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Patio Theater in Portage Park gets a second run at success

Father sAlexander Demetrio Kouvalis (pictured March 2011) restored Patio Theater 6008 W. Irving Park Rd.  |  Al Podgorski~Sun-Times

Father and son Alexander and Demetrio Kouvalis (pictured in March 2011) restored the Patio Theater, 6008 W. Irving Park Rd. | Al Podgorski~Sun-Times

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Updated: August 27, 2011 12:38AM

For years, the marquee at the Patio Theater in the Portage Park neighborhood read “under renovation,” prompting residents to peer through the glass doors looking for a sign of life. The movie theater closed down a decade ago, and the occasional rumor kept hopes high for its rebirth.

Those rumors became reality last spring when Demetri Kouvalis graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a marketing degree and found a job in his own backyard. He’s the son of Alexander Kouvalis, who owns the building and ran the theater until its closing in 2001.

“I had no other job prospects, but I did see a business opportunity here,” said Kouvalis, who grew up around the theater. “My dad still owned the building, and I convinced him to help get it back in running order.”

The Patio, 6008 W. Irving Park, reopens June 4 as a second-run movie theater, with a screening of Kenneth Branagh’s “Thor,” starring Chris Hemsworth, Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman.

The rebirth of the Patio is a cause for celebration, says Richard Sklenar, executive director of
Theatre Historical Society of America. It rejoins the ranks of the few remaining Chicago neighborhood movie houses, including the Davis, Logan, Music Box and Portage.

“It’s very important any time a historical theater is saved and put back to its original use,” Sklenar said. “It adds life, sparkle and excitement to the neighborhood.”

Walking into the Patio and seeing its gorgeous interior is akin to stepping into the past. The grand 1,500-seat theater, designed by Rudolph G. Wolff in the “neo-Pompeian” style, opened in 1927 with the silent film “The Blonde Saint.” It features stadium seating and an atmospheric canopy replete with twinkling stars and drifting clouds. The original pipe organ, which provided accompaniment to silent classics, is still housed in the theater.

The Patio’s lobby is a jewel with its ornate ceiling, grand chandelier and quaint ticket booth.

Kouvalis, with help from his sister Amalia, an artist, repainted the intricate ceiling and upper walls of the entry in rich shades of red, gold and blue. Faux balconies with mirrored windows and wall lamps make the space even more spectacular.

“We did lots of painting, lots of cleaning,” Kouvalis said. “It was dirty and dusty, but there were no major problems with the building.”

Kouvalis says around $12,000 went into the renovation, along with “$50,000 in sweat equity.” Around 250 seats were reupholstered, others were cleaned and new carpeting was installed throughout the theater.

“This has been a big learning experience and the most work I’ve done in my life for any one project,” Kouvalis said. “It’s very satisfying. Not many people I know can say they own a business like this.”

The secluded projection room remains a time capsule harking back to the theater’s early days. The walls are covered with yellowed newspaper clippings and movie posters ranging from “The Snake Pit” to “Barton Fink.” Kouvalis says the sturdy projectors were in fine condition, only requiring new lamp houses and bulbs.

Kouvalis won’t entertain the thought of splitting the auditorium into two theaters, a plight that has befallen most neighborhood houses.

“The Patio just would not be the same if we did that,” Kouvalis, 22, said. “It would lose a lot of its charm and character.”

It seems love and appreciation
for the Patio has passed from father to son.

Alexander Kouvalis, who emigrated from Greece in 1952, is a retired physicist who worked at Argonne National Laboratory until the late 1970s. He then studied for a graduate degree in economics and became a real estate agent, and in 1987, with partners, he bought the corner building that houses the theater, 17 apartments, a pharmacy and a check-cashing business.

Kouvalis recalls having a hard time getting a mortgage; the bank saw the theater as “a white elephant,” he said.

“But I came up with a plan to turn it into a self-storage space,” Kouvalis, 77, said. “The bankers bought the idea, but I wasn’t going to let the theater die out. It was a mess, but I could see a thing of beauty underneath the dirt. Like ‘My Fair Lady,’ the beauty was there, you just had to bring it out.”

For 14 years, the Northwest Side theater was a popular neighborhood destination for second-run movies that attracted approximately 52,000 customers a year. It didn’t close because of financial problems. Instead, it was a breakdown in the massive air-conditioning system and the lack of a Public Place of Amusement license that forced Kouvalis to close.

Kouvalis then concentrated on putting his kids through college and buying out his partners in the building. Over the years, he also kept a careful eye on the theater, keeping the heat on so pipes wouldn’t freeze, said his son.

Renovations began in May 2010 with repairs to the marquee, which was damaged when a large truck tried to park in front of the theater and nicked it. In recent months, the last items on Kouvalis’ checklist were visits by city inspectors. After satisfying some additional city requirements, all licenses were secured.

Kouvalis also has found a repairman who is fixing the air-conditioning system. And after the theater is up and running, renovations will continue in the theater’s balcony, which remains closed to the public.

Portage Park is the only Chicago neighborhood with the distinction of having two classic movie theaters brought back to life as single-screen venues. In 2006, Dennis Wolkowicz and his partners renovated the 1,300-seat Portage Theatre at Six Corners (Irving Park, Cicero and Milwaukee). Kouvalis doesn’t see the Portage, which is a multi-use venue, as competition because second-run movies aren’t shown there.

Kouvalis says admission will be $5, up from the $2-$3 his father charged but still a deal. He realizes there will be challenges in keeping a business afloat in today’s economic climate but he hopes patrons will see a trip to the Patio as a bargain, a good way for the family to do something together.

“This is a community theater that can really add to a neighborhood’s vitality,” Kouvalis said. “We’re hoping that people who came here years ago will return and that others will discover it and love the Patio like we do.”

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