With the flick of a switch, the marquee at the Des Plaines Theatre in downtown came alive at 8 p.m. Friday to the roaring claps of an appreciative crowd.
After being dark for nearly two years while workers undertook a massive renovation and restoration project, the theater's reopening was greeted with perhaps as much anticipation as the first time around 86 years ago.
The historic theater, at 1476 Miner St. -- 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.
"I'm very excited," said Dhitu Bhagwakar of Schaumburg, who co-owns the theater with his two brothers, amid a flurry of congratulatory handshakes. "But there's a lot of things ahead now. This is just the beginning."
The $250,000 renovation and restoration project, involving tearing down a 1987 wall that had divided the theater and split its large screen, and refurbishing the concession area and counters, was merely the first phase of work.
A second phase involving a new seating layout, heating and ventilation system upgrades, and a new sprinkler system for the stage, likely will be done in about a year.
Roughly 300 Des Plaines residents, city officials, and friends and family members of the owners joined in the invitation-only celebration.
"It's a wonderful addition to the downtown," Des Plaines Mayor Marty Moylan said. "They did it mostly with private money. It's a testament to what developers and owners can do when they put their mind to it."
Moylan said city officials are hopeful the theater's reopening will be the catalyst for a downtown revival.
"The city is spending a lot of money in the downtown area and it's wonderful to see developments like this come to fruition," he said.
The city awarded nearly $15,000 in grants to the theater, which was 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.
Des Plaines 6th Ward Alderman Mark Walsten, who has been a supporter of the theater restoration, said the city should try to get the theater designated as a historic landmark.
"It's absolutely fantastic that after all these years we are revitalizing the downtown again and I think this theater will be an anchor," he said. "This could be a springboard for an entire historic district for the downtown area."
The theater's renovation uncovered terra cotta tiles behind sheet rock walls in the lobby, 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 also has been restored. Master painters restored the original decorative plaster work on the porticos around doorways and stage in four-color detail.
Longtime Des Plaines resident Carol Haase, who lives within walking distance of the theater, said she used to watch movies there with her son and witnessed the 1982 theater fire.
"I haven't been in here in a long time," said the 69-year-old. "It was very nice to see those lights go on. I just hope they have some movies that everybody can watch. I'll bring my grandchildren. I think this is beautiful what they are doing."
For many years, the Des Plaines Theatre was among a few suburban venues that showed Bollywood films. It will resume showing Bollywood musicals and other independent foreign films, and it may show Hollywood movies, and host film festivals.
The original Spanish Renaissance-style auditorium, which had 1,018 seats in 1925, a large stage and orchestra pit, will seat roughly 700 patrons initially. It has capacity to accommodate 950 people by adding seats in the orchestra pit.