The giant screen at the 86-year-old Des Plaines Theatre in downtown will come alive next month after being dark for nearly two years.
Workers are putting finishing touches on a roughly $250,000 renovation and restoration project. An invitation-only grand reopening ceremony will be held 8 p.m. Nov. 11 to showcase the historic building at 1476 Miner St.
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The theater -- originally built as a vaudeville house in 1925 for the Polka Brothers circuit and once a tour stop for "America's Favorite Singing Cowboy" Gene Autry -- will once again feature live performances and theater productions.
It also will resume showing Bollywood musicals and other independent foreign films, and it may show Hollywood movies, and host film festivals.
"It's not just Bollywood anymore," said Dhitu Bhagwakar of Schaumburg, who co-owns the theater with his two brothers.
The Des Plaines Theatre has been one of a few suburban venues that show Bollywood films. Others in the region that cater to the South Asian market include AMC 30 in South Barrington, Golf Glen Stadium 5 in Niles, and AMC Yorktown in Lombard. While Bollywood and South Indian films have been the lifeline of the theater for a long time, Bhagwakar now hopes to rent it out to theater companies and schools for live stage productions and open it up to other ethnic communities.
"There's a lot of demand for a live performance venue and there are not many around," Bhagwakar said.
The city of Des Plaines has granted the occupancy permit for the building.
The Nov. 11 grand opening will include entertainment by Chicago's Shout Section Big Band featured on "WGN Morning News." Hors d'oeuvres, cocktails and specialty 1920s-era drinks will be served.
As seating is limited, a small number of tickets are available with a $50 donation toward the theater restoration project. For details, visit desplainestheatre.com.
The first live public concert is scheduled Nov. 12 with a group of Pakistani singers taking the stage.
"We do have some bookings and inquiries," said Bhagwakar, who is well connected in the Indian/Pakistani business community and who also owns two liquor stores in Des Plaines and an upscale bowling alley in Roselle.
Bhagwakar said he has organized Indian concerts, plays and shows at other venues, and now is excited about hosting them in Des Plaines.
"It's very conveniently located here," he said of the theater, which sits across from the downtown Metra train station and has buses stop right in front.
Bhagwakar said the theater could attract patrons of the nearby Rivers Casino on Des Plaines River Road and "people who are here for the show may as well go to the casino, so it works both ways."
The original Spanish Renaissance-style auditorium had 1,018 seats in 1925, with a large stage and orchestra pit. Initially, the restored theater will seat roughly 700 patrons.
Bhagwakar hopes to eventually increase seating to accommodate 950 people by putting seats in the orchestra pit.
Bhagwakar said the renovation work took longer than anticipated because of necessary safety upgrades. A new fire alarm system, and new lighting and sound systems have been installed.
"The whole renovation process has turned out to be a little more extensive than originally planned," Bhagwakar said. "It took too long and people thought that it's never going to happen."
Community volunteers who originally worked on the project gave up midway thinking it would never come to fruition, he added.
Issues with meeting city code requirements for fire safety and electrical work nearly scuttled the project, said Gay Miezin, development director for Stage One Productions who spearheaded the volunteer effort.
Stage One helped Bhagwakar apply for nearly $15,000 in grants that were used toward the more than $50,000 cost of making facade improvements, including painting the marquee, fixing neon lights, and replacing all the windows and exterior doors of the theater.
The company, which was meant to be one of the theater's anchor tenants, found other venues for its school productions and no longer has plans to be at the theater, Miezin said.
Some friction remains between the two parties over the roughly 1,000 velvet Radio City Music Hall seats Stage One purchased that no longer will be used in the theater.
Bhagwakar said he instead cleaned and reinstalled the old seats. He still plans eventually to replace them, but said he won't be buying the seats from Stage One.
As part of the renovation, workers took down a 1987 wall that had divided the theater and split its large screen. The theater's concession area and counters are being refurbished and will offer a sampling of Indian snacks and other foods in addition to standard theater fare, Bhagwakar said.
The renovation uncovered some hidden treasures as workers peeled back the layers of plaster and paint to discover remnants of a bygone era.
They found terra cotta tiles behind sheet rock walls in the theater lobby. They also found signatures of vaudeville performers on the walls of a backstage dressing room, ornate wall designs, painted detail on the ceiling and intricate plaster work on huge connecting beams once hidden by a drop ceiling.
The theater's Art Deco-style exterior with its multicolored terra cotta facade has been restored. Master painters have restored the original decorative plaster work on the porticos around doorways and stage in four-color detail.
A second phase of work will involve a new seating layout, heating and ventilation system upgrades, and adding a new sprinkler system for the stage, which likely will be done in about a year, Bhagwakar said.
The problems of nearby Metropolitan Square businesses that have either shuttered or are struggling to make rent, and the growing number of vacancies in downtown are not lost on Bhagwakar.
"Even in this economy, I had to do this," Bhagwakar said. "Now, we will open and bring a lot of people into Des Plaines downtown. It will eventually help a lot of other restaurants and retail businesses. I have tried my best and now it's up to God and the people to make it successful. I'm confident we will do much better."
Theater: Owner says renovation process more extensive than originally planned