Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Movie House

Neighborhood movie theaters. They once were the hallmark of Chicago's landscape. Now they can be found only few and far between. Among those which remain, it is rare for them to serve the original purpose. Instead of feature films, they are art picture houses, or show second run flicks. Some are subdivided to offer more than one movie in what was once a grand old space. And, of course, there are those which sit silently awaiting their future, empty of the patrons who once filled entrance corridors galliant and auditoriums of sparkle. Not to mention the many lost entirely or now used for businesses not of first intent.

The story of the Portage Theater is little different than the rest. A neighborhood theater at the center of what was once a thriving business distrcit called "Six Corners", it was like the others in popularity until multiplexes came around. Then the home video followed. Soon it was subdivided. At least this one lasted. Into the late 90s, the Portage stayed open showing films, but then it shuttered. After going through some troubled times and an uncertain future, it recently received rebirth. Last year the showplace reopened restored to glory. Once again, its auditorium is full, its stage renovated now for theatrical presentations, too. Its lobby very nice. Though, its restrooms could use some expansion; but hey perhaps this is part of the retro experience, too.

The Portage is facilitating many mixed used these days. From concerts, to theater, to filmatic offerings. Presently, it has Friday night silent movie shows as part of an annual summer festival. These servings do quite well, filling the large theater with an enthusiastic audience. So out I ventured to join them.

Approaching an institute like this is an experience. From a half mile away the marquee awakens, stirs anticipation and excitement of the coming event. You step off the bus or turn the corner from your parking spot and stare up in awe.

Such buildings are testaments to the importance of beauty, community, lasting memory, and a worthy offering of art. At last, you arrive under the canopy: bright lights, big city.

Tickets tonight: twelve dollars. (Ten if you reserved in advance.)

Then through the doors, where you ticket is torn. Stub in hand I enter.

An atrium opens up a world of old, anew. A grand space for great gathering.

Past the information table, a brief stop to see what some are selling in this hall. A quick look see at an old movie camera and a display of song sheets from the era long ago.

Soda, hot dog. Not tonight, thank you, but oh what a counter they have! (Popcorn always smells so much better in a genuine, old theater, too!)

Then into the doors to join the full house. Our show is starting as I speak.

Actually, it's a prequel to the film. Some organ selections by Jay Warren. It is so nice to hear live music. Soothing, interesting, fascinating even. His accompaniment to this evening's work is made all the more entertaining because of special sound effects which it's plot enable.

But, wait, there's more. You really do get your money's worth at these festival films. They add in all kinds of extras. Tonight's short was a nice piece from the Pat Sajack Show in 1989. In it, Pat and his sidekick did a takeoff on going golfing as a silent piece. It was accompanied on organ by his show guest, an organist (whose name escapes me, sorry) appearing on the show that night. Fun stuff!

Then we got to hear a songstress, Qia Janae join Jay is a special singing of the rarely heard tune from the main bill. It's title, "When You Are Mine." A cute and fitting ditty which I enjoyed.

But, then, the reason for my coming began. A showing of silent star Harold Lloyd's work Welcome Danger. In it, Harold (as eccentric botanist Harold Bledsoe) stumbles across the love of his life: a young lady name Billie. (We were also treated to another lost gem of a melody about her character later on in the film). Lloyd is an all too straight, but clever, clownish character who somehow manages to get things right despite himself. His fascination with fingerprints gets him into a lot of trouble when he's brought to work for the San Francisco Police Department, of which Bledsoe's father was a famous cop. But his comedic brilliance shows though and through in every which way and sense.

Lloyd converted this film to a talkie, and this shows in the takes. But it seems to offer us much more as a silent with timing impeccable for the set up and falls. Conversation, it appears, would have added a bit too much to these scenes. Less is more is a lesson which many ought to learn, after all.

The two hour piece moves along fast, with extended scenes and sections which contain the comedy into workable segments. Who says that silent films have to be short in order to be effective? Lloyd here proves that an extensive plot can, indeed, be interesting and in no way boring. And, everything, of course comes together artistically and in story.

Fascinating, of note, is how some of the things which were culturally acceptable at the time would never pass muster today. The entire concept of the Chinese drug syndicate which plays such an important role gives place for some stereotyping and jokes which would never be employed in contemporary times. Yet in this context, it worked. Of course, "The Dragon" who leads this underworld dealing isn't necessarily who you would expect it to be and we want to see this strange character receive his come uppance as loyal Harold gives chase.

Attending an event at the Portage is always a wonderful evening out.


James W. Gault III said...

Were neighborhood cinemas still alive and well when you were growing up?

I wonder if that is a phenomenon linked to Chicago's size and distinct neighborhood identities.

Here in Michigan, at least around Saginaw, they died out by the early 1980s. I remember going to a suburban "cineplex" even when I was as young as 5 or 6.

The last "neighborhood" theater in Saginaw lingered on until 1990, closed for a long time while many people tried to make it into live performance venue or some other artistic function. It's opened up again in the past couple years and shows bargain-rate second-run movies a couple nights a week.

Tim on the Town said...

The answer to your question is yes and no.

Being 33, I can remember well the neighborhood movie theaters still showing first run films when I was young. Though there were multiplexes like the Norridge and others (none so extensive as what we have today, however), these semi grand theaters were where I always saw picture shows.

In fact, as late as when I was in about the 6th grade (so age 12, 1986) I recall attending the Will Rogers on Belmont near Central (it has since closed and been demolished). I could have continued going to movies at that location and elsewhere for a few more years, but usually didn't bother. VCR and cable became my way of watching flicks. And the few houses which remained open then were truly the last of a dying breed, anyway. They were largely closed, dumps, or converted to second run and divided auditoriums soon thereafter.

There were also Drive-Ins in operation, including the Bel-Air in Cicero and the Twin in Wheeling. The latter lasted until only just a few years ago, as I recall. And I think that the Bel-Air's screens may still be standing, though it hasn't operated in some time.

I, too, recall the old Woods Theater in operation as a kid and a couple of others which stood on what we now have come to know as the infamous "Block 37" downtown. I never went to a movie there, however. I understand they were pretty ratty (literally) then. And, of course, even the Chicago on State was showing pictures into the late 70s and early 80s.

Other theaters I attended included the Patio (my favorite), the Gateway, the Milford just to name a few off the top of my head.

Of course, others were already being abandoned. The historic Uptown is just one fantastic example of such, though it stands still, decrepit. These buildings are just what we had in the city and so they were often made to work by hook or crook. The Plitt company owned and operated quite a few, as I recall, except for some which went independent. Interestingly enough, my high school choir occasionally used old usher jackets donated by that company when they went defunct as the chorus's dress uniform.

A neat site on theater histories which can offer more information about these places is

Is it just a "Chicago" thing to have hung onto such haunts so long? I don't think so. Many communities seem determined to find a way to keep these facilities operating in a vibrantly functional way somehow. They were built for the ages with quality craftsmanship and adornment of beauty, typically. They stand for something and symbolize community pride. So in other cities, also, they are being brought back. Though perhaps if these were smaller communities with not so many options as a place like Chicago offers, the new multiplex which provided so much more in viewing possibilities proved too much competition. Afterall, here if you didn't like what was playing at your neighborhood theater, you just went to the next neighborhood to see what was playing there.

But Chicago does have a unique history with such theaters. And our sheer size along with importance of neighborhood and suburban communities plays a role, also. Not to mention the considerable interest in arts and history which a major metropolis is bound to have. There, too, exist organ preservation and enthusist organizations which lend a helping hand to see such institutions last.

Then, sometimes, development plans just aren't economically feasible to tear down and build something else. (Don't forget, many of these theaters have as part of them storefronts and apartments in the larger piece of property which bring in rent.) Therefore, they last by default, mothballed or reused for other purposes until the environment is right to give it a go again and renovate or just destroy.

So it all adds up to have kept the few which remain around awhile longer, perhaps, than elsewhere and eventually receiving renewed use.

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