By Rick Romano
An iconic Bridgeport movie house of the past has a new, reimagined life.
Pete Falknor, director of operations for the now re-opened Ramova Theater at 3520 S. Halsted St., summed up the historic building’s resurgence, saying, “We took a property that was probably slated to be torn down and turned it into a place that already has attracted thousands of people.” The “we” he mentioned consists of a team ranging from a growing list of investors to a local restaurateur to beverage service and entertainment bookings specialists.
The result: a transformed, multifaceted entertainment center geared to patrons who want to stop off for a beverage, stay for a meal, check out a diverse lineup of live music, or experience all three.
The final product reflects the vision of original investor Tyler Nevius, who worked with Brian Hickey, owner of the nearby Duck Inn, to create a 2024 version of the Ramova Grill (the original closed in 2012), and the City, which provided more than $8 million in TIF (tax increment financing) money, with the owners paying at least $100,000 in interest over the first few years of operation.
More recently, new investors have emerged, including a star-studded, music-industry trio of Chicago natives: Quincy Jones, Jennifer Hudson, and Chancelor Bennett, aka Chance the Rapper. Falknor said they have provided helpful guidance in what attracts acts to a venue, including the type of staging, lighting, and other features that would enhance performances; he said those involved hope Ramova can book them to perform.
Falknor came to Ramova with his own ideas from his experience that included the Empty Bottle and the House of Blues.
“When I saw the building for the first time, I knew I wanted to work there,” he said. “There was a lot of work done and a lot of thought put into the design, and it was a really good start. Chicago is a competitive music scene, and a lot more places are on the North Side, so I knew this potentially would be a great area to attract acts and patrons.”
The Ramova’s entertainment area has capacity for 1,500 people; it easily breaks into separate, smaller spaces for all types of acts. The venue also will use those spaces for community events in what Falknor described as charitable events for local nonprofits. Emily Nevius is spearheading the effort to book the venue for a variety of events.
The Ramova wasted no time booking a diverse entertainment lineup. The first public event in 35 years was a New Year’s Eve party featuring a 1920s and 1930s theme to pay homage to the building’s history while showcasing Slo Mo’, a dance party, along with a live jazz band.
More recent acts there included Dead Inside, an all-vinyl live music event that included a hydrosonic light show, which incorporates overhead projectors, dyes, and other liquids, as well as Barn Dance Apocalypse, featuring the Golden Horse Ranch Band, an event that invited patrons to join the square dance.
The Ramova Grill also features an updated nod to the old Ramova diner with a menu that includes a choice between beef and vegan chili; a variety of salads, soups, and desserts; and daily specials including pork chop suey, fish and chips, and a short-rib dinner.
Its Taproom features a wide selection of draft beers, cocktails, and non-alcohol beverages.
Hickey, who along with business partner Brandon Phillips provides executive oversight to the culinary and beverage operation, said the goal is finding the right selection.
“We work to find out what people like and what they don’t and make necessary changes,” Hickey said. “That is always the process.”
Hickey has been part of the reimagining from the beginning. The project originally was to be finished before the end of 2022, but the pandemic slowed things down. Hickey said costs increased significantly due to supply-chain issues related to the pandemic.
“We have had a lot of great feedback from people who have come here so far,” he said, noting his involvement in the project was fueled by experiences in his younger days, including eating at the old grill and taking karate lessons in part of the current building.
Alderwoman Nicole Lee (11th Ward) said Ramova’s biggest role for the community is as a model for reinvestment.
“Of course, I want them to be successful and I think it was great strategy to bring in people who are very accomplished in the music industry and who have ties to Chicago as investors,” Lee said. “We hope the opening will usher in a new revitalization for the area, an opportunity for investors to look at various business opportunities. We are open to any conversation that focuses on investment.”
The Ramova opened in 1929. Its name means “peaceful place” in Lithuanian, a reflection of that large ethnic population in the community at the time. Considered a “sister” to the Music Box Theatre in Lakeview on the North Side, the Ramova’s old interior resembled Spanish courtyards, complete with deep blue ceilings featuring stars that would glimmer prior to each movie.
That atmosphere ended in 1985, when the theater shut down after showing its last film, Police Academy 2.
The years passed, with the City eventually buying the property for $285,000 in 2001 to keep it from being razed. Efforts over two decades failed to find a developer to restore the cinema from its ongoing deterioration. In 2020, the City sold the property for $1 to Nevius, a developer with a sports entertainment background. He brought in restaurateur Hickey to revitalize the grill.
For information about Ramova’s entertainment schedule and food and beverage menu, go to www.ramovachicago.com.