Restoring the shuttered Des Plaines Theatre, a project that could cost taxpayers millions, might be the key to starting a string of suburban theaters showing live performances.
Spending tax dollars to buy and renovate the shuttered Des Plaines Theatre is less risky, Mayor Matt Bogusz says, than simply letting the downtown attraction sit vacant. And the prospect of its return has one promoter devising a plan for a circuit of live theaters. Lessons learned by others in the industry, however, caution that the business is tough and getting saturated.
Timeline of the Des Plaines Theatre1925: The Des Plaines Theatre opens with a showing of the comedy silent film "Are Parents People?"
1960s: As new theaters are built nearby, the Des Plaines Theatre finds a niche as a half-price alternative
1982: Fifty firefighters battled flames to largely save the theater, but it was closed for a year
2002: After it passed through a series of owners, Dhitu Bhagwakar bought the theater and showed American and Indian films
2014: The city shut down the theater because of uncorrected building code violations
The downtown Des Plaines Theatre has been shut down for the past three years, the owner unable, or unwilling, to spend the money to correct major building code violations to reopen the historic gem.
This has led to the mayor's somewhat unconventional plan to partner with Rivers Casino in Des Plaines and spend $4 million to buy and renovate the theater. Each side would pitch in half the cost, and the city would then hire a manager to book shows and run day-to-day operations. This would put the city in the precarious industry of showbiz and theater ownership.
Across the suburbs, efforts to save historic theaters by converting them to live performance venues have seen successes and failures, with some projects landing somewhere in between.
Ron Onesti, operator of the successful Arcada Theatre in St. Charles, says now is the time for Des Plaines to reopen the theater. Onesti is opening a restaurant, bar and live music concept in downtown Evanston, and a third location in Des Plaines would fit into his business plan to book performers to appear at multiple suburban locations. He believes his approach could help a struggling Des Plaines downtown.
"If you bring in 100,000 visitors a year -- which is very attainable -- the restaurants won't have enough seats, the bars won't have enough beer and the hotels won't have enough rooms," Onesti said.
That's if the plan works, of course.
The vacant Wheaton Grand Theater -- built the same year as the theater in Des Plaines -- has foundered for years as owners struggle to raise enough money to refurbish the building.
In 2004, Waukegan paid $23 million -- far more than is being considered in Des Plaines -- to buy and renovate the 2,400-seat Genesee Theatre without seeing much financial return. After eight years of losing money while a private company booked shows, Waukegan gave ownership to a nonprofit group largely supported by Uline Shipping Supply Specialists and other large benefactors. The theater remains in use, a jewel in a largely deserted downtown, but it doesn't turn a profit, board Chairman Brian Shenker said.
"I don't know a suburban theater that can make a profit, to be honest with you," he said.
Between the competition with Chicago theaters and a saturation of live shows at casinos and other suburban theaters, the business is difficult, Shenker said.
Perhaps providing hope for eager Des Plaines residents is the success of the Paramount Theatre in downtown Aurora. It has undergone a renaissance since it began producing Broadway-quality shows, and annual attendance has shot up sixfold since 2010.
While every theater project is different, they have one thing in common: the need for capital investment. Ticket sales alone usually aren't enough.
Public funding for private theaters is becoming increasingly prevalent, Onesti said. Still, he added, "it's not as prevalent as it needs to be."
In Des Plaines, a city known for its squabbles among city council members, garnering approval for the funding will be a challenge. Aldermen have questioned whether the city should get involved and have expressed concern the city could be on the hook for an ever-increasing price tag.
Meanwhile, closing a deal could take time. Dhitu Bhagwakar, who has owned the theater since the early 2000s, says the building is worth more than an appraised value of $2.3 million. He's frustrated, too, that the city and casino have left him out of talks, he said.
"It's my property, and I'm in the dark basically," he said.
There's a reason for that, Bogusz said. The city years ago worked with Bhagwakar, providing some funding and deadline extensions, but as repair needs grew and targets weren't met, officials took a tougher stance over code violations.
Bogusz said he fears "inaction in having the current owner continue to operate or continue to mismanage a very large important piece of our downtown. He's really a bad actor at this point. It's really disappointing."
If the theater does one day open under the city's ownership, "our true goal isn't how much money we can make on a ticket, but how many people we can bring downtown," city Manager Mike Bartholomew said. "That's the payoff for the city."