The Avalon Regal Theater has a grand past. It’s not too late for it to have a grand future, too.
Drive by the shuttered building on a bleak stretch of 79th Street under the Chicago Skyway, and skepticism is probably your first reaction.
Restore the ornate, Moroccan-inspired building to its onetime glory, as rapper Kanye West recently tweeted?
That’s an uphill crusade not worth the fighting, you might think, with fast food restaurants, a hot dog joint, a small bank and vacant weedy lots the theater’s only neighbors.
But it’s a crusade worth taking on, no matter the appearance. The Avalon Regal has fallen on hard times, but it’s still a reminder of our city’s rich black cultural history. It’s a landmark in a city that prides itself on preserving and showcasing its architectural jewels.
Yes, the track record left by previous owners is discouraging. Yes, the odds of revival in a struggling neighborhood are daunting. But they’re not insurmountable, with strong leadership.
South Shore could be another showcase for using the arts to drive economic development. Think of the Loop Theater District, where the arts bring in $2 billion a year. A tenth of that would go a long way at 79th Street and Stony Island.
Since it opened in 1927 as the Avalon, the Avalon Regal has morphed from an entertainment venue, to a movie theater, to a church.
In the 1980s, millionaires Edward and Bettiann Gardner, founders of Soft Sheen Products, bought the then-shuttered building and sank a chunk of their fortune, plus some state money, into refurbishing it. They christened it the New Regal, after the original Regal in Bronzeville, a mecca that rivaled Harlem’s Apollo Theater in its heyday.
Everyone who was anyone in black music — Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, and on and on — had performed at the old Regal, which was demolished in 1973.
The New Regal opened in 1987. In the glamorous spirit of the original, it was a black-tie event starring Gladys Knight and the Pips.
The Gardners succeeded, for a time. But in 2003, citing poor attendance, they reluctantly closed the New Regal. It was a blow to the African-American community, and a loss for the entire city.
Eventually, a south suburban police chief bought the building, with the help of $1.25 million in state money. She went to prison in 2014, convicted of misusing those state funds.
Enter Jerald Gary, a South Shore native who bought the Avalon Regal for $100,000 in 2010 and has been trying in vain to reopen it since. His mission got a boost from rapper West, who tweeted last week that “We’re going to restore the Regal Theater.”
But restoring a landmark theater in an impoverished neighborhood is no small task.
It will take leadership — the kind you might expect from, say, an alderman.
Yet we’ve heard nothing but crickets from Ald. Michele Harris (8th). She’s missing in action, even failing to return calls from the Sun-Times to talk about the Regal’s future.
It’s a shame. The neighborhood needs every economic engine and cultural amenity it can get, and it’s an alderman’s job to go after them.
Ald. James Cappleman did just that, when he went to City Hall and wrestled $75 million in local, state and federal funds to restore the Uptown Theater as part of a “music district” with other nearby venues. “My goal was to save this theater any way we could,” Cappleman said.
Then there’s the shuttered Congress Theater, a landmark Logan Square venue that is getting $69.2 million in city subsidies for a facelift and a redevelopment plan that includes construction of a boutique hotel and retail and residential space nearby.
Gary’s vision for the Avalon Regal includes a center for performing arts education programs. Eventually, he hopes, the restored theater will jumpstart retail and other business development in the area.
It all sounds great. But none of it will happen without public leadership and solid, sensible planning.
A single citizen shouldn’t be left to do it alone, even with Kanye’s millions (maybe) backing him.
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