4,000 turn out during first days of Davis Theater reopening

By Patrick Butler

The last movie shown at the Davis Theater before it closed almost a year ago was Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

When the century old national landmark reopened shortly before Christmas, they reopened with Star Wars: Rogue One on all three screens.

But then there’s always been a lot of irony at the movie house at 4614 N. Lincoln (originally named the Pershing in this most German of Chicago neighborhoods for the U.S. general who defeated the Kaiser in World War I.)

While the official opening night and ribbon cutting was on Dec. 15, with luminaries including Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, State Representatives Ann Williams (11th) and Greg Harris (13th), and Ald. Patrick O’Connor (40th), and former Ald. Gene Schulter, theater manager Ryan Lowry said there had been a week of “soft openings” For “family and friends.”

But most of all, those preliminaries were designed to give the mostly new employees – “especially those on the restaurant side” – a chance for a little more training, said Ryan Lowry, the Davis’ general manager for the past four years.

“Rogue One was on all three of our screens for the first five days. Starting every hour on the hour. We got about 4,000 people during the first four days,” Lowry added.

 “The response was unbelievable. Once we started pulling the cardboard off the front windows, I think people were ready to pull the doors off and just pour in,” he said.

 “We were pleasantly surprised. Of course, the first place many of the regulars headed for was the privy, Lowry said. After all, it was no secret the Davis’ men’s room was a legendary antiquity in its own right reportedly just as it was more than half-a-century ago. What they found left many flushed with awe at the new facilities.

 “We try to please our customers as best we can,” Lowry said.

Owner Tom Fencl, who bought the Davis in 1999, said he also created two “family” washrooms at least partly because of his personal experience as the father of three girls.

But sometimes it was a real “balancing act” between city accessibility requirements and the demands of the National Park Service as the price for federal landmark designation, Fencl said.

The Park Service, for example, insisted architect Ben Kennedy keep the sloped floor in the theater’s 300-seat “grand auditorium, eliminating any possibility of the same kind of stadium seating found in the other two 150-seat “screening rooms.”

The Park Service also insisted Fencl keep an overhead chandelier that had been in the lobby for decades.

“The interior of the theater is 1920s art deco, while the lobby entry remains 1950s kitsch,” quipped Lowry.

But as far as the Park Service was concerned, there were no problems carving the 3,000-square-foot Carbon Arc restaurant and bar – named for the lights used in early 19th century movie projectors – out of adjoining storefronts including the LaBocca Verita restaurant and the Ravenswood Used Bookstore.

Theatergoers can either get a quick bite or a full meal which can even be brought into the theater using trays designed to snap onto the leather seats. Menu items range from mac and cheese and tacos to steak and potatoes or gravy covered fried chicken.

Patrons can also take their drinks from the bar into the theater, Fencl said.

“Part of the job was making the new space look old and the old spaces look new” – and making it look like the new restaurant and the old theater were always together, Fencl said.

But some issues, of course, still pose challenges, Lowry pointed out. Parking can still be a problem for those who don’t know the neighborhood, he added. “Most people can call ahead if they’re concerned about parking. There are a few lots in the neighborhood.” But because bus and rapid transit is so good in the Lincoln Square area, many local residents choose not to own cars, Lowry said.

Fencl and Lowry said programming will eventually include screenings of live sporting events, concerns, and theatrical performances like the Metropolitan Opera, as well as first-run movies.

Fencl also plans to promote the Davis as a place for daytime business meeting and corporate events.

It would be a lot less expensive than Downtown. And a lot more fun, he added.

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