Relighting of DuPage Theatre lamps stirs memories of Lombard landmark
It was the fall of 1954 when a young Pete Kramer went to his first movie at the old DuPage Theatre in Lombard.
He can't remember the film he saw. But Kramer was -- and still is -- captivated by the theater's auditorium, built to look like a Spanish courtyard on a summer night. Projectors and lights filled the dome ceiling with drifting clouds and twinkling stars.
"It was like a faraway place that you could never get to, this dreamlike place," Kramer recalled. "It had its own allusion."
The dream became a nightmare when the theater was torn down in May 2007 after a lengthy campaign and legal battle to save a landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
But Kramer has preserved his childhood memories with a display he built to showcase six of the original, handcrafted lamps salvaged from the iconic movie palace. During an unveiling ceremony Thursday night, Kramer flipped the switch on the lights in a permanent exhibit at the Lombard Historical Society's Carriage House behind the Victorian Cottage Museum along Maple Street.
"It's bittersweet for me to build this," said Kramer, who tried to spare the theater from the wrecking ball. "I would have rather have spent my time and my effort in using the lamps and helping to decorate a newly renovated theater, but it was not to be, so I'm doing the next best thing I could do."
The lamps are one-of-a-kind works of art. Artisans soldered the amber stained glass into three-dimensional stars and other shapes for the theater that opened in July 1928.
"To my knowledge, they're unique to the DuPage Theatre," Kramer said.
As they enjoyed fresh popcorn, dozens of people filled the quaint carriage house Thursday to admire Kramer's own craftsmanship. In keeping with the theater's motif, the lights illuminate a mural Kramer painted of a castle in Segovia, Spain.
The display also features the plaque designating the National Register listing and the theater's movie poster for "Small Town Girl," the 1936 classic starring Robert Taylor, Janet Gaynor and James Stewart.
"There was a lot of hurt feelings when the theater was torn down," said Sarah Richardt, executive director of Lombard Historical Society. "I know Pete takes a lot of pride in what he's built here. I think it's a little cathartic to make something beautiful, and it's been nice to see him smile when he talks about the theater."
Kramer began the project in December as a tribute to benefactors who tried to stop the demolition over the course of two decades. Supporters formed the Friends of the DuPage Theatre, a group that later kept artifacts -- about three dozen remaining theater lights and two dozen seats -- in storage until turning over the collection to the historical society last month. The theater relics are now housed in the Victorian Cottage Museum.
For the partnership, Deb Dynako, president of Friends of the DuPage Theatre, presented Richardt with a $1,000 check on Thursday so the historical society can continue to store and care for the pieces. She also gave Kramer one of the lamps to thank him for his dedication to the theater on Main Street. The property still sits vacant.
"What Pete has done is finally brought justice to a memorial that I think is what we can do with what we have left," said Dynako, who also sits on the historical society board. "It's still my hope that we have some community space that these things can go back into as a whole, entire collection so everyone can enjoy them."
Kramer dedicated the display to two late preservationists, Doug Christensen and Joan DeStephano, a former village trustee. He included their pictures in his work that he described as a kind of altar.
"My conclusion is that it represents the sacrifice of a beautiful treasure," Kramer said. "It represents a diligent, priceless work and dreams of so many wonderful people."