Monday, May 21, 2007

Vanishing Chicago: The Neighborhood Movie House

I was supposed to see Grindhouse with friends at a downtown theater--one of those comfortable joints with clean floors, stadium seating and vastly overpriced popcorn and candy. You know, the kind of place where the movies Grindhouse attempts to imitate would never, ever have played.

Unfortunately, I had to work that day. (Yes, on a Saturday. No, I was not happy about it.) So I wound up seeing Grindhouse at the Davis instead.

The Davis is a good deal smaller and not quite as tidy as its downtown competition, though the current owners have made a concerted effort to spruce the place up (the seats no longer make my ass fall asleep) and it's far less expensive than the larger theaters (only $5.50 anytime before 6 p.m. and just $8 after that). Plus, it's within walking distance of La Casa del Terror, and I know with absolute certainty that the popcorn is freshly made. (Some of that stuff in the larger theaters sits under heat lamps for hours--and tastes like buttered cardboard.)

I don't believe the Davis was itself a grindhouse back in the day. I remember it as a second-run theater (at least it was when I saw Mel Brooks's Silent Movie there somewhere around 1980). I do know with certainty, though, that the Davis is one of the few remaining examples of an increasingly endangered species in Chicago: The neighborhood movie house.

There aren't many of them left, and every year there seems to be one less than the year before. The Three Penny in Lincoln Park, in existence since 1911 according to Jazz Age Chicago and one of the few Chicago movie houses to sell beer, shut down last year. The Esquire closed not long after. Across the street from the Three Penny, the Biograph--infamous site of the death of John Dillinger (gunned down while leaving a viewing of Manhattan Melodrama)--where Red Secretary caught "classics" like The Rules of Attraction and Swimfan still stands, but has recently been converted, as a number of the downtown houses were, into a live-theater venue. And the Village, down at North Avenue and Clark Street? It went dark so quietly that it was weeks before I even heard about it.

Years ago, damn near every Chicago neighborhood had at least one little theater. Most of them are gone in the most literal sense, demolished to make way for apartment buildings, grocery stores or parking lots. Some have been repurposed, like the Lakeshore, which now hosts live theater and burlesque shows; or the Lincoln, now converted to condos (a fate the Davis narrowly avoided); or the Congress, where I saw my first movie (The Wizard of Oz) nearly four decades ago, now a live-music stage; or the Admiral, now one of only three strip clubs within the city limits.

There are still a few around, though. The Logan, in the heart of Logan Square, still shows second-run feature films just like it did back in 1972, when Mom took me there on the Milwaukee Avenue bus to see Pinocchio. We got there late--even then, the CTA was screwing up our lives--and wound up sitting through the second feature, John Wayne's The Cowboys, in which the Duke herds cattle with a bunch of young boys. At one point, one of the boys falls between the cattle and is trampled to death. To my eight-year-old mind, this was pretty funny, so I laughed. Mom batted me upside the head. I stopped laughing.

Farther up Milwaukee Avenue, the revival of the Portage continues. It now hosts small film festivals and shows silent movies (appropriate, since that's what it did when it first opened over 80 years ago). Good thing, too. I mean, if you were a movie theater, would you want your last film to be Dude, Where's My Car? Me either.

that the neighborhood movie house will make any sort of large-scale, organized comeback though--not with megaplexes ringing the city and strangling all but the most muscular theaters within. Soon, we may only be able to catch the latest sequel or remake or remake of a sequel by hopping a train and heading either for downtown suburbia, with nothing but wasteland in-between.

Until then, though, I'll treasure what I have. I've seen only six movies on the big screen this year, but half of them have been at the Davis, where the screens are oddly angled (a result of having been sliced up from one big theater into four small ones back in the '80s), the bathrooms are tiny and there are odd stains on the ceiling tiles. I couldn't mistake it for another, more modern movie house if I tried.

And I don't want to try.