15 More Minutes

Rachel Wiseman & lindsaybanks/flickr

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The dusty green and yellow “Ramova” marquee straddles a now unused entrance at the corner of 35th and South Halsted. Inside the Ramova Theater, founded in 1929, the Spanish-style auditorium gives way to what was once a midnight blue ceiling, studded with stars that glittered as Charlie Chaplin graced the silver screen. When the marquee was less dusty, childhood classics like Bambi and famous American blockbusters like Jaws played under that night sky until the Ramova closed in 1986. In 2001, the city took over the building–seemingly the final nail in a coffin containing a piece of Bridgeport’s history.

But Bridgeport resident Maureen Sullivan is striving to regain control. Born and raised in Bridgeport, the friendly yet fiercely committed Sullivan remembers her weekly trips to the Ramova Theater to watch the latest releases. Like countless other Bridgeport and Chicago residents, the Ramova is central to Sullivan’s childhood recollections, a treasured memory that has stayed with her since her youth.

“Almost everyone who has lived in the neighborhood during the last few decades has been inside the Ramova,” said Sullivan. “The theater was a focal part of this extremely vibrant life in Bridgeport that no one ever forgot, even after it was shut down.”

The vibrancy Sullivan speaks of harkens back to the 1970s, when Mexican, Chinese, and Lithuanian-Americans transformed Bridgeport into a multi-ethnic community, a place that for many constituted the quintessential Chicago neighborhood. Nowadays, the area has been a political and cultural hotbed, enticing more and more young college grads looking for affordable, safe housing.

Yet despite the influx of new residents, the stretch along South Halsted near the Ramova is somewhat bleak. Starting as far back as seven years ago, the city government began tearing down buildings near the Ramova, erasing much of the block’s former grandeur.  Though new construction projects–like the block-long condo development on 35th street–replaced the old buildings, empty lots still dot the area, and city officials remain unsure about the future of any further development.

Alarmed by the city’s intervention, Sullivan was determined to prevent the Ramova’s demolition in order to protect Bridgeport’s cultural history. In 2005, Sullivan started a petition to fight for the theater’s survival, aiming to safeguard a building that holds so much cultural value for the city and sentimental value for many Bridgeport residents.

What began as a petition grew into a full-blown initiative to not only restore the Ramova but to turn it into a hub of Bridgeport culture. With approximately 4,000 signatures on the petition by both neighborhood residents and backers outside of Bridgeport, Sullivan had gathered enough support for her case to fight for the Ramova’s restoration and reopening.

“The trick was to just keep beating the drum,” Sullivan explains. “We kept pushing the possibility of saving the Ramova out in the open and more people started to remember their days at the theater and how crucial the Ramova was to the arts scene in Bridgeport.”

Sullivan stresses that the nostalgic pull of the space is central to the restoration effort: “The Ramova was the center of entertainment and a lot of childhood memories for people in Bridgeport, and residents bring that up all the time because those memories really matter to them. It was actually a key issue at the alderman debate last year, which goes to show how many people are willing to fight for the Ramova.”

Despite widespread public support for the Ramova’s restoration, obstacles began to appear and push back the project. The economic downturn in 2008 prevented Sullivan from obtaining the necessary resources for a restoration initiative–leaving the project in the planning stages, where dreams can grow and shrink, but nothing physical moves. Furthermore, the city expressed its wish for a private party or non-profit organization to direct the restoration, meaning that city officials and funds would have minimal involvement with the project.

In light of these difficulties, Sullivan redirected her efforts into creating a cohesive support base. This base is the Friends of South Halsted, a non-profit focused on the cultural and commercial renewal of not only the theater but the whole nearby stretch of South Halsted.

While the theater itself holds most of the personal significance that drew in the initial support from the Bridgeport community, outsiders slowly began to recognize the theater’s potential as a focal point for the neighborhood’s wider redevelopment. The power of this vision spurred the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) to get involved in 2010.

Robert Chaney, an undergraduate student at IIT, identified the Ramova as a fitting project for the institution’s Interprofessional Projects Program (IPRO). The Ramova’s restoration offered an excellent opportunity for business, architecture, and arts-oriented IPRO students to receive hands-on experience in their fields by contributing to Bridgeport’s cultural development. After approval from the program coordinators, Chaney and Sullivan teamed up. Students began creating floor plans and working to attract local businesses while Sullivan promoted the cause through “Save the Ramova” fundraisers.

Sullivan’s efforts finally motivated city administrators to contact restoration and theater operations specialist Ray Shepardson, best known for his refurbishment of the Loop’s glittering Chicago Theater.

“When I select which theaters to preserve, part of my criteria involves the theater’s historical importance to their surroundings and the local community’s initiative in getting it back on its feet,” Shepardson explained. “In the Ramova’s case, Maureen’s [built up] that energy already, so my job is to draw up plans that detail what changes to the theater itself will take place, and how it will become economically viable enough to help the community grow.”

Sullivan, Shepardson, and the students aim to develop a creative environment that captures Bridgeport’s past and returning vibrancy, with the Ramova as a symbol connecting the old with the new.

While the run-down theater undergoes renovations, they hope to likewise create an energetic commercial environment along South Halsted by persuading local business owners to set up shop near the Ramova. There’s a big hole to fill–The Ramova Grill, the 82-year-old chili parlor in one of the storefronts attached to the theater, recently announced it is closing on the 14th.

Between the renovation’s economic and cultural aspirations, the end goal is to persuade Chicagoans inside and outside Bridgeport to explore the neighborhood.

“While Bridgeport is still a tight-knit neighborhood, it’s not as close as it used to be when I was growing up because people are going out of the neighborhood for entertainment and shopping,” said Sullivan. “Part of our objective is to keep people in Bridgeport and show them that there is fun to be had in the neighborhood.”

She continued, “It’s very hard to build a neighborhood’s sense of community if the residents are constantly leaving for opportunities outside. So we’re trying to use home-grown economics to revive Bridgeport’s past history as a commercial, entertainment, and artistic hotbed.”

While the Ramova of years past was focused on the silver screen, the Ramova of the future will be a multi-purpose arts venue. The new theater will have its lobby transformed into an art gallery while the auditorium will be a music venue.

The team is ever closer to officially beginning the restoration project. Shepardson and a new cohort of IPRO students continue to draw up building plans, estimate the final costs, and sell the area’s commercial potential to local business-owners. Although prospects have taken a positive turn, Sullivan still organizes Save the Ramova fundraisers to gather even more public support. Her efforts are bearing fruit, as the Ramova’s restoration was one of the top three discussion priorities at a Cultural Plan for Chicago meeting this past week.

While official funding is still hard to come by and the restoration is still under preliminary planning, the team has high hopes that the Ramova marquee will soon glimmer.