m. on Saturdays.

      "This is the only theater in DuPage on the National Register of Historic Places, and there's a lot of curiosity about it," Carroll said. "Everybody is ready to get going on the restoration. People believe this is going to be a tremendous anchor for downtown Lombard."

      The Wheaton Grand, which reopened last year after extensive repairs, launched a $500,000 capital campaign in 2002 that still is in progress. The venue presents shows by local rock bands and other groups as well as films. Because its volunteer base includes people with professional fundraising experience, the group has not had to hire grant writers or fundraisers, Richardson said.

      "We're on track in terms of our long-term strategic plan," he said. "We also are in the process of applying for listing on the National Register of Historic Places."

      Built in 1926, the former vaudeville venue was donated to Grand Theater Corp. two years ago. Plans call for the theater, which was remodeled over the years and divided into four performance spaces, to be restored as a single 750-seat film and performing-arts center during the next seven to 10 years.

      Wheaton officials say they have no plans to contribute city funds to the project.

      The property includes four small commercial spaces, one of which is being used as the theater office while the others generate rental income of several thousand dollars a month, Richardson said.

      Volunteers are working to uncover the original vaudeville stage and hope to be able to use it soon. The films and concerts will continue until enough money has been raised to begin the major interior restoration. At that point, the theater will close temporarily.

      "I would hope we could start the restoration sooner rather than later," Richardson said. "As we have opened up the performance space walls and exposed the original theater, people are awestruck by what they see. This is going to be a beautiful theater."

      Copyright (c) 2003, Chicago Tribune

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