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Dan Moran: Patio theater lives again

Updated: September 12, 2012 5:59PM

Almost 10 years ago, around the time the Academy Theatre/Fiesta Palace was destroyed by a sudden and dramatic fire, I lamented the passing of my own childhood movie house, the Patio on Irving Park Road:

“The Patio was where you went to see a great movie like ‘Star Wars’ for a second or third or fourth time,” I wrote. “I remember seeing ‘Jaws’ at the Patio with my older siblings, the better part of a year after it came out, after we finally convinced my parents that we could handle the much-ballyhooed shark gore.”

The 1,500-seat palace, constructed in the pre-Depression theater boom, was “also where you’d go as a 12- or 13-year-old to see your first R-rated movie,” I noted, “since its ticket-takers were known for looking the other way as long as you showed up with cash.”

The bad news back then was that the Patio had closed its doors. The good news — the very, very good news for those of us settling into our sentimental years — is that the Patio lives again.

“Which side is ‘The Dark Knight?’” a woman said to an employee last Saturday as she moved from the concession stand toward the auditorium doors.

“Go in any door — there’s only one screen,” the employee said, to her apparent amazement.

That’s right: In a world where vintage movie houses have been chopped like logs to jam in a second screen, the Patio’s rebirth finds it to be the same as it ever was. Maybe even better.

When I read last summer that the Patio had been renovated and reopened, I vowed to make a pilgrimage back to the old Northwest Side to both renew my acquaintance and introduce my children to an old-school movie Zeitgeist. Last weekend finally offered us a chance, with “The Dark Knight Rises” on the menu.

What was I expecting? Something musty, I guess.

Eighty-five-year-old buildings have many ways of betraying their years, and not the least of which is the smell from nearly a century of public use and abuse. I figured we would get what we paid for, considering it was only five bucks a head to see a $250 million movie.

Well, I was wrong. The owners — a new generation of the same family that bought the Patio back in the late 1980s — obviously did much more than slap fresh coats of paint on the walls, which they obviously did, by the way. The auditorium had a cool, fresh feel to it.

The upholstery on the seats didn’t seem ragged. The floors weren’t sticky. In short, the musty was missing.

And then there were the lights. As the name “Patio” might imply, the interior decor depicts an outdoor setting surrounded by stone garden walls. Above you, the ceiling was intended to resemble a starry sky, with lights recessed into pinpoint holes.

During my high school years, those stars were mostly burned out. On Saturday, they were gleaming — and an added effect was simulated clouds drifting across the simulated sky. All of this was framed by purple, pink and orange lights glowing from the wall sconces and around the screen, touted as “the largest single screen in Chicagoland.” I will not argue the point.

All told, it was an experience that defines why we “go to the movies” rather than wait for the DVD. Oh, and how was “The Dark Knight Rises”?

Not bad, but Gotham City is suddenly Pittsburgh? Christopher Nolan should have done what I did, and returned to Chicago.

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