Historic Patio Theater to close in April

Patio's too hot, too cold lately, never just right

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Patio Theater

The marquee at Patio Theater. (Anthony Souffle, Chicago Tribune / June 17, 2013)

The historic Patio Theater in Portage Park has been in Demetri Kouvalis' family since 1987. His father ran the movie theater until 2001, when the air conditioning broke.

The repairs were more than the family could afford, and the theater, built in 1927, sat empty for 10 years until Kouvalis, a recent graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago, decided to pick up where his father left off. "I spent my childhood running up and down the aisles," Kouvalis told me.

After an extensive $100,000 rehab, which included a fix to the AC, the theater reopened in the summer of 2011.

And now, not quite three years later, the theater is once again going dark. Kouvalis is closing up shop at the end of month. The culprit? The air conditioning.

New problems with the AC emerged last summer (when Kouvalis dared book only a handful of films). When he reopened for business in the fall, though, things seemed to be back on track.

First, he changed his business model. The theater originally featured second runs (new movies, typically 4-6 weeks after they had opened). "But it's such a different time than when my father ran this place," Kouvalis said. "He used to make tons of money. You didn't have Netflix, you didn't have the Internet." Even the Chicago Public Library has begun offering free streaming movies (chicago.bibliocms.com). "And now, I just can't compete with AMC and the multiplexes.

"Plus, we just have the one screen. People called me crazy when I reopened it. You just don't see single-screen theaters anymore. To have it be viable is almost impossible. If a bad movie is on the schedule, we're stuck playing it because of our contract with the studio. So you're heating the theater for eight people. You're not going to make any money that way. We're a thousand seats, and you're not going to make money selling $5 tickets."

Kouvalis turned his focus to booking indies and special events, such as the 16-hour marathon Sci-Fi Spectacular on Saturday, with a lineup that includes 1984's "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension," 1968's "Night of the Living Dead" (with star Kyra Schon in person) and 1981's "Escape From New York."

"We were able to limit how many days we were open, and it was a way to control expenses. Nothing was up in the air. And it worked out for about two or three months."

Then the heating broke down in November. "And we didn't know what to do," Kouvalis said.

"I had to borrow $16,000, which came from a line of credit that my mother had to open because banks wouldn't give me a loan. That was before we found out that this was going to be the worst winter in history. We got it fixed, but this is an 87-year-old system, and when you're dealing with extreme cold and an old system, you're not going to be comfortable. It was 60 or 55 degrees in the theater, and I was hesitant to book any events. We made much less than we anticipated, and we never paid out the bill for fixing the boiler. I'm still on a payment plan for that.

"And meanwhile, there was no way to save money to fix the air conditioning system. I'm one man. I'm 25 years old. I have no partners. I can't get a loan with the bank.

"So really my only option is to close the theater for the summer and find an angel investor or a partner."

Kouvalis estimates he needs an infusion of at least $50,000 to repair the air conditioning. That's roughly the amount he raised two years ago on Kickstarter to fund the purchase of a digital projector. This time, Kouvalis wants a partner (or investors) interested in helping him transform the theater into a space that can accommodate live events, as well. That means acquiring a liquor license.

"In terms of a business investment," he said, "$50,000 isn't a lot. But it is for me." It's actually not that much when you consider the much larger Uptown Theater, which has been shuttered for years, now requires millions of dollars in repairs. If the Patio is left empty, a similar fate could be in its future.

William Schopf, an attorney by trade, saw something of value in the Music Box when he bought it in 1986. One has to think he's not the only investor in town with that kind of foresight. The Patio is looking to hook up with just that sort of person.

After this weekend, just two events remain on the Patio schedule. On April 18, the Silent Film Society of Chicago brings a 40-piece orchestra to the theater to accompany the 1921 Charlie Chaplin silent "The Kid."

And April 23, the Northwest Chicago Film Society will screen the 1932 crime drama "The Strange Love of Molly Louvain," about a cigarette girl who has a baby out of wedlock and finds herself mixed up with a criminal element in Chicago. The film society's programmers, droll as always, describe the movie as "one of the most geographically inept depictions of the Second City on film: A key scene occurs at the intersection of Clark and Dearborn, while Hyde Park comes across as Lake Michigan's version of The Bronx."

This weekend's 16-hour marathon Sci-Fi Spectacular begins Saturday at noon. Go to facebook.com/terrorintheaisles. For more info about the theater, go to patiotheater.net.

Women on film

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