Bridgeport’s Ramova Theater is on its way back, in the midst of costly a renovation. It may once again be the center of a Chicago neighborhood.
In the heart of Bridgeport a few weeks ago, I was standing near the corner of Halsted and 35th Streets when an old man approached. For a while we stood near one another and near some scaffolding and staring at the marquee of an old movie theater, its R-A-M-O-V-A sign stretching into the sky above us.
“You ever saw a movie here?” he asked. “I used to see all my movies here.”
Later, inside the building, Tyler Nevius was saying, “That happens all the time. People stopping to ask what’s going on, to tell us their stories of the old theater. There is real affection here.”
Nevius is not from Bridgeport. He is the owner of Our Revival Chicago, the main co-developer of the Ramova Theater and surrounding properties with Chicago-based Baum Revision. They, with a lot of other people and many millions of dollars, are in the business of transforming and energizing this large portion of the neighborhood.
The centerpiece of this ambitious project is the rebirth of the theater, at 3518 S. Halsted St., as a performing arts facility, with space for audiences of 1,700. Not only is the old movie house being reborn but adjoining spaces are being remade, with plans for a large brewery and tap room on two floors and other spaces for private events and intimate performances.
“There are great challenges,” said Nevius. “But it will be so worthwhile.”
The Ramova opened in 1929, designed by architect Myer O. Nathan as the larger twin to the Music Box Theatre by architect Louis Simon on N. Southport Avenue, both with Spanish-inspired touches. The theater closed in 1985, its final film offering “Police Academy 2.”
The Ramova sat empty for decades, deteriorating. In 2005, a group of neighborhood residents, led by real estate agent Maureen Sullivan, organized an effort called Save the Ramova, a campaign to forestall the theater’s demolition. But it never gained traction, even as Sullivan ran for Alderman of the 11th Ward, losing that race to current Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson, grandson of Richard J. Daley and nephew of Richard M. Daley, and currently awaiting trial on tax-related charges.
Then in 2019, Nevius moved with his wife and kids to the neighborhood from New York and launched his redevelopment plans, only to have them delayed for a time by the pandemic. But eventually things started to move ahead.
The project received the necessary authorizations from the city. The estimated cost is more than $23 million with $6.6 million coming from Tax Increment Financing (TIF), another million from the state and the rest from private investors and loans. The city sold the property to Nevius for $1. Off the record, he tells me of some very prominent investors, a couple of big names in the entertainment industry. A formal groundbreaking celebration took place on Oct. 12.
The adjoining Ramova Grill is being remade too. It opened when the theater opened and since the 1950s was owned and run for generation by the Gertos family until closing in 2012. The new place will be operated by sixth-generation Bridgeport native Kevin Hickey, an accomplished chef who runs the nearby Duck Inn.
Andy Totten is a vice president of McHugh Construction and the project executive on this specific job. He is able to envision beauty from what now looks like, frankly, a mess.
“This is a tremendous job for us, but I believe we have best restoration team in Chicago,” Totten said. “It is a lot of work, to be sure, but we want to restore and reconstruct, honor the past a boost the future of the neighborhood.”
He and Nevius are full of enthusiasm and optimism. They are aware that some in neighborhood view their project with skepticism, some worrying about potential parking problems, congestion and financial woes. These people will cite the troubles encountered by long and energetic efforts to restore the Uptown Theatre , which has been closed since 1981.
But many see this venture with guarded optimism.
Bridgeport has ever been a fascinating community. For people of a certain age, it was known as the cradle of mayors and at the Polo Inn, 3322 N. Morgan St., you have long been greeted by a handsome mural featuring the many local guys who made it to the offices on the fifth floor of City Hall: Edward Kelly, Martin Kennelly, Richard J. Daley, Michael Bilandic and Richard M. Daley. The Polo was opened in 1985 by its chef/owner Dave Samber, who came here after being disillusioned by the real estate business on the North Side. He carved his cozy restaurant from what was once the city’s oldest confectionery and has thrived since. He created, from what was once a Lithuanian movie house next door the Old Eagle Room, a striking space that is used for private and public events. He transformed the floors above his restaurant into the Bridgeport Bed and Breakfast, a collection of several themed suites including the Sox Suite, Mayor’s Suite, 11th Ward Suite and Hardscrabble Suite, a bow to the early name for the neighborhood.
I am not from Bridgeport but have come to understand what a strong influence it has on people who are. Some years ago, when he was Alderman of the 11th Ward with deep neighborhood roots, James Balcer told me, “There is a memory on every corner here for me. I want this area to be a place of economic development. But we’ve got to keep the nitty-gritty ... I want to save the Ramova Theater. I want people who have lived here for generations to still live and work here.”
He added. “My kids go to the same school (St. Barbara’s) as my grandfather, my father and me.”
Another great example of its impact can be seen in the Zhou brothers. ShanZuo Zhou and DaHuang Zhou (pronounced like “Joe”) moved here in 1986 . They came with two suitcases and $30 in their pockets. They have since thrived, while earning international acclaim as artists and having exhibitions at prestigious galleries and museums across the planet. They started a foundation and opened the astonishing Zhou B Art Center.
“We stay here because this is our home,” ShanZuo Zhou told me long ago.
Writers, of course, have ever used the neighborhood in their work. There was, with the political connection, Mike Royko, of course, but such fiction writers as Stuart Dybek, a child of nearby Little Village and Pilsen, has used the area powerfully in his stories. He in turn inspired the Bridgeport-raised Billy Lombardo to do likewise. Poet and writer John Aranza, a neighborhood guy through and through, has a charming memoir titled “My Bridgeport” and many new residents are writing their own stories.
Nevius and Totten optimistically say they hope to open late in 2022.
“We want to host events for local schools and community group,” said Nevius. “We want to be a vital part of this neighborhood.”
So, after a hard-hatted tour of the facility, I was back on the sidewalk and would have walked a couple of blocks south and stopped for a drink at Schaller’s Pump , once a neighborhood landmark and oasis, a place where politics and Ireland hung heavy in the air.
But Schaller’s closed in 2017 after 136 years. It was a great place but, oh well, life goes on.