What once was a stunning 1920s-era vaudeville theater, a tour stop for "America's Favorite Singing Cowboy" Gene Autry, and most recently home to blockbuster Bollywood musicals, is being restored to its glory days.
The historic Des Plaines Theater at 1476 Miner St. in the heart of downtown is getting more than a facelift. The 85-year-old theater is experiencing a rebirth of sorts.
Theater owner Dhitu Bhagwakar and local nonprofit Stage One Productions have teamed up to revive the landmark and turn it into more than just a large-screen movie house.
Bhagwakar, who purchased the large single-screen theater in 2003, tried to make it work as a destination for Bollywood films and had some success for a while.
But with increased competition as more modern suburban theaters began showing Bollywood movies and growing film piracy, business was hurting, Bhagwakar said.
With only occasional showings in the past year, the theater has been dark in recent months. Renovations began in earnest last week as workers started gutting the interior, which will be completely refurbished.
"I'm very excited," said Bhagwakar, who owns a liquor store, motel and other commercial property in Des Plaines. "It's not only work for me. This is my hobby, too. I enjoy doing this."
The goal is to host live theater productions, film festivals, open mic nights, dance recitals and lessons, concerts, dinner theater, art exhibits, and matinee movie showings, said Gay Miezin, development director for Stage One Productions who is managing the theater renovation.
"This great theater has got a bright new future," she said. "We've had a lot of interest from a lot of area residents and seniors excited about the possibility of cabaret dinner theater."
Stage One, a children's educational theater production company at 620 Lee St., will become the Des Plaines Theater's new anchor tenant. The 80-member company has outgrown its current space, which seats only 275 people, Miezin said.
The Des Plaines Theater can seat between 600 and 800 people.
Miezin said once the theater is refurbished students from Stage One and Willows Academy, also in Des Plaines, will help with cleaning, painting, and setting up prop rooms and costumes for productions. The renovation project also has brought together many volunteers from the community, she said.
Stage One will move into the theater building by mid-December.
A Dec. 19 fundraiser is planned as a kickoff to a yearlong celebration of the theater's 85th anniversary. It will include a showing of the classic Bing Crosby musical "White Christmas" on the large screen even as work continues backstage, and a caroling performance by Stage One students.
By then, the first phase of the renovation project taking down a partition that divides the theater, upgrading the heating and ventilation systems, resurfacing the original maple wood stage, and replacing curtains, riggings and dressing rooms should be completed.
The estimated cost of the first phase of renovation is more than $200,000, which Bhagwakar and his two brothers are funding. A portion of the theater rental cost and revenue from performances 35 percent will also go toward the renovation project.
"We want to get it going as soon as possible and start bringing some money, revenue (in) and get into the next phase (of renovation)," Bhagwakar said.
Future phases of renovation may involve refurbishing the balconies, upgrading the lighting, and creating VIP seating areas possibly through a sponsorship program.
Bhagwakar also has been working with city officials for several years planning the renovation and has submitted three requests for funding help from the city's Facade Rehabilitation Program.
The city's Economic Development Commission will consider those requests at an upcoming meeting. The largest amount the city has granted a rehabilitation project is $44,000 to a downtown office building, said Des Plaines 6th Ward Alderman Mark Walsten, a longtime supporter of the theater's preservation.
Walsten said reviving the theater is good for downtown businesses.
"You bring 600 people in here, you're going to fill these restaurants and maybe they'll do some shopping," he said. "One of the big advantages is we have so much free parking. It's going to revitalize the whole downtown area. It would be my hope in the future that Des Plaines is recognized as more of a cultural center."
Events and performances are planned at the theater throughout 2011, including a musical theater version of "Cinderella" put on by the Willows Academy in mid-March, art exhibits and an environmental film festival. The theater's grand opening is scheduled for the summer of 2011 with the performance of Stage One's production of the children's play "The Brave Little Tailor."
"Our 85th birthday year will culminate next October with a live historical look at this wonderful old vaudeville house, both onstage and backstage, just in time for Halloween when past spirits who performed in the '20s and '30s will join guests as they step back in time and become part of the old soft-shoe days," Miezin said.