The Belpark Theatre, located on Cicero in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood, was designed by Roy B. Blass and Edward P. Steinberg. It opened in 1927 as part of the Lubliner & Trinz circuit. In 1930, the Belpark Theatre was taken over by Balaban & Katz, which operated it for the remainder of its career as a movie house. The venue closed as a movie theater in the mid-1950s.
Like many former movie palaces that exist in the present day, adaptive reuse has been critical to its survival.
I first visited the Belpark last summer, and was intrigued by the oddity of it serving as bingo parlor. I walked in, and felt immediately confused by the lobby decor. It bore the elegance of an earlier time, but I didn’t get the feeling I was seeing anything that resembled the original look of the space. Had the imposing chandelier been there from the beginning? Possibly yes. Was the mural also there from the beginning? I suspected it most likely wasn’t.
Inside the main auditorium, bingo games were underway beneath crystal chandeliers. A drop ceiling and makeshift walls obscured almost all evidence of the Belpark’s original grandeur. The only hint of its opulent Spanish Baroque architectural detail was a bit of terra cotta peeking out from behind the concession area.
I was curious to see if there were any photos of the Belpark Theater’s original interior online, but couldn’t find anything; however, a visit to the Cinema Treasures website provided clues to the eclectic interior I had found so puzzling. After closing as a movie theater in the mid-1950s, the space had gone through years of serving as a warehouse and banquet facility before being converted into a bingo hall.
A couple months ago, I went by the Belpark Theater again and was surprised to see that renovations were underway. The bingo parlor had moved out, and the removal of its interior was slowly revealing the original majesty of the space.
The fabulous Spanish Baroque interior was surprisingly intact behind the last few reminders that the theater had served as home to Golden Tiara Bingo.
Some of the original detail had been destroyed when the auditorium had been transformed to serve other purposes, but it was easy to imagine its original glory.
In the lobby, a few puzzling artifacts from the building’s history were awaiting dispatch. I was especially intrigued by a sign advertising “Businessmens Luncheons” at the bargain price of $1.50.
When did the auditorium get decked out with leopard print wallpaper? Oh, if these walls could talk!
I returned to the theater again in May. I found even more of the original interior revealed as workers prepared the building for its new owner, The Chicago Tabernacle, a megachurch that sought to purchase the Portage Theater in 2012 but abandoned its intentions due to opposition from neighborhood groups, preservationists, and city officials.
Might the church be planning to restore the original grand interior? I was eager to seek clues, and disappointed to find a promotional video that suggests plans for a stark, modern sanctuary design.
Hopefully the new tenant can transform the space without destroying its original interior detail, so others in the future might be fortunate enough to glimpse its historic splendor.