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American Blues Theater opens permanent home on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago

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CHICAGO (CBS) -- Back in the 80s and 90s, the building at 5627 N. Lincoln Ave. was home to an old-fashioned Walgreens – with a turnstile in the front of the store, a wine and liquor section in a separate room off to the right, and a photo department where you could drop off your rolls of Kodacolor just to the left of the checkout counter.

Back then, the neighboring businesses on nearby blocks of busy Lincoln Avenue included Ruby's Too pizzeria with its mini-jukebox selectors at every table, and a bar called Moulin Rouge that had no red neon windmill like its Paris namesake has – but did feature Jello wrestling, and once appeared on Channel 11's "Wild Chicago" show for that reason. The Walgreens was also right in the middle of a row of motels that were known at the time for the seedy and sordid – to the point where everyone just called them the "hooker motels." The Acres Motel – with its outdoor pool in the back and its charmingly dated Ron's Open Oven restaurant in the front – was located directly just across the street.

A lot has changed since then. The Budlong Woods Library stands where the Acres Motel once did. Some of the other old motels are still around, but the vice once associated with them is largely a memory now as they've changed ownership over the years. And the Walgreens itself – which, despite the surrounding air of sin, was a place where neighborhood kids would often walk without supervision to buy a candy bar – closed several years ago, with a Dollar General taking its place. The Dollar General later closed too.

Now, that former drugstore space at Lincoln and Talman avenues in Arcadia Terrace is beginning a new and radically different chapter. The 17,695-square foot property is now the first permanent home for American Blues Theater.

American Blues Theater was founded in 1985, and has presented shows and leased office space in at several sites around the city. The company staged shows at the Theatre Building and its successor, Stage 773, on Belmont Avenue in Lakeview; the Victory Gardens Theater and Greenhouse Theater Center in Lincoln Park; the Court Theatre in Hyde Park; and the Goodman Theatre downtown, among several others.

For several years beginning in 1993, the American Blues Theater leased an old warehouse space at 1909 W. Byron St., right off Lincoln Avenue in North Center. Now, theater executives are thrilled to have a permanent home. The ribbon was cut for the new space on Tuesday morning.

"This historic move to a permanent home is nearly 40 years in the making. After decades of leasing, including the beloved space on Byron [Street], American Blues Theater will control its own artistic and financial destiny for the first time. Our exceptional Ensemble has dreamed of a dedicated home to expand our programming, education initiatives, and community partnerships," American Blues Theater Executive Artistic Director Gwendolyn Whiteside said in a news release. "We understand all too well the limitations of being an itinerant company, and – with very few true subsidized venues in Chicago – we're also excited to create an affordable rental space for other theater companies on their respective journeys."


The new venue features two theater spaces – a 137-seat proscenium and a 40-seat rehearsal studio. The space also includes a lobby with a box office, bar, and concessions, and both gendered and all-gender restrooms.


"It is an absolute honor and dream to welcome such a landmark institution to Ward 40. I had a clear vision of creating a Lincoln Avenue North Arts District, but I could never have imagined that we'd be blessed by having American Blues Theater as a crown jewel," Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) said in the release. "It would be impossible to overstate the importance of such a beautiful entertainment experience to the business district for the whole city, here in the Ward 40!"

The space was purchased through the theater's $7.8 million "Our First Home" campaign, which covered the purchase of the building, adaptive reuse and construction, and a $500,000 building reserve fund.


Beginning Dec. 8, audiences will be welcomed to the American Blues Theater for the 22nd annual staging of "It's a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!" – based on Frank Capra's classic 1946 film, and directed by Whiteside, with musical direction by theater ensemble member Michael Mahler.

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