Hyde Park’s 107-year-old Harper Theater is getting new owners and a revamp after the retirement of former proprietor Tony Fox. Emphasizing the theater’s “luxury” renovations, new owners Main Street Theatres are shooting for an early spring opening.
Fox told the Hyde Park Herald in November that after ten years of running the four-screen, prairie-style theater, the cinema “hadn’t turned a profit for the last couple of years,” and he would be stepping down.
The building, located at 5234 S. Harper Ave., is owned and leased out by the University of Chicago. The university finalized plans with its new vendor on November 10 of last year; the theater closed temporarily on November 30 to begin renovations.
Based out of Omaha, Main Street Theatres operates cinemas across Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Iowa, primarily around college towns. The South Side location will be the company’s first in Illinois.
Harper Theater’s iconic building was constructed in 1914, opening a year later as a 1,200-seat vaudeville house complete with a Kimball pipe organ. It was designed by renowned Chicago architect Horatio Wilson, whose craftsmanship can be seen throughout the city in the designs of houses, banks, apartment buildings, and factories. Harper was converted into a movie theater in 1935.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Hyde Park-Kenwood Historic District, the theater has seen its fair share of changes over the years: turnovers, periodic shutterings, renovations and reopenings.
If everything goes according to plan, the theater’s new owners said they hope to “raise the bar” for neighborhood movie houses. They have so far spent half a million dollars on renovations, hiring the high-end construction contractor and developer LG Group to oversee the revamp.
Michael Barstow, executive vice president for Main Street Theatres, said renovations should last about three months.
“We’re targeting a really early spring opening. We’re not doing anything too structurally or substantially that should really slow it down,” he said. “It’s a lot of just putting our character into the building.”
One such character change is removing the theater’s current seats and replacing them with “luxury, heated recliners.” Aside from the reduction of total seats in the theaters, the rest of the layout will remain unchanged. Its name and unique historical features, such as the marquee, will also remain intact.
“How cool is that when you’re looking from 53rd [Street] down Harper [Avenue]? How gorgeous that building is with that marquee when it’s all lit up at night,” Barstow said. “Seriously…if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
He added that they will improve their concession and drink offerings to “complement the food scene that’s happening on 53rd Street.”
“We get to bring in our culinary guy and our beverage guy, and we get to hang out in the space and walk around the neighborhood and see what gaps might be there,” Barstow said. “I think it would be a disservice to us and the community if we were just a popcorn, candy, and soda theater.”
Barstow said that he wants “the legacy to be just like a place of community, where you can go and you’re seeing familiar people and [if] you go there frequently, you know who the manager is, you know the employees and you’re welcomed in.
“(We hope) we can be that place of community for not only just the movies, but special events … just a fun place to be where we can just share those human interactions.”Harper Theater is expected to open this March, just in time for the release of blockbuster movies like Creed III and John Wick: Chapter 4.
Dierdre Robinson is a writer and accounting manager in Chicago. Her last piece for the Weekly covered Court Theatre’s new associate artistic director, Gabrielle Randle-Bent.