The Portage Theater – located just northwest of the Six Corners intersection of Irving Park, Cicero, and Milwaukee – has been an aesthetic icon to the Portage Park neighborhood for generations. Completed in 1920, this northwest Chicago landmark has a rich and eventful history. As neighbors eagerly await the theater’s reopening (you can read more about the current Portage Theater situation here), what better time to reflect on some of the things that make this place so special to the community. Here are five interesting facts at Portage Theater that you may not have known!
The theater has a surprisingly eclectic roster of past performances
Despite never becoming a mainstay as a live event venue, the place has amassed quite the little history of performers and attractions. Notable live performances of the past include: country music legend George Jones, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, as well as a wrestling show put on by WWE!
The Portage Theater nearly became a church
In 2012, the nearby Chicago Tabernacle Church was in talks to purchase the theater in hopes of repurposing the property as their new house of worship (their location at the time being in the Horner Park area near Irving Park Road and Kedzie Avenue). After word got out, the Portage Park community came together in opposition of the plan and residents were ultimately able to dissuade the church from moving forward. Which leads me to my next point…
The Theater is an officially recognized landmark of the city.
As part of the arguments against Chicago Tabernacle purchasing the Portage, residents noted the theater’s cultural importance to the community and argued that city officials should classify the property as a historic landmark. Their efforts succeeded when in March of 2013, the Chicago Commission on Landmarks voted unanimously to recommend that city’s zoning committee and the City Council to classify the building (and certain elements of its interior) as landmarks. More specifically, the building is now required to have a façade featuring a marquee (which could be replaced since it’s not the original) as well as maintain and protect the interiors intricate patterned walls and details.
The Portage Theater actually predates the former Sears flagship store by about 2 decades
I know this one may not actually be that much of a surprise to a lot of people, but as someone who had grown up hearing tales of Six Corners’ glory back when Sears was the modern-day Amazon, I really thought that the Sears came first and everything else around there was just built around it. While there’s certainly no denying that the once mighty Sears flagship acted as an economic engine for the area, the Portage not only came before, it has now officially outlasted the Sears mega store (which is in the process of being converted to multi-use development featuring luxury apartments and a Target as the retail anchor).
The theater was used in the movie Public Enemies
It’s true! The 2009 mobster film featuring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale used the Portage’s lobby for the interior scenes involving the Biograph Theater. Given the fact the theater was actually constructed during John Dillinger’s time, the use of the Portage as a stand-in still added to a sense of authenticity to the movie.
Note: I’d like to thank Dan Kelly for providing quite a bit of research for this little blurb via his wonderful article: Celluloid, Graft & Puppies: The (Abbreviated) Portage Theater Story – I encourage everyone interested in the theater’s history to read his piece!