The Des Plaines Theatre has closed its doors after its owner failed to meet a city-imposed deadline to fix building code issues, leaving promoters who scheduled events there scrambling to find alternate venues so their shows can go on.
Theater owner Dhitu Bhagwakar had until Jan. 15 to bring the building into code compliance -- a deadline that was set by the city council a year ago and which, at the time, Bhagwakar called a "realistic timeline."
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But city officials say the deadline has come and gone with many of the original code problems still unresolved. Those include the building not having a fire-resistant curtain for live theater performances, the lack of a sprinkler system by the stage area, and problems with the boiler and furnace rooms. The bathrooms are not handicapped-accessible, as required under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"There can't be people in there," said George Sakas, the city's director of community and economic development. "At a certain point, we're flirting with disaster. You just can't keep hoping nothing bad happens; sooner or later, something will happen. We don't want that situation."
Bhagwakar didn't respond to requests for comment. Sakas said it's his understanding Bhagwakar is out of the country on business.
Dharmesh Bhagwakar, Dhitu's brother, said he's confident the theater would be able to reopen, and his brother plans to meet with city officials when he returns to town next week.
Brian Wolf, a historic preservationist who has worked as a consultant at the theater for the past 10 years, said within the past week he has been in contact with Dhitu Bhagwakar, who is aware of the closing.
Wolf said the real scope of what the theater needed became apparent as time went on.
"He couldn't quite get himself out of the hole," Wolf said. "He had the intention on where he wanted to get but didn't have the resources."
The 89-year-old theater at 1476 Miner St., originally built in 1925 as a vaudeville house, was purchased by Bhagwakar about a decade ago. The theater initially became a destination for Bollywood films, then underwent major renovations in 2010 and reopened a year after. It has since been host to silent and horror film club screenings, as well as live theater and concerts.
But it faced a major setback last year when a portion of the ceiling near the stage area collapsed -- requiring a fix that Bhagwakar said cost about $65,000.
He's previously estimated that it could cost up to $250,000 to bring the building into code compliance.
Tony LaBarbera, who worked as the theater's general manager from October 2012 until last summer, said he quit because he didn't want to book any more shows with the theater's future in jeopardy.
"I approached him about doing the necessary repairs. It didn't seem to be on his agenda," said LaBarbera, who works as a Chicago-area concert promoter. "I was very let down by that because I went in front of the city council and mayor (in January 2013) and gave them my word that they would work on compliance ... I felt personally like I was fighting a losing battle and didn't want to put more time into someplace that wasn't going to be open later."
Since LaBarbera left, the theater staff continued to book events past the Jan. 15 deadline, including a Feb. 15 event with the Chicago Horror Film Festival and a "Buster Keaton Weekend" March 7-9 with The Silent Film Society of Chicago.
For Dennis Wolkowicz, the Silent Film Society's program director, the abrupt closing of a historic theater is nothing new.
Wolkowicz was a managing partner for eight years at the Portage Theater in Chicago and organized screenings there until last year, when a new owner purchased the building and closed it indefinitely. That didn't give Wolkowicz much time to find a new venue for the society's annual six-week summer film festival. But luckily the Des Plaines Theatre was able to accommodate all the scheduled dates for the films, Wolkowicz said.
With the Des Plaines Theatre's closing, it's déjà vu for Wolkowicz, who now finds himself searching for another place to hold the three-day Buster Keaton festival.
"I guess we're in limbo right now. We're looking at a couple venues, but we haven't secured anything on the dotted line," Wolkowicz said. "We were under the impression from what I understand Dhitu was going to comply, or there would be some extra time involved. I've been in this business of running theaters, especially old ones, for 30 years. I can appreciate what he has to go through."
Wolkowicz said he's hopeful the Des Plaines Theatre will be able to reopen in the summer so the six-week silent film festival can be held there.
An organizer of the horror film fest said no one from the theater informed him of the facility's closing, and he doesn't yet have a backup venue to relocate the event.
LaBarbera said he expressed interest in taking over complete management of the theater from Bhagwakar, offering to rent or lease the building and then hire a management company to promote and produce events there. Others, too, have offered to buy the theater from Bhagwakar, he said. But LaBarbera said Bhagwakar never wanted to entertain any of those ideas.
"The real problem with the Des Plaines Theatre isn't the building; it's the owner," LaBarbera said. "I think more and more people are recognizing that."
Sakas said city officials have offered to put out a request for proposals that would find either a new operator or owner. Bhagwakar would have to consent to that, but so far he hasn't.
The possible RFP is expected to be a topic of discussion once city officials get a chance to meet with Bhagwakar when he returns to town, Sakas said.
"We're looking to put the RFP out and broadcast it to groups and individuals that could offer ideas and money and operational expertise to bringing this theater into baseline compliance and economic viability," Sakas said.
Des Plaines 6th Ward Alderman Mark Walsten, a longtime supporter of the theater's preservation and chairman of the city council's community development committee, said he's still optimistic about the theater's future.
"I believe that theater could be a gold mine for the downtown area. What better way to pack restaurants than to bring 800 or 900 people to a concert or whatever," Walsten said. "Whether he owns it or not, that theater can make a dramatic improvement to the downtown area if it's run correctly."
Wolf, the theater consultant, said he believes the theater's best potential is in live show bookings, similar to the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles or Raue Center for the Arts in Crystal Lake.
"This building has endured many setbacks over the years, and I'm confident that an experienced operator will see the potential here," Wolf said. "The next time the theater opens the doors, I expect it will be a facility that the community can be proud of."