[from left to right] Chance the Rapper, Jerald Gary, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West | Photo courtesy of Gary

Four years ago, private equity investor Jerald Gary bought the shuttered New Regal Theater in South Shore with plans to restore the historic landmark to its former grandeur. Much like the Apollo Theater in Harlem, the 2,300-seat theater in Chicago once stood at the center of Black art, music and culture.

Basically, not many artists could roll through Chicago without performing at the New Regal in its heyday: from jazz legends such Count Basie, Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday to soul and pop superstars such as James Brown, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder.

Today, with a name change (it’s now called the Avalon Regal Theater) and about $1 million in renovations, the South Side theater still isn’t ready to open its door. Despite ongoing crowdfunding efforts, Gary says he hasn’t been able to rally the Black community around his restoration project.

“We are nearly at the finish line with about $150,000 in repairs needed to open the doors to the public,” Gary says.

He’s self-funded most of the project, but hopes to reach the finish line through a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign.

“I’m not putting any more money in without the support of the community,” Gary continues.

With plans to host drill rap pioneer Chief Keef’s first hologram concert in Chicago, and a budding relationship with Kanye West in the works, Gary talks to us about the ups and downs of his Avalon Regal restoration project.

The TRiiBE: When did you buy the Avalon Regal Theater? Why?

Jerald Gary: I bought the Avalon Regal Theater in 2014. I bought it because I grew up in the neighborhood, and I’ve been a part of art programs my entire life. I’m a musician and I know the value of culture in our community from an economic perspective as well as a perspective of being able to enrich our lives and providing jobs.

TT: What are some of the challenges you've faced since purchasing the building?

JG: A lot of people aren’t aware that the building underwent an extensive renovation in the late 1980s. So a lot of the work had already been done that we otherwise would have planned to do. But, the stigma is that no businesses can be viable in the Black community. It’s a little bit, I would say, hypocritical because we are always complaining about how we don’t have anything in the community for us yet we’re on our seventh crowdfunding campaign and have been unable to raise awareness or any funds from the very community complaining about what we don’t have.

TT: How much did you purchase the building for and how much in renovations are needed?

JG: I purchased the building from the FDIC for $100,000 and have poured about $1 million into the property over the past four-and-a-half years. We are nearly at the finish line with about $150,000 in repairs needed to open the doors to the public. I’m not putting any more money in without the support of the community.

TT: Can you share some details about the building? How many seats? What are some of the final repairs needed to open?

JG: The auditorium has about a 2,300-person capacity. The hall itself holds about 1,000 people. The final renovations we need to do includes all of the unsexy stuff, if you will – piping, electricity, plumbing. There’s some really minor cosmetic touch-ups that we have to do. So we’re raising $150,000 on GoFundMe to make those final repairs.

TT: Why is the Avalon Regal such a special place?

JG: Anybody who’s anybody has played at the Regal Theater. Even a lot of stars who played at the original Regal Theater in Bronzeville came and played at the New Regal Theater here in South Shore. The building as it stands was built in 1927. The name of the building changed to the New Regal Theater in 1987 [to honor the old Regal Theater in Bronzeville, which was demolished in the 1970s]. We’re renaming the building the Avalon Regal Theater to reflect the full history of the space. Everyone from Michael Jackson to 17-year-old Kanye West to Tupac to Biggie to Gladys Knight to James Brown have performed at the theater.

TT: Speaking of Kanye West, how does it feel to have him be a part of this project in the last stretch?

JG: It feels great to have validation and confirmation of what it is I have been trying to do over the past few years. Obviously that is a pretty famous person to come and throw their support behind the project. I’m hopeful that his international recognition will bring much-needed positive attention to the South Side.

TT: How did Kanye hear about the project?

JG: I had been talking with some folks at GOOD Music for a number of months about them throwing their support behind the project. There had already been some talk behind the scenes prior to me reaching out, I believe, with respect to Kanye’s potential involvement in various community projects – one of which was the Avalon Regal Theater. So I’m just glad that the stars aligned in the moment.

An old concert bill including some of Chicago's finest | Courtesy of Gary

TT: Is Kanye donating money to the theater, too?

JG: We have Kanye’s support and that is about all I am at liberty to say right now because of the developments that are happening behind the scenes.

TT: We have to ask this based on the thoughts being shared on social media. Do you feel that Kanye’s efforts here in Chicago is a rebranding campaign for him? Or, is he genuinely concerned about Chicago and wanting to help?

JG: I see it as exactly what it is; a homecoming for Kanye. I’m very proud to be associated with his efforts to throw his weight behind a number of different initiatives here in the city of Chicago that will prove to be very positive for our communities.

TT: Will Chief Keef’s hologram concert be the first show at the Avalon Regal?

JG: We’re looking to do that hologram show at some point over the next few weeks. I can’t talk too much about it because a lot of stuff is still under development, but it will be on a much grander scale than the original 2015 show in Chicago that I heard got cancelled by the mayor [Rahm Emanuel] and ended up having to go to Indiana.

TT: How does it feel to have Chief Keef’s show coming to the Avalon Regal, especially considering all that he’s been through?

JG: I’m proud to have him here because Chief Keef is the voice of a generation that a lot of people have written off. I think that his voice will be tremendously impactful in helping reduce the amount of violence that we’ve seen amongst the youth in the community. I’m very proud to be associated with Chief Keef as he lends his voice to the anti-violence efforts being done through his stop-the-violence campaign.

TT: What role do you see the Avalon Regal playing in the Black art, music and theater communities in Chicago?

JG: I’m hopeful that the Avalon Regal Theater can be the foundations of Black arts and culture – not just here in the midwest but in the entire country. We are effectively the largest Black music venue in the nation and, to that end, I am hopeful that we will establish ourselves as the culture institution that champions Black entertainment for centuries to come. How you have Carnegie Hall in New York, I’m hopeful that the Avalon Regal Theater will become a similar institution for us.

Aretha Franklin being crowned the "Queen of Soul" at the Regal Theater in the 1960s | Courtesy of Gary