Chopin turns 100: Historic theater has ushered in hipsters but kept its Polish roots

Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune

Now a hipster highway, Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago was known in the first decades of the 20th century as Dinner Pail Avenue - it was so named for the legions of workers carrying their food as they trekked downtown along its thriving diagonal, filled with theaters of all sizes and types.

And in 1918, an upmarket, 548-seat theater named the Chopin Theatre opened in the heart of Chicago's Polish downtown, the so-called Polonia Triangle where Milwaukee Avenue sliced past Division Street and Ashland Avenue. This was a posher kind of movie theater from the older nickelodeons on Milwaukee Avenue - elegant, comfortable and with ornamentation on a par with what could be enjoyed downtown.

The name of the Chopin Theatre kept changing - to the Harding back to the Chopin to the Pix. By the 1950s, it had succumbed to being the home of the Security Federal Savings and Loan. Then it was a thrift shop. Then a discotheque.

But those were just blips in its history. Unlike such other Milwaukee Avenue establishments as the Enterprise (now a taqueria), the Jefferson Theatre (all that's left is a name in brick) and The Home 5 Cent Theater (now a cool shoe store), the Chopin has survived as a live theater.

Monday night, its owners are throwing the neighborhood a public party to celebrate its 100th anniversary.

What neighborhood are we talking? West Town? Or Wicker Park?

The current owners of the Chopin, Zygmunt Dyrkacz and Lela Headd Dyrkacz, say they prefer to think of their theater as a kind of gateway to Wicker Park. The duo, who now lease out their mainstage on a seasonlong basis to the House Theatre of Chicago but have also produced many shows themselves, made the case in an interview last week that their purchase of the Chopin in 1990 actually paved the way for the cultural growth that made Wicker Park, well, Wicker Park.

"I think we changed the whole neighborhood," Zygmunt Dyrkacz said.

In that spirit, the owners have invited to the party such fellow early WIcker Park players as the Guild Complex (a literary group founded in 1989), the Bop Shop (a cutting-edge, avant-garde jazz club of the 1990s), Chicago Latino Theatre (one of the first Chicago theaters in Wicker Park until it was destroyed by fire) and the Around the Coyote art festival, a famously freewheeling, multivenue festival of art that in many ways established Wicker Park as an artistic community in the 1990s and early aughts.

In an interview Thursday, Around the Coyote co-founder Elizabeth Burke-Dain said that she's recently been cleaning out her basement of all of her Around the Coyote artwork. "It really doesn't seem that long ago," she said, a tad wistfully. For many years, she noted, virtually the entire creative community of Chicago showed up at something at Around the Coyote

The Bop Shop's Kate Smith had similar memories, speaking by phone of fond memories of the club's singular reputation for cutting-edge music and its support of emerging musicians. "I think we contributed," she said, understating her own influence.

For his part, Dyrkacz, long a colorful, loquacious and outspoken character, has long-standing issues with what he sees as the City of Chicago's privileging of big downtown players at the expense of his own privately curated arts center, along with what he bluntly describes as "the disappearance of Chicago's intellectuals." A 66-year-old Polish immigrant himself, Dyrkacz has for years ensured that the Chopin's lobby and side rooms look like they belong to a theater with roots in Polish culture: You'll find Polish art, tchotchkes and, at the bar, Zywiec, the Polish beer of choice.

"We have always had to fight waves of commercialism," Dyrkacz said, a point of view echoed by Burke-Dain and Smith, both of whom said they found all of the gentrification in the neighborhood tough to stomach.

Plenty of hipsters and condo dwellers find their way to the Chopin these days. In recent years, they've been able to see all manner of entertainments, including a production of "Our Town" in the basement that was directed by David Cromer and went on to become one of the most famous Chicago shows of all times.

But if the Chopin was a pioneer there, it also never has lost its connection to its earliest incarnation as a place where those Chicagoans either born in, or tied to, the nation of Poland could find themselves comforted and entertained.

Twoje zdrowie.

Here's to the next 100 years.