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.