The plan was made. Months of work had already gone into the Madison Street Theater (MST) building — much loved, but sorely needing work. Flooring was updated; fresh paint had been applied; a couple walls were added and the building was brought up to code. Many volunteer hours and generous offers from local tradespeople had gone into the $75,000 renovation. 

“An Evening at Madison Street Theater: Renovated and Reimagined,” planned for months, was going to raise the funds needed to tackle the next part of the project — dealing with the HVAC system, some parts of which were 25 years old, 10 years past its prime. The benefit was scheduled for March 12. Tickets were purchased by approximately 150 people. Then COVID hit. 

“It was a difficult decision, but we know we made the right decision, and cancelled the fundraiser,” said Tina Reynolds, Madison Street Theater board member. “Our hope for the fundraiser was to begin the capital campaign, to start fixing and repairing the HVAC.” 

The building itself, at 1010 Madison St., Oak Park, has a long history, starting as a tile warehouse and storefront in the 1920s, according to the MST website. In 1961, nonprofit Oak Park River Forest Civic Theater was founded and housed for years on South Blvd. In 1984, the group acquired the Madison Street space and opened the theater in 1984. Over the years, different groups used the space, including Circle Theatre and Village Players.

In the previous seven or eight years, BRAVO, the theater program at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School, and Ovation Academy, an award-winning performing arts program that offers classes and theater production for youth, used Madison Street Theater for additional summer theater camp space. Reynolds heads up both programs, as artistic director/program manager and artistic director/CEO respectively. 

Seeing the MST space decline over time, was breaking her heart, Reynolds said, and she recognized the building was a challenge for the nonprofit board at the time. She began talking to them over an 18-month period about acquiring the building. 

Then the theatre was also approached by a developer who was putting up condos in the area. 

“That space in particular, I thought, was so special having done shows in there, having seen shows in there, I couldn’t imagine it being demolished and turned into condos,” Reynolds said. “I know how much this community supports the arts and finds it important for their kids and for their own selves.”  

She saw an opportunity to save the Madison Street Theater and turn it into a professional-quality venue for both local and Chicago-area arts groups to perform. 

“It needed more TLC,” she said. “It really needed a board that was galvanized that could have the passion, the time and the connections to really turn the place around and save it.”

In June 2019, the sitting board of directors agreed to dissolve and hand over the reins to an all new board. Reynolds is chairman and acts as VP, she said.

“The previous board was thrilled,” she said. “What they were hoping for was that new life could be breathed into the building.”

Working with Forest Park Bank, the new board was able to refinance and acquire that original nonprofit entity Oak Park River Forest Civic Theater, which owns MST. 

Ovation became the anchor tenant, paying rent and running its classes and holding its performances at the MST. It had been located in a group of rooms beneath Oberweis Ice Cream on Oak Park Avenue. “Ovation was kind of bursting at the seams at our previous location,” Reynolds said. 

Rental space at MST consists of a 200-seat mainstage theater, 65-seat black-box theater and rehearsal space. There is also a music room, pianos, dressing rooms, prop room and lobby areas. A drone tour on the MST website shows how the space has been updated. 

Since the shut down in March, the theater has not been able to be used to its maximum capabilities. It reopened in July with safety protocols in place. Ovation has a robust program in place, offering safe in-person classes, virtual classes and productions. However, rentals have been very slow. Directors have held auditions, musicians have rehearsed and there was even a marriage proposal — a couple who met about six years ago at this theater during a show returned for a bit of romantic nostalgia. 

Still, MST is “just trying to make ends meet,” Reynolds said. With “strict guidelines for indoor events,” an upcoming show scheduled for Dec. 18 by a dance company is now uncertain. 

The nonprofit has been creative in cutting costs, deferred its loan initially and may refinance its loan, Reynolds said. They are also applying for grants.

“Because we’re so new and it takes a little bit of time to build and create a relationship with a lot of these foundations that provide grants,” she said, “we’re applying for them, we just have not been awarded any. Everything that is happening at Madison Street Theater right now is at the hands of our board and our volunteers.”

And then, just before Thanksgiving, two of the HVAC units quit. Without getting the units replaced, the theater would need to be shut down for the winter. A GoFundMe was created by the board and in seven days, more than $34,000 was raised by 214 donors. The goal of $60,000 will pay for a complete replacement of the HVAC systems for the entire building, which includes renting a crane because units are located on the roof. The board is working with a local contractor and secured reduced rates and permitting has been granted by the Village of Oak Park. 

“For this community to rally around this gem of a theater, to keep it open, to keep it alive … it’s breathtaking, it’s incredible,” Reynolds said.

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