Landmark Rogers Park theater reopens

Its terra cotta facade and rusted blue marquee hint of antiquity. But looks are deceiving. The New 400 Theater in West Rogers Park is just what its name implies: brand new.

The historic theater, which closed more than six months ago, reopened yesterday with updated projection equipment, recently-purchased film screens and theater seats, and -- more importantly-- a new popcorn machine.

"It's like a Renaissance for the theater," staff member Jenny Shapiro, 22, says.

Several showings of four movies made for a good opening day: by 6:30 p.m., the New 400 sold 130 tickets. At 9 p.m. a line extended out the venue's door and winded north, past the Chinese restaurant and laundromat next door.  Fittingly, the New 400 sold about 400 tickets.

"It was the best opening night we could have asked for," general manager Tom Klein said.

The renovated theater, owned by Evanston developer Tony Fox and run by F&F Management, is replaces the Village North Theatre, notorious for its poor sound quality and garbage-strewn viewing rooms.

"People were disenchanted," Fox says of the former theater, and its poor upkeep alienated the the community.  His idea was to restore the community feel of the theater while drastically improving the movie-going experience.    

"Hopefully everyone will support us in the community," Fox says, "because we need it."

Before the theater reopened, it was gutted and refurbished. Walls were re-painted red and blue to match the floor's multi-colored carpet, which is made of an environmentally friendly, soy-based material.

Management anticipates showing all first-run movies, having midnight shows, and featuring flicks that are considered off the beaten path, Klein says. There is also the possibility of hosting other events, such as poetry slams and concerts, he says, but the venue is not equipped for any of that yet.

Fox originally estimated spending between $500,000 and $600,000 for the renovations, and applied for $200k in tax increment financing (TIF) assistance to subsidize the costs.  The actual cost ended up being closer to $700k, Fox says, and was not financed by tax-payer dollars.  

"When we looked at the numbers, it was clear he could make it work without TIF assistance," Ald. Joe Moore (D-49) says.

Moore worked with Fox to ensure the venue opened as soon as possible. "It's a wonderful asset for the community," Moore says.  "I'm looking forward to the opportunity to taking my family to see a movie."

Rayla Robinson, 22, and her date laughed as they walked out of the theater after seeing a 5:30 p.m. showing of "The Hangover." Robinson says she went to see a movie at Village North Theatres right before it closed in January.  "It's nice to have it back in the neighborhood, especially in a short amount of time," says Robinson, who lives less than a block away from the theater. "It's a cute little theater."

An obvious appeal of the theater is its convenient proximity for Rogers Park residents. "The neighborhood is dense with people, people who can walk to the theater," Klein says.  "They don't have to drive to the suburbs."

It was Klein's idea to return to the theater's former name, the 400.  "Rogers Park has a long tradition of being culturally hip," he says. Maintaining the theater's retro feel is important, he says, not only for the liberal Loyola students nearby.  There are many older residents in Rogers Park who remember the when the 400 was in its prime.  "A lot of people say, 'I remember going to The 400 when I was a kid'," Klein says. "So with any sort of development, people are looking at us closely."

While the construction workers were fixing the exterior of the building, they uncovered the theater's former marquee.  Klein says management has considered putting flat panel TVs above the theater's entrance way but he personally likes the decades-old blue and yellow marquee that declares in an art-deco font: 400.

"You want a sign in front of the theater?" Klein says, "Well, there's your sign! Who knows how long it's been under there."