Neighborhood Icon to Get a Facelift
By Patrick Butler
The 97-year-old Davis Theater at 4614 N. Lincoln Ave., is about to get its first major facelift in decades – probably starting with the washrooms if owner Tom Fencl has his way.
“I know from standing at bus stops that a lot of people don’t come here because of the bathrooms,” Fencl told DNAinfo reporter Patty Wetli recently. Part of Fencl’s $4 million redo includes new ADA accessible privies, complete with baby changing stations and more than one hand dryer.
Fencl also plans to install an up-to-date sound system and stadium seating in two of the Davis’ four theaters. This involves raising the seats in the back of the theater so each row of seats is higher than the row in front of it. That not only minimizes blocked views but often provides more leg room, he explained.
The two rear theaters will become a single auditorium with an oversized screen – just as things were back when the theater was a combination vaudeville house with a single screen.
Although the keyboard on the mighty Wurlitzer organ has long since disappeared, the full set of pipes was found unscathed and will become integrated into the theater’s early 20th century décor. Those pipes and the iconic “Davis” sign are two of the features that got the theater recently declared a landmark,
Also in the works is a restaurant/bar to be created by taking over the next door storefronts formerly occupied by a used bookstore and an Italian restaurant, which are all part of the same building as the Davis Theater.
Depending on how soon financing and city permits are obtained, work could begin this fall and take about six months to complete, according to Fencl’s timetable.
Fencl told Wetli he went after landmark status and ended up qualifying for a 20 percent tax credit the National Park Service said he had coming.
The main requirement, he added, was that the organ pipes be on display.
Originally named the Pershing after the general who led the American Expeditionary Forces in France during World War I, the Davis is the last of five theaters built in the Lincoln Square area during the dawn of the movie industry.
And it too almost disappeared in the late 1990s when a band of outraged neighbors led by activist Mary Edsey packed the Sulzer Library after a story in Inside noted the Davis was for sale and then owner Edward Vanek had already shown the theater to eight different developers. One wanted to make it a mall.
Edsey contacted then 47th Ward Ald. Eugene Schulter, who made it very clear at the time to the Reader’s Ben Joravsky that he wanted to see Lincoln Avenue remain a “mix of theater and gallery spaces and restaurants and shops.”
Schulter mused that the Davis “makes a really nice mix, particularly with the Old Town School (nearby). On a more personal level, I have to say I love the Davis. I go there myself. My kids go there. All the neighborhood kids go there. It’s a neighborhood institution.”
Schulter liked it so much, in fact, he refused to rezone the property to allow a shopping center on the site.
The theater was taken over in 1999 by the Davis Theater Preservation Corporation, headed by Edsey. Fencl said he bought the Davis (and the rest of the building) about three years later and resumed showing first-run films.
Fencl’s plans to change the format from mainstream movies to “alternative” fare ranging from silent films to opera to “football” (soccer) are nothing new. Back in the early 1950s the Davis showed both German and American films and for a time was an exclusively German cinema. The theater then turned to a variety of offerings including puppet shows and classic film revivals.
Fencl began introducing special events like last September’s appearance by “Scream Queen” Linnea Quigley, who signed autographs, met with fans, and reflected on her 20-year career followed by a screening of her “Return of the Living Dead.”
At this point, Fencl’s Davis Theater is one of a handful of theaters like the Logan and the Music Box thinking out of the box.
The CPA and self-described real estate preservationist admits he’s the most surprised of all by the turns his career has taken over the 30 years he’s lived in Lincoln Square.
But Fencl admits he’s still got a few odd things left in his “bucket list” – such as finding out who the Davis Theater was named for and locating even one photo of the theater’s interior taken back in the days when the Davis ran silent films and hosted vaudeville.
“If anyone’s got such a picture, please let me know,” he implored.