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Movie buffs rally to fight church’s plan to take over Portage Theater

Brian Claire Lambrecht mug outside Portage Theater Friday April 20 2012. Phocourtesy Brian Lambrecht

Brian and Claire Lambrecht mug outside the Portage Theater on Friday, April 20, 2012. Photo courtesy of Brian Lambrecht

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Updated: May 22, 2012 8:07AM

Mike Edwards got married at the Portage Theater. Brian Lambrecht proposed to his wife on stage during a silent film festival as an organist played and the words, “Will you marry me?” flashed onscreen.

Northwest Side residents with poignant personal memories and silent and horror movie buffs turned out in force on Friday to save a vintage, 1920’s-era Chicago movie house on its way to becoming a church.

They left disappointed when the Zoning Board of Appeals put off a vote on Chicago Tabernacle’s plan to turn the 92-year-old Portage Theater, 4050 N. Milwaukee, into a 1,000-seat “religious assembly” for church services.

Portage Park residents and their local Ald. John Arena (45th) are dead-set against the idea for fear the church would gut the theater’s richly decorated auditorium and familiar marquee.

They’re equally concerned that the church could hamstring a host of other entertainment-related projects in a Six-Corners area “written off” a decade ago but now poised for an economic revival.

Arena noted that no liquor licenses can be granted within 100 feet of a house of worship and no public place of amusement license can be issued within 250 feet without church approval. That would extend all the way to the other side of Irving Park Road, where a multi-million dollar cultural center is planned.

The alderman said he has four projects on his desk — one of them a 300-seat restaurant — that will not go forward without a liquor license.

“We’re really at a tipping point. We can tip forward and generate revenue for the city or we can fall backward,” Arena said.

Property records show the building is owned by investors Robert Levin and realtor Harry Perl, who could not be reached. They have agreed to sell to the church, pending approval of a special use permit by the Zoning Board of Appeals. The theater manager subsequently agreed to match Chicago Tabernacle’s $2.5 million offer, according to Arena.

Church officials hustled out of Friday’s hearing without comment and could not be reached afterwards.

Portage Park resident Julia Baker said she has no problem with churches coming into the neighborhood, but not in a theater that’s home to silent and horror film societies and hosts an occasional concert and classic film.

“They go to church. They go home. That means they won’t be spending money in our neighborhood. They won’t be supporting the retail businesses, whereas people who are going out to spend a night at the theater will go have dinner, maybe spend the afternoon shopping,” Baker said.

Lambrecht, who lives in Addison, is a classic example. He recalled his onstage proposal while wearing a hat he bought at Six-Corners.

“I did a Buster Keaton somersault flip over my date. … It was a great special moment for me and a lot of people in my life. You can’t do that at an I-Max,” he said.

Edwards started a Facebook page to save the theater where he got married.

“If the church wants to buy a theater, find one that’s not in use. There are plenty in this city. I have no problem with that. But not in a functioning business that has a committed following,” he said.

“There’s no other theater that offers what this theater is offering. Classic films. A horror film festival. A Big Lebowski Fest. Day camp for the kids. School plays. It’s a beautiful place and the heart of the community.”

Earlier this month, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks put the Portage Theater on track toward a landmark designation that will make it more difficult for Chicago Tabernacle to make dramatic changes inside and out.

But, Jim Banks, an attorney representing the church, said the building “may still be usable by the church” in spite of the designation.

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