I grew up in movie theaters. At a very young age, my mother started bringing me to matinees and later we would pile the family into the car and head to the local drive-in for double features. In my adolescent and teenage years, the fact that my family moved around so much meant that I had few friends. I spent all my spare time in movie theaters. By the time I went to college, movies were my life. I used to pride myself on the fact that I could name the theater where I saw every film I’d ever seen.
On a recent trip to Chicago, I walked around the Loop–the site of many of my most formative movie moments–and was astonished to see how little was left of what was one of the most beautiful movie theater districts anywhere. It made me very sad, but motivated me to write this piece about the movie theaters for which I have the fondest memories. They are in chronological order according to where they fit in my life.
The Park Plaza Theater in the Bronx was most likely my first movie theater experience. It was only a few blocks from where we lived, and this is where my mother first exposed me to movies. I remember the matrons in their white suits and flashlights trying to keep the kids–who were required to sit in a separate section unless they were accompanied by parents–quiet. The first movie I actually remember was a film that terrified me at the time. It had images that stuck with me throughout my life, even though I couldn’t remember what film it was. It was only as an adult that I realized that the movie I had seen was “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”
Loews Paradise, also in the Bronx, was a magnificent place. Even as a kid, going there to see a movie was a special occasion. I remember being on a shopping expedition with my mother to Alexander’s (right across the street from the Paradise) and seeing banners and posters for “Tom Thumb” with Russ Tamblyn as the little guy. I became obsessed with seeing that film, until my parents finally gave in and brought me to see it–even though it would have been cheaper to wait for it to play in a closer neighborhood theater.
Another memory that sticks with me is when I went to see a Jerry Lewis film at the Paradise–I think it may have been “The Bellboy”–with a neighbor who used to babysit for me. She was a huge Jerry Lewis fan and, throughout the film, she was laughing so hard, she kept hitting me.
In the early ’60s, my family moved to the south side of Chicago. My neighborhood movie theaters were only a short walk from where we lived. Almost every weekend, I went to see whatever was playing at those theaters. There was the Hamilton and the Jeffery, both on 71st Street, and the Chelton on 79th. Since this was before the ratings system, there were many films coming out that I wanted to see that had been designated as “adults only,” so I was prevented from seeing them without my parents. Fortunately, every Sunday the Chelton had a special kiddie matinee for 25 cents admission. As the kiddie film was ending, if you hid out in the men’s room, you could wait until after they cleared the theater and stay to see the adult film that came afterward. So every Sunday, I dragged my brother Larry to the Chelton and for a quarter (he got in free), we saw such “adult” films as “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” “Fate is the Hunter,” and “Goldfinger” (which my parents were furious about my having seen once they saw the provocative poster). They had no idea that I was in the process of reading all the James Bond books, which were far racier than the films.
Another neighborhood theater was the Avalon, which was a huge movie palace and as magnificent as the Paradise. When something played at the Avalon, it was well worth walking the slightly extra distance to see it there. The Avalon mostly played big event movies after they completed their downtown roadshow runs, like “Lawrence of Arabia” and “West Side Story.”
One day, I heard that the Avalon was one of a dozen or so theaters in the Chicago area that was going to have a special screening of “Having A Wild Weekend,” and that the Dave Clark Five were going to appear in person at the theater. Apparently, the promoters had timed things so that the group could appear at each of the theaters where the film would be playing that day. The big show at the Avalon was a Saturday morning matinee. I got in line early, and was shaking with excitement when I realized that I would indeed get in. There were more than 2,500 seats and the place was packed. A man came out on stage and announced that the group would be making its appearance before the film, and would be there momentarily. The crowd started to scream. Moments later, the Dave Clark Five marched out on stage, and the place went wild. There was a scuffle near the stage and the next thing we knew, the five of them had left the stage. The lights went off and the movie started. The next morning, it was in the newspaper that one of the group had suffered a broken wrist in the “near-riot” that ensued at the Avalon.
After awhile, I began to get impatient waiting for new movies to make it to the neighborhood theaters. I was also old enough to go to the Loop by myself, either by taking the Illinois Central train or, in good weather, riding my bicycle along Lake Michigan.
The theaters in the Loop started running shows at 9am, sometimes with no one in the audience. Many years later, when I was already in the film business, I was told that the Chicago projectionists union was one of the strongest in the country, and that the projectionists had to be paid for the full day whether there were shows or not. So most of the theaters simply opted to go ahead with the shows. This was great for me, since I could get there early and see films that would have been difficult to get into later in the day.
There were many gorgeous theaters in the Loop, but I had two favorites, The United Artists and the Woods. They were both grand movie palaces and had long histories that were completely lost on me at the time. All I cared about was that they were showing the latest, greatest movies. And they knew how to market them. The theaters tried to outdo each other in terms of the special displays they created for the films that were playing. The entire fronts of the theaters were covered by photos and posters for the films. The marquees screamed out whatever sensational lines they could think of to entice people into the theaters.
Of the many films that I saw at the Woods, one of my fondest memories was seeing “A Hard Days Night” the week it opened. The place was packed with screaming kids. I was way up in the balcony. When the Beatles began singing a song, the entire audience clapped along.
My recollection is that a lot of the films that played at the Woods were horror films or thrillers. I recall seeing a few William Castle films, some of the Edgar Allen Poe adaptations by Roger Corman and, in 1967, “Wait Until Dark,” for which they advertised that all the lights in the theater would be turned off for the last few minutes of the film. I can never remember being so scared in a film.
At the United Artists, I recall stumbling into an early morning showing of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” not knowing anything about the film other than the strange title. I laughed so hard that I went back several more times to see it.
Right down the block from those theaters were the Cinestage and the Michael Todd. These were the more prestigious theaters, where you could see the latest blockbuster roadshow releases–in many cases a completely different (longer) version of the film than would be released in the neighborhoods. At these theaters I saw “2001: A Space Odyssey” (several times) and “The Sound of Music” (several times), among many more “event” films.
In 1967, we moved again, this time to Highland Park, in Chicago’s north suburbs. My theater of choice was the Edens Theater, which was visible from the Edens Expressway. Unlike all the previous theaters, the Edens was not an old theater. It was a modernist masterpiece and a state-of-the-art facility that frequently had exclusive runs of films for the entire North Shore. Since it was a single-screen theater, hit films would settle in and play for long periods of time. One day I went to see “Bonnie and Clyde” at the Edens; I believe that was the moment I decided I wanted to make movies some day. I’m sure the massive screen and the incredible sound at the Edens added to the experience. I went back and saw “Bonnie and Clyde” at least five times, and since I didn’t have my drivers license yet, each time I saw the film one of my parents had to drive me. One day, as I was settling into my seat in the nearly empty theater, my Dad suddenly sat down next to me. I must have looked shocked as he said to me,” You keep coming to see this film so much, I decided to see what it is you like so much.” Throughout the film, he kept looking at me, wondering what kind of pervert he was bringing up.
A year or so later, my uncle was visiting from out of town, and took me to the Esquire on the north side of Chicago to see a film that he had read was all the rage. The Esquire was a beautiful deco palace, and one of the nicest places to see a film in Chicago. I would go there many times over the years, the last time being for the premiere of “Hoop Dreams” decades later. The film was “Easy Rider,” and it was on a double bill with a foreign language film that I can’t remember. They also showed a short called “De Duva (The Dove),” a great parody of early Bergman (It’s available on YouTube). My education continued.
A couple of years later, we moved again, this time to Paramus, NJ. The most spectacular local theater was the Stanley Warner Route 4. It started as a single-screen 2,000 seat theater, added a second screen in the the mid-70’s and eventually was carved up into little pieces. I practically lived at the theater all through high school. One memorable experience was trying to get in to see “Woodstock” and being turned away because I was too young. It looked to me like they were turning away the entire interested audience.
I also spent a lot of time at the Bergen Mall Cinema, which was the local art house. Here I saw such films as “Women in Love,” Fellini’s “Satyricon,” “Zabriskie Point,” and numerous films that were distributed by Cinema 5, a company that I would end up working for a number of years later. It was eye opening, and contributed to my radicalization in my teenage years. This theater may have been a shoebox in the middle of a suburban mall, but it was responsible for expanding the horizons of the youth of Bergen County. [Interestingly, I can’t find any decent pictures of either of these two theaters.]
Then it was off to Chicago again, where I went to college. In Evanston, where the Northwestern campus was located, there were two downtown theaters, the Varsity and the Valencia. They were both smaller movie palaces, but by the early ’70s they were in bad shape, mostly showing grindhouse films. That didn’t mean that I didn’t check them out. Given the recreational bent of the times, hanging at those two theaters could be a lot of fun.
However, the real action was in Chicago, and there were theaters showing films for every taste. The Carnegie was the fancy art house, playing the latest foreign language films that were being written about in the New York Times. It was architecturally undistinguished and shared the same building with Mr. Kelly’s night club and a large parking structure. But the presentation was first class.
Repertory cinema was all over town, most notably at the Biograph and at the Playboy at Clark and Division, which my college roommate referred to as the “center of the world.” The Biograph, of course, is world famous for being the place where Dillinger was killed after seeing a movie. The seat where Dillinger sat that night was painted gold so that patrons could find it easily. There was something special about seeing a film from the ’20s or ’30s in a setting that was so authentic to that time.
The Playboy was nowhere near as atmospheric, but it’s programming was something else. By day, the theater was an art house, playing the second tier art films that couldn’t get bookings at the Carnegie. But by night the Playboy became Chicago’s best repertory house. They called it the “Playboy All-Night Show,” and it was a different double feature every night, starting at midnight. One night it would be two Marx Brothers films, the next night two Ken Russell films, the next night, two by Antonioni. It was like someone was programming my Netflix queue, only in a movie theater. You can imagine my many bleary-eyed mornings, trying to stay awake through classes after having sat through two amazing films that ended at 4:00 am or later. (Yes, that’s Roger Ebert posing in front of the Playboy.)
After college, I ended up moving to New York City. I got a job with Cinema 5, which owned and operated most of the classiest theaters in Manhattan. It was a dream come true. Every Friday, the office manager would come by everyone’s desk and hand them 4 passes to any of the theaters, with an expiration date of the following week–use it or lose it. No chance of that for me. If anything, 4 passes were hardly enough, and I took to asking around for passes that others weren’t using.
My absolute favorite of the theaters was the Plaza, which was the most atmospheric. I experienced some of the earliest examples of the coming American Independent movement at the Plaza, including “Hester Street,” “Pumping Iron,” “Harlan County USA” and others. Since the Plaza was right around the corner from the Cinema 5 office, we had our acquisition screenings there, so I spent many a morning drinking my coffee and eating my bagel in the first row of the loge section of the theater, screening some movie that we might be interested in acquiring. After awhile, the theater manager permitted me to park my bicycle in the theater when I rode it to work.
I always loved Cinema 1 and 2 on Third Avenue. It was before they had carved it into a third theater, and before it was allowed to get run down. It was a glittering example of a thoroughly modern movie theater, eschewing curtains for a black fabric strip that would come down from the ceiling before each show to mask the proper screen ratio. I used up a lot of those Cinema 5 passes at these theaters. When I started working there, Robert Altman’s “Nashville” was just beginning a record-setting run at Cinema 2. I had already seen the film once at the Esquire before leaving Chicago, but now I had the chance to see it over and over again, and I did. I probably saw the film 20 times in my first six months working at the company.
Another favorite was the Beekman. It was an art deco jewel, and probably the most beautiful movie theater that I’d ever seen that was built to be a movie theater. Woody Allen also loved the Beekman, and typically insisted that his films open there. I recall seeing “Love and Death” many times at the Beekman.
But I didn’t spend all of my time at the Cinema 5 theaters. I still had a taste for older films and frequented Dan Talbot’s New Yorker, and the Thalia, both of which were in the neighborhood where I lived. This was the golden age of double features, and the New York rep houses were trying to outdo each other in the cleverness of their programming.
In the years since, as my career led me to do business with many of the theaters I grew up with, I never lost my fondness for them. But one-by-one, just about all the theaters I have mentioned disappeared. The Thalia still exists, but the original parabolic floor has been straightened out and there is no longer any fixed seating. Cinema 1 & 2 have spawned a 3rd screen that has wrecked the perfect symmetry of the other two. The Biograph has been renovated and is being used by a theater company. The Esquire was cut up into smaller theaters many years ago, and now sits empty. The Avalon also sits abandoned. The Paradise is still there and has recently been partially restored, but it’s mainly used for events. All the rest are gone.
If you enjoy this subject, you owe it to yourself to check out the Cinema Treasures web site. I found many of the photos used in this piece on that site under a Creative Commons license. Full photo credits below: