Much of the legendary Pickwick Theater looks brand-new amid the finishing touches of a $1.2 million renovation that has restored parts of its original 1928 Art Deco luster.
Dino Vlahakis, whose original $40,000 investment in 1981 in the downtown Park Ridge institution has clicked, showed off the renovation’s effects and work still in the offing in a tour for Patch.
Brand-new red reclining seats give a plush new image to the main theater, which will seat 1,000, compared to the longtime 1,400 capacity. They replace seats that were discovered to be have been originals from the theater’s opening 84 years ago.
"Everyone loves our prices ($5 before 6 p.m., $7 afterward), the first-run films,” Vlhakis said. “One complaint always was the seating. We thought they were put in during the Fifties. Turns out they were the original seats from 1928. They had been re-cushioned. The base, the steel, was the original stuff. “
“Our original seat width was 16-18 inches. Now it’s 22-24 inches. Right there it’s a wider seat, a lot more legroom.”
Next up is finishing the back of the main theater, including an area for disabled sitting, and completing the conversion to digital sound and projection. Original 1928 Art Deco grillwork on the front of the old orchestra pit will be extended across the entire width of the theater and painted.
The new red seats were installed in all four theaters. Theater No. 2 seats 160, No. 3 seats 96 and No. 4 seats 220, Vlahakis said.
Landmark status crucial to survival
The U.S. Dept. of Interior’s designation of national historical landmark status on the Pickwick has saved the theater.
“This took five years of planning, talking to architects and designers, and to the (Park Ridge) historical society,” Vlahakis said. “We had to get landmark status. There are benefits to being a landmark -- tax credits, tax benefits.
“A lot of this building is obsolete. Without tax credits, you’re better off tearing down the building. The location would make it the anchor of the town, but by making it a historical landmark, you preserve it for many generations. You’re not going to find (beautiful artwork) here if it was not a landmark. It would be in a museum.”
The renovation was almost a labor of love for Jim Whitesell, who headed the work crew. Whitesell also re-furbished the Portage Theater on Chicago’s Northwest Side.
“It was a pleasure to work on it to see it come back to life, to re-paint marquee,” Whitesell said.
Vlahakis admits it’s “hard” to keep the admission price at $7 and lower. But that’s balanced out by knowing his audience, and realizing business has increased year to year.
“Our customer base is families,” he said. “The films we play at the Pickwick are family-oriented. You never see me play horror films here. I like to play films I like to call intelligent, Academy Award-quality films that our seniors like. A Clint Eastwood film plays well. A Meryl Streep film plays well. ‘Hope Springs’ played six weeks and did well.”
Vlahakis said the Pickwick’s presentation stands up well amid technological advances that might otherwise keep filmgoers at home.
“A CD or DVD is $4,99, we’re $5,” he said. “Watching a comedy in a movie theater is better than watching a comedy in your house. When you hear the whole crowd explode in a scene, you can’t match that. The average person sees 12 movies a year, so he spends just $60 a year in a prime location.”