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Alexander Kouvalis remembered as savior of Patio Theater

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: November 15, 2011 12:30PM


For Alex Kouvalis

and the Patio Theater


I know a place

where there are electric clouds overhead

and twenty five cent lightbulbs become stars

with eyes I see so it must be true,

a dancer of light

a silver shadow who is the keeper of illusions

yours and mine

he dwells in a grand mosaic

just west of Austin Boulevard

-from a poem by Louis Antonelli

Alexander Kouvalis, who cared for the Patio Theater as tenderly as a lover and guarded it as fiercely as Cerberus, was a hero to film buffs for not only keeping the jewelbox of a moviehouse running — but also for refusing to slice up its big screen for a multiplex.

Mr. Kouvalis and his family burnished the Patio, which has been operating at Irving and Austin since 1927, and they re-opened it in June with a $5 admission.

It was unusual work for a man who immigrated to the U.S. from Greece at age 18 in short pants in the middle of December — with no English — and went on to become a physicist with four college degrees.

Mr. Kouvalis, 77, died Sunday at Lutheran General Hospital after suffering a heart attack while driving.

He was born in the mountainous Arkadia region of Greece. He did not like school, and his father told him that if he did not get his education, he would be a farmer for the rest of his life. He convinced his parents he would be better off in America, said his son, Demetrios.

When he arrived in the U.S. in 1952, “he thought he saw so many stars in the sky,” said his wife, Magdalena. “Then he found out they were [the lights of] cars.”

He had an uncle from the Old Country in Casper, Wyo., so he went to stay with him. But there he washed dishes from morning till night or shivered on a truck that delivered ice.

Mr. Kouvalis came to Chicago to get an education. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Elmhurst College and three degrees at the Illinois Institute of Technology: a bachelor’s in physics and also in management, and a master’s degree in economics.

The U.S. Army came calling, and he was supposed to serve in Japan. But he wanted to be near Greece, so he told a general he was a skilled mechanic who could better serve his new country in Europe. It worked; he was stationed in Germany, and he returned to Greece for a visit. “Alex didn’t even know how to drive the car, and he said he was a car mechanic,” his wife said. “They found out he’s not much of a mechanic.”

Later, Mr. Kouvalis worked for Argonne National Laboratory, Sunbeam and Zenith and taught economics and real estate at Triton College.

In 1987 Mr. Kouvalis, with some partners, bought the block-long building that houses the neo-Pompeian Patio as well as apartments and commercial tenants. “It was a mess, but I could see a thing of beauty underneath the dirt,” he said before the June re-opening. “Like ‘My Fair Lady,’ the beauty was there, you just had to bring it out.”

He did it all, from booking second-run films to selling popcorn. He rousted teenage vandals and he was not above patting someone’s pocket if he thought they were sneaking in candy.

But he faced hard times in the late ’90s when the city tried to impose additional fees and the air-conditioning system broke down. He shut it in 2001. For years, the Patio marquee said “UNDER RENOVATION.”

But Mr. Kouvalis, his daughter Amalia and his son repainted, reupholstered and found a company to fix the air conditioning. Mr. Kouvalis bought out all but one partner. Today, the Patio still has its trademark twinkling ceiling lights and a projector that makes the ceiling look like moving clouds. Currently, it is showing “The Help.”

Mr. Kouvalis married when he was 54, because for decades he focused on sending money to his family in Greece, his son said. He helped provide a dowry for his sister, Maria Kostopoulos, and he helped put his brother John through dental school. He met his Polish-born wife when she was visiting a relative in Chicago one summer and she began working at the Patio.

Filmmaker Louis Antonelli, who wrote the above poem about Mr. Kouvalis, made a 1994 short about his passion for the Patio, “The Wizard of Austin Boulevard.”

“The fact that it’s still there, doing what it started out as in 1927, that’s a pretty amazing thing,” said Richard Sklenar, executive director of the Elmhurst-based Theatre Historical Society of America. “It’s been on that corner for three generations. . . . We give him credit for hanging on to it.”

His wake is scheduled 4 to 9 p.m. Thursday at Smith-Corcoran Funeral Home, 6150 N. Cicero. A funeral service is planned at 10:30 a.m. Friday at Smith-Corcoran. Interment is to follow at Maryhill Cemetery, Niles. He will be buried with a handmade blanket his mother, Vasiliki, sent him when he first arrived in America.

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