The last we heard about The Portage Theater and mercurial developer Eddie Carranza, whose Congress Theater has been a repeated source of noise complaints, violent activities and unfulfilled promises to fix up the decaying movie palace, it was all a big mess. Carranza, who bought the Portage at 4050 N. Milwaukee last year, was in hot water with Alderman John Arena over his attempt to evict the previous occupants, the Silent Film Society of Chicago, which had been managing and fixing up the theater. The ace in Alderman Arena’s hand was that it was Silent Film Society of Chicago head Dennis Wolkowicz who held the space’s public performance and liquor licenses, giving Arena the ability to block Carranza’s efforts to turn the Portage into a music venue like the Congress unless he agreed to changes in his plan that would keep it from becoming, well, a music venue like the Congress. Clearly, there needed to be some kind of rapprochement between Carranza and Wolkowicz that would convince Arena that the Portage could be a family-friendly, non-trouble-causing contributor to the northwest side community.
And that’s pretty much what happened. Carranza is apparently spending money fixing up The Portage, including adding a digital projection system, which is to say, he has committed to keeping movies (including, one presumes, the Silent Film Society’s summer series, which is the theater’s biggest draw by far) part of the programming mix. And he’s talking up plans for a number of restaurants along the half-empty stretch of Milwaukee, including one accessible from the lobby in storefronts to the north of the theater, a brewpub in the former Mister Steer across the street, and a banquet room in a former Masonic Lodge reportedly located on a second floor above the theater lobby. He also told DNAInfo that the mix of musical acts “won’t be as hipster as the Congress theater,” using a definition of hipster which is new to us to describe the acts which attracted, according to neighborhood complaints, significant gang and drug activity.
The flurry of plans is clearly intended to suggest Carranza wants to be a business boon to the neighborhood. It also reminds us of Carranza’s earlier plans for food businesses around the Congress, which seem to have imploded in a lawsuit with a former partner. Will the Portage-area renaissance he proposes come any close to reality? Time, and Alderman Arena, will tell. [Nadig Newspapers]