Congress Theater owner Eddie Carranza is widely regarded as something of a musical slumlord— the Congress, a cavernous old movie theater, could rival any gothic castle for being dank and crumbling, and it’s engaged in an interminable fight over noise and rowdiness with its neighborhood and Alderman Joe Moreno. Yet you do at least have to give him credit for keeping it going commercially when many movie palaces crumble in darkness. His latest moves, though, which include a prominent local chef, suggest plans which may not do anybody any good except Carranza, or maybe not even him. It begins with the Portage, a theater on the northwest side which, after sitting empty for some years, has been fixed up largely through the efforts of some of the groups using the theater including the Silent Film Society of Chicago and the Northwest Film Society. This new life as a neighborhood cultural venue came under threat when a church wanted to purchase the theater; they eventually went elsewhere but it then suddenly and quickly sold to Carranza, despite concerns about a Congress-level venue (especially after a recent crime there) in the quieter and more densely packed neighborhood.
Last week, Carranza, who has allowed the Logan Square Farmer’s Market to use the theater lobby during the winter, announced plans (as reported by Eater) to warm neighborhood locavore hearts: Rockwell Market, a grocery, deli and cafe under former Drawing Room chef and Around the World in 80 Plates contestant Nick Lacasse. It is the first of several food-related businesses intended for the retail spaces on the property; citing a mix of high end and accessible food offerings, Lacasse told Eater “We want to be a neighborhood grocery. Everything we’re putting in the block is a throwback to what neighborhood people wanted. Of couse we want it to be a destination, but the focus is on the local people.”
The timing of the announcement on Thursday, though, now appears to have been intended to provide some cover for Friday’s announcement that Carranza is launching eviction proceedings against the Silent Film Society of Chicago— two days after his attorney Thomas Raines promised Alderman John Arena he would not do so. The Silent Film Society is behind on back rent, but they contend it’s due to improvements they performed on the theater, and they have two aces in the hole at this point: one is that they have alderman Arena’s strong support for keeping the Portage a neighborhood-friendly venue, where Carranza seems to have dynamited most of his bridges with him over the last few days. Second is that the Silent Film Society actually holds the venue’s liquor and public performance licenses, not the previous owner— and good luck getting new ones with Alderman Arena and the neighborhood mad at you, Eddie.
It’s a mess that could doom any or all of these plans, organizations and venues, not least because Carranza seems to be flying high the way musical promoters often do— he’s in a financial dispute with Phil Tadros’ Doejo, which at one time was going to be a partner in the Congress development but no longer is, and has also borrowed money or sought financing from Jam Productions and other concert promoters.
And there’s another strange twist: Raines told WBEZ’s Jim DeRogatis that he couldn’t tell him all of Carranza’s side of the story… because it’s been promised as an exclusive to another, larger publication. Is there really a Carranza-favorable piece in the works at one of the dailies or weeklies in return for this exclusive? Hard to believe that’s true, though one can believe they might have tried to get one.