Tomorrow isn’t promised to historic movie houses

From Buffalo Grove to Antioch, Big Hollywood’s demand for 21st-century operation in 20th-century movie houses has inspired grass-roots efforts to keep neighborhood theaters from disappearing.

Sometimes, those efforts keep the doors open, as we saw earlier this year with the Liberty Theatre on Milwaukee Avenue. Other times, you end up with The Dunes in Zion, which has been nothing but a reminder of memories since it closed about three years ago.

And then you have stories like the one in my old Chicago neighborhood, where the Patio Theatre has lived an on-again, off-again existence over the past two decades. The news this week was that the 1926 movie palace, despite restoration efforts that included a successful Kickstarter.com campaign in 2012 to purchase digitial-projection equipment, has an uncertain future after being put up for sale.

The Patio sits off the corner of Irving Park Road and Austin Avenue on the old Northwest Side and was the place you went to see “Star Wars” with an audience of 1,500 people. The library of films I saw there includes everything from “Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster” in the 1970s to “Victor/Victoria” in the 1980s.

I had long since moved on when the Patio first closed in 2001, but I was happy to learn that it was restored and reopened in 2010. I pledged to make it back with my kids so they could feel a true moviegoing experience — one that doesn’t involve a mall.

We did make it back to the Patio in the summer of 2012, seeing “The Dark Knight Rises” under the simulated starry sky that gave the giant building so much of its charm. But closer inspection offered warning signs: The lower-level bathrooms were in bad shape, parking was a chore as usual, and we were one of maybe 20 people surrounded by hundreds of empty seats.

Sure enough, it would be troubles with low attendance and aging infrastructure — including failed heating and cooling systems — forced owners to shut the doors this spring. According to published accounts this week, the Patio is on the block for $2.9 million. The stated preference is to keep it open as venue for movies and/or live productions, but anything is possible in the development world.

The moral of the story is that if you have an old theater that owns a piece of your heart, don’t assume it will always be there. Tomorrow is a promise to no man and no vintage building.

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