While it's been up a flight of stairs on Clark Street in Andersonville for years, Chicago Filmmakers always dreamed of having a different space for themselves.
"If you needed to get to the classrooms you had to walk through the theater," said Executive Director Brenda Webb of the old location. "You couldn't do both things at the same time. It was definitely run down and funky, and we didn't want to put a lot of money in it, we didn't own it."
Filmmaker Sharon Zurek of Black Cat Productions, who works closely with Chicago Filmmakers and hosts the popular Dyke Delicious film series, recalled both how eager people were to see those films and how unsuitable the old space could be. "I had ladies come to Dyke Delicious with walkers, and they'd come up the stairs," she said.
Thankfully, the dream has come true for Chicago Filmmakers. The ribbon-cutting for its new space, a converted Chicago Landmark city firehouse at 5720 N. Ridge Ave., is coming up soonan opportunity that Webb said she'd be been looking for since around 2010.
"For a small nonprofit like us, kind of an unrealistic expectation, but I knew that some public buildings had been sold to theater companies for a dollar, so I thought well, gee, maybe we can do that too," Webb said. She looked at the firehouse, which dates from 1928, in 2013, but with a flooded basement, she assessed it as "too scary to take on" without support. But later that year, the city requested proposals for the space, and Webb became involved.
"I heard about it a couple of days before the deadline, so it was probably the most intense, quickest proposal writing I've ever done in my life," she said.
Then followed becoming a finalist for the space, meeting with the city, working with architects, having to reconceive plans after bids came in too high and needing everything ready to go to begin construction the next business day after closing, per city requirements for the agreement. Then, there wasn't three-phase electricity for the much-desired elevator.
Construction was running overtime, and expecting to move into the space any month now, Chicago Filmmaker's usual schedule of screenings got postponed for all of 2017. But now, established in its new home, the organization is ready to resume, in Zurek's words, "everything we did before and more," including Dyke Delicious's recent triumphant return.
"The way I characterize the change in coming to the space is really deepening our roots in the community," said Webb. "We've always seen ourselves as a community of filmmakers and filmgoers, and it's citywide. Now, in addition to that, what are the communities we have in this geographic area and how can our programming reflect that?"
She's hoping to use the space for increased collaboration and new programming directions, whether with new film groups or local partners, such as Senn High School or Loyola University.
"There's lots of anticipation and expectation, as we came into this neighborhood, and people were so excited to see something happening with the building, which had been sitting here empty," Webb said. "I think there's just a lot of interest in the organization. Now there's a new constituency which sees us as part of the Edgewater community that they want to connect with."
The organization looks forward to broadening its class schedule to appeal to more groups of people, including their ideal audience of working artists. "Traditionally, our classes were evenings and weekends. Hopefully we can start having some weekday classes for seniors and others, because not everyone works nine to five," Zurek said.
The space will also be a new venue for Reeling, of which Webb is founder. Although straight, the idea for an LGBTQ film festival came to her while reading about queer sensibility in film in the early '80s, and realizing many experimental filmmakers were also queer.
"Does the LGBTQ community even know about these people, that they exist? Probably not. They need to know that the pioneers of experimental film are gay and lesbian: they should know that and they should support that." Webb recalled thinking. "We had been an organization that since our inception had been really dedicated to experimental film, so it was really kind of taking those same filmmakers that we screenedBarbara Hammer and Kenneth Anger and James Broughtonand sort of putting them in a different frame."
And thus Reeling, the second-oldest LGBTQ film festival in the country, was founded in 1981. Webb reconnected with Zurek, a former Columbia College classmate, when the latter dropped off some projectors at the space.
"As a student, Chicago Filmmakers was important to me because I would show my work there. It was a place where you could see your films on a huge screen and invite your friends," Zurek remembered. She feels that the film industry has shifted direction since work first began on the building, and that filmmakers are not just looking for training, but for opportunities to make connections. She pointed out that Chicago Filmmakers can serve as a fiscal sponsor for those looking to make new work, and they host filmmaker meet-ups every other month.
Asked for the best way to support LGBTQ filmmakers, Webb and Zurek were unanimous in suggesting attending screenings of their work and volunteering with organizations like theirs. And there are more concrete ways to support their new space.
"Like a lot of my lesbian friends, we're not used to asking for help," Zurek joked. "If we had three times as much money, we'd have three times as much stuff. We're hoping people will come into a room and go, boy, my company can donate a big LED screen, or 'you need new computers.'"
Much of the building's architectural accents have been preserved and repurposed, including a front desk made out of limestone from the old fireman's showers. The space includes an upstairs classroom and in the old fire truck bay, the screening theater, for which Chicago Filmmakers is still looking to acquire proper platform seating. There are plans to have a patio with a green space outside. And Zurek is particularly excited about the larger bathrooms, recalling how in the Clark Street location, "intermission used to be as long as the bathroom line."
Webb added that while the building was sold below market price, they still have a mortgage, and have raised about $300,000 of their million-dollar capital campaign goal.
"We called the Clark Street address our clubhouse: now we have a new clubhouse," Zurek said. "We do want to grow and offer more services. We brought everything we could with us and we're ready to grow even more."
The open house and ribbon-cutting will take place on Saturday, April 28, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 11 a.m. with 48th Ward Ald.n Harry Osterman; Christine Dudley, Director of the Illinois Film Office; Rich Moskal, director of the Chicago Film Office; Dr. Eric Freedman, dean of the School of Media Arts at Columbia College Chicago; actor Chris "Mouch" Stolte, one of the stars of NBC's Chicago Fire; and other film industry and community leaders.
The event is free; RSVP at www.eventbrite.com/e/chicago-filmmakers-ribbon-cutting-open-house-tickets-45110227906.