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Wheaton Grand may return to cinema roots
By Robert Sanchez | Daily Herald Staff

If efforts fail to reopen the Wheaton Grand Theater for live performances, the 1920s movie house still could find a second life showing first-run films.

 

Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

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Published: 4/29/2010 12:03 AM

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If efforts fail to reopen the Wheaton Grand Theater for live performances, the 1920s movie house still could find a second life showing first-run films.

Classic Cinemas, the theater chain that restored the Tivoli Theatre in Downers Grove, has surfaced as a potential buyer of the historic building in downtown Wheaton. On Wednesday, company officials confirmed they are investigating the possibility.

"It's something we're interested in," said Chris Johnson, co-owner of Classic Cinemas. "We're definitely taking a look because we know the possibilities that are there."

The Wheaton Grand's fate has been in limbo since November when Wheaton park board members scrapped a plan to borrow millions to renovate the Hale Street building. But the possibility of the theater changing hands is a recent development.

Grand Theater Corp., the not-for-profit group that oversees management of the Wheaton Grand, is on the verge of losing ownership of the building after falling behind on a loan of about $800,000. Foreclosure proceedings have started and Grand Theater Corp. is expected to surrender the deed to the bank.

Johnson said "everything would have to line up correctly" before Classic Cinemas could add the Wheaton Grand to its chain of 13 suburban theaters, including the Elk Grove Theatre, the Fox Lake Theatre and the Charlestowne 18 in St. Charles.

"The city (officials) and the residents need to make sure they know what they want," Johnson said. "If they choose to go down that path as far as a movie theater, it's something we would pursue."

One factor that makes Wheaton appealing is its established downtown, he said.

Helping the downtown is one reason Mayor Michael Gresk says he's thrilled about the possibility of Classic Cinemas returning the Wheaton Grand to its roots as a movie theater.

"I think it would be a great fit for the downtown," Gresk said. "Anything that would bring in foot traffic like a movie cinema would be a good thing."

But Councilman John Prendiville said he's not ready to give up on the dream of someday having live performances at the Wheaton Grand.

"A movie theater would be a good use, but not as good as the one that we've been contemplating," said Prendiville, adding that statistics show moviegoers wouldn't spend as much money at other downtown businesses as patrons of live theater.

In the meantime, the city council has agreed to hire a consultant to take one last look at whether renovating and reopening the Wheaton Grand as a live theater could be a financial success.

If it's determined the Wheaton Grand can't become a live theater, Prendiville said, "I would rather see it as a movie theater than an empty building."