The Congress Theater on North Milwaukee is being booked for many rock concerts and private events this year despite its ragged condition. The city cited the venue last fall for seven building code violations. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times
Updated: May 4, 2011 4:46AM
Chuck Berry is 84 years old, which means he is one year younger than the Congress Theater, where he collapsed during a New Year’s Day concert.
The Congress, 2135 N. Milwaukee, was designed as a movie palace heavy on Italian Renaissance style. Furnishings were done by Marshall Field & Co.
That was a long time ago.
Today the Congress has surpassed the Aragon as the dumpiest large venue for seeing music in Chicago.
Could Berry have been brought down by a stinky infrastructure and a throng of fans? Some stood three rows deep in the first balcony, blocking aisles. On March 18, 2010, the Congress was cited by the City of Chicago for seven building code violations that included an order to “stop noxious odors from permeating dwelling or premises.”
That’s just Congross.
“There’s obviously issues with plumbing,” city Building Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey said. “There’s sewage smell in the building.”
Other citations said the Congress needed to replace defective windowsills and recharge a fire extingusher. The case was last up on Dec. 9 and continued to March 31. The Congress is to be reinspected within one week of the case date so the city can testify on the current conditions of the building.
Sources said the Congress’ stench troubled ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons when the band taped a VH1 special there in 2009.
Gibbons wouldn’t confirm that but said in an e-mail, “Despite the aged appearance that made one shudder on approach, the venue worked out for us, It looked good on TV thanks to some adroit set-dressing by the VH1 folks. We were actually pretty delighted with the ethnic food that was sourced from some places on the block.”
The Congress is a big story for 2011 because independent promoter Michael Petryshyn is bringing in more midlevel acts: George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic (Feb. 11), Motorhead (Feb. 19), the Dropkick Murphys (Feb. 26 and 27) and the Pogues (March 3), all of whom formerly played the Aragon or the Riviera, mostly booked by Jam Productions. Then there are traditional Congress shows like Friday’s Common-hosted birthday party for Dwyane Wade and Jan. 23’s Insane Mexican Wrestling.
The Congress is owned by Chicagoan Eddie Carranza, who leaves the booking to outside promoters. He did not respond to several requests for a comment.
How do you keep old theaters like the Congress and Riviera healthy and warm?
“Well, they’re 80 years old,” answered Richard Sklenar, executive director of the Elmhurst-based Theatre Historical Society of America. “There was a lot of deferred maintenance in their last 25 years as movie theaters. Anybody that took them over and used them as a live performance venue — such as the Congress, the Riviera or the Uptown — had buildings that were aged; plumbing systems that were in disarray; heating, ventilating and air conditioning that were expensive to keep repaired, and acres of roof that needed fixing. It would be half a million dollars for some of those buildings just to do the roof.”
McCaffrey said all entertainment venues are inspected by different city agencies every 12 months. There’s a Public Place of Amusement license inspection that looks at plumbing, ventilation, exit lights and access to exit doors. The fire department checks out venues for overcrowding if there is a complaint during an event.
Building Department inspectors examine a venue when it is empty except for staff.
The Fire Department is cool with the Congress. “If a place is known to be a trouble spot with complaints of overcrowding, it will get more attention,” said Fire Department official Larry Langford. “The Congress was not inspected the weekend of the Chuck Berry concert. The Congress is not a hot spot.”
Petryshyn, 32, said the Congress hasn’t changed much since his first visit in 2005.
“They’re still CBGB bathrooms,” he said with a laugh, drawing a comparison to the late, notoriously ratty New York punk club. “Eddie put in a million-dollar sound system a year before I got there. These places, and even the Aragon, weren’t designed to have rock concerts. I’m not worried about the infrastructure. I’ve been in and out of the Congress a million times, and that building is structurally sound.”
Fans at Saturday’s sold-out Wu-Tang concert gave the Congress, which holds 4.690 concertgoers, including 790 in the balcony, mixed reviews.
“The Congress has the worst sound ever,” said Marcelino Navarro, 30, of Old Irving Park, adding, “You see quite a few people doing drugs or, now, smoking cigarettes in the open.”
Sandy Benes, 27, of Andersonville, likes the theater “because you see everyone up close. I think it has great sound quality.” But even she added, “The restrooms smell and are pretty dirty.”
The Theatre Historical Society conducted a tour of the Congress and other former Chicago movie palaces in 2003. “It was tired then,” Sklenar said.
The Congress was threatened with demolition in 2000, but neighbors saved the theater. The Congress was declared a Chicago Landmark in 2002. According to the city’s Housing and Economic Development Department, the building’s significant features are “all exterior elevations, roofs, and rooflines; the auditorium, main and inner lobbies and outer vestibule, and original historic theater lighting fixtures.” These are deemed protective features. Any renovation permits are reviewed by the landmark commission staff.
The elaborate architecture makes it tricky to know exactly what lies behind the walls.
“It’s not just the stuff you see,” Sklenar explained. “Like the attic above a dome [the Congress has a beautiful, spaceshiplike plaster dome]. There might be 25 feet of space before you actually get to the roof. All that plaster is hanging from the structural beams. You have all that open space and, if it ever gets water in it, it is possible there would be mold or mildew. And there’s frequently water running in the sump pumps in the basement, and that can get slimy and moldy.”
Petryshyn got in the Chicago booking game by starting the punk-metal conclave Riot Fest in 2005. He moved to Chicago from Buffalo, N.Y., to attend graduate school at Loyola University.
“I didn’t know anything about the music business,” he said. “Riot Fest kept growing and growing, and the Congress was the first venue I used. I remember walking into the Congress and thought it was mammoth. We definitely didn’t have anything like that in Buffalo. It was the perfect venue for what I was doing. It wasn’t pretentious. It was independently owned. I was attracted to its grittiness.”
Contributing: Richard Giraldi