A beautiful mural captures a glimpse of the extraordinary artists that graced the stage of the Regal Theatre. Photo: Kenneth Muhammad
CHICAGO (FinalCall.com)--A historical landmark theatre in the heart of the Black community on the city’s South Side closed its doors June 30, perhaps for the final time. Owners of the New Regal Theatre said the 2,300-seat auditorium could no longer generate the revenue needed to sustain business.
Originally opened in 1928, the theatre hosted numerous productions targeting the Black community and many compared the Regal with the Apollo Theatre in New York City. The original Regal closed in 1968 after the owner, S.B. Fuller, fell on hard economic times. The original theatre was torn down in 1973 and made into a parking lot.
In 1987, Ed Gardner—founder of Soft Sheen hair care products—and his wife Bettiann, bought what was then the closed Avalon theatre a few miles south of the original location and revitalized it into what has been the New Regal Theatre for the past 16 years.
He said he and his wife don’t want to see the business go, but they cannot afford to pay back a city grant of $1 million that was taken out when the theatre first opened, or deal with a myriad of other problems that the city has ignored.
The terms of the grant stipulate that if the theatre is sold within 40 years, the total amount of the grant, plus interest, is due. Mr. Gardner said the interest on the grant is $700,000. He doesn’t understand why the city can’t forgive his debt for the good of the community, when in the past they have forgiven debts that were much higher for other venues.
"They allowed the Chicago Theatre to run up a debt of over $22 million, but somehow they managed to forgive that debt," Mr. Gardner said.
The Chicago Theatre is downtown on the world famous State Street. Its amenities include better street lighting, cleaner streets and less crime due to a strong police presence. The Regal is located in an area inundated with the social problems that plague the inner city. Mr. Gardner said he met with city officials about those problems but they have done nothing about them.
"If the city really cared, they could stop all of this in a heartbeat. They can shut down crime in a neighborhood when they really want to," Mr. Gardner said.
He said he isn’t asking the city to help with the operating costs of the facility, but to simply forgive the debt. He also tried to get the city to sponsor programs at the theatre that would generate revenue, such as targeting senior citizens and children, but there was no response. Instead, the Regal had to rely on small Black production companies to use their venue.
City officials told The Final Call that they did all they could to help the Regal and other Black theatres.
Mr. Gardner said the true tragedy of this story is the loss of jobs in the community. The Regal employed 12 full-time staff people, in addition to 60 part-time workers. It was also the place where many Black stagehands and others associated with the theatre business got their start.
"What really hurts me is that now we won’t have a place where young Black people can come learn and practice a trade that could be a big career for them," Mr. Gardner said. "Since we are a unionized house, our workers could also go on to work at the Chicago Theatre or other houses around town. But now they won’t have a place to get that first experience, which is so important in this business."
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