Consultant sees landmark Egyptian Theater as regional performing arts center

Marcia McCarthy for Chronicle Media

The downtown Egyptian Theater could someday become a regional performance arts center, according to a consultant’s feasibility study. (Egyptian Theater photo)

DeKalb’s 87-year-old Egyptian Theatre could evolve into a successful regional performing arts center, according to a Toronto-based consultant.

But for the community’s beloved — if underperforming — icon to make that leap, it will need stable ownership and vision, accountable governance, structural and cosmetic repairs as well as a professional operations staff.

“The Egyptian Theater is a national historic treasure and one of the finest historic theaters and

regional movie palaces remaining in America,” according to a feasibility study produced by Janis A. Barlow & Associates.

“The quality of the building and the amazing design of the structure is the reason the Egyptian is still available today for rehabilitation and programming to serve the next 100 years as a contemporary performing arts center.”

The DeKalb Egyptian Business Feasibility Study was part of an information packet for DeKalb City Council members at a Jan. 9 meeting. But a scheduled presentation was postponed when a Barlow and Associates representative was unable to attend.

The 1,397 seat theater, located at 135 N. Second Street, was designed by Chicago architect Elmer Behrns and influenced by America’s fascination with ancient Egypt after the 1922 discovery of King Tut’s tomb.

Behrns used Egyptian cultural symbols in both the interior and exterior; he wanted one specific theme, that of Pharaoh Ramses II.

For example, the scarab, a prominent Egyptian symbol, is used in the stained glass work on the front facade. There are also two large pharaohs on the outside, meant to “guard” over the theater.

The small outer lobby is meant to evoke feelings of entering the outer chamber of an ancient Egyptian tomb. Visitors pass through the through the glass doors and into the main lobby and its towering 40 foot ceiling; the flooring is still paved with the original mosaic tiles.

For the auditorium itself, Behrns used decorations and layout to suggest an elegant royal Egyptian courtyard.

Behrn’s original design called for additional buildings to be attached to the Egyptian– one idea called for a hotel to be attached to the north side of the building. Those plans were shelved after the stock market crash of 1929.

By the late 1930s, there were over 100 Egyptian-styled theaters through the country. The DeKalb theater is now one of only six remaining and the only one east of the Rocky Mountains,.

In its earliest days, the Egyptian specialized in silent films and live vaudevillian performances. Later the theater became more focused on film presentations, with occasional live events.

In October 1959 Senator John F. Kennedy appeared before a packed house at the Egyptian, three months before he announced his candidacy for the presidency. By the 1970s the aging facility still showed movies and sometimes hosted concerts for up-and-coming rock bands such as Journey and Heart,

But the theater had also fallen into disrepair and there were rumors that it was going to be razed and turned into a parking lot.

Concerned local citizens formed the Preservation of the Egyptian Theater (PET) and the owner turned the theater over to the city of DeKalb. When the Egyptian was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, the group qualified for a $2.3 million grant from the state of Illinois, leading to partial restoration between 1978 and 1983.

Complete restoration–including air conditioning–would have cost approximately $3.5 million at the time, so the theater was never fully renovated.

PET and an 11-person board still own, govern and manage the theater. There is also a staff of four employees and community volunteers donate time and money towards upkeep and operations.

Since the 1980s the Egyptian generally hosts a 42-week season (closed during the summer months) during which it features approximately 125 film and live events.

Both professional groups use the theater as well as student organizations and departments from nearby Northern Illinois University.

But the Egyptian has the potential to become a year-round “significant architectural and regional program attraction” for DeKalb, according to the Barlow study.

Other performing arts centers in the region (the Coronado in Rockford, the Arcada in St. Charles, the Paramount in Aurora) could be templates for the Egyptian’s future.

Of those three, Paramount seems to be the closest model of an historic venue that was successfully restored and modernized.

The downtown Aurora onetime movie palace has grown into “a major cultural, social and economic institution for the City of Aurora,” the study stated. The Paramount has virtually doubled its square footage since 1978 and currently rents, presents and produces performing arts and screens films to an audience of 300,000 per year.

Several important factors contribute to the potential for a regional arts theater. The Barlow study praised the city of DeKalb itself, citing it as the county’s cultural hub, a highly livable, vibrant and expanding community that could support such a venture.

Another plus is the Egyptian’s surprisingly good condition

“The facade, entryway and auditorium are the superb, character-defining elements of this iconic building,” the study said. “It is time for some structural repair to the facade, but the basic bones of the load bearing masonry wall structure are excellent.”

The relatively large size of the Egyptian make it “too large for most film and community theatre programming even if combined with a part time year of comedy and musical acts.”

But in order to accommodate a broader range of touring professionals in theater, musical theater and dance, a number of improvements to the venue are required.

The most obvious upgrade would be installing air conditioning, which would allow the Egyptian to be used the entire year.

Because the theater was initially designed simply for vaudeville performances, the backstage areas are too small to support modern productions.

The entry and lobby spaces are limited and there is currently “no way to meet current building codes or provide support areas for ticketing, concessions and administration.” There are, however, adjacent outdoor spaces that would be available for expansion.

For now, the Egyptian is in the earliest stages of this potential metamorphosis.

But as the Barlow study noted “Because of the beauty and design of their facades and auditoria as well as the historic importance to their communities and the economy of upgrading an existing well built building, vaudeville theaters have often been selected for contemporary transition into a performing arts center.”