Beloved historic theaters add to movie experience
By Dann Gire
Daily Herald Film Critic
We can all agree that modern mega-movieplexes make marvelous venues for film viewing by offering comfortable stadium seating, drink holders and (in some cases) restaurant-style food service.
But these giant cookie-cutter, high-efficiency multiplexes (featuring up to 30 screens) tend to lack intimacy, individual character and community roots. They can be a little on the stodgy corporate side.
So if you're interested in an alternative to the sleek appeal of the megaplexes, think about a short trip to one of these more personable movie viewing experiences.
1. The Catlow Theatre, 116 W. Main St., Barrington. You walk into the place and think, "Hey! This looks like some kind of Tudor revival thing, like I just walked into a Medieval English hall or something!" You'd be right. It's supposed to look that way.
Barrington businessman Wright Catlow commissioned the theater in May 1927. Prairie School sculptor and designer Alfonso Iannelli designed the interior.
The Catlow originally presented silent films plus vaudeville performers such as singing cowboy star Gene Autry and exotic fan dancer Sally Rand. Film booker Ed Skehan bought the theater in 1964. (Ed was a great guy and regularly corresponded with the Daily Herald film critic during his years as the Catlow's boss.)
In 1989, the theater was recognized by the National Park Service and listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The Catlow is so beloved by the community, it took only seven days to collect $100,000 in donations to pay for the theater's digital conversion.
Go to thecatlow.com.
2. The Tivoli Theatre, 5021 Highland Ave., Downers Grove. About 4,000 people lined up all the way down the block when the Tivoli Theatre opened on Christmas Day in 1928. (Of course, admission for kids cost 15 cents; for adults, 40 cents.)
The Tivoli was one of the first movie houses to offer sound, hence its place in movie theater history.
The French Renaissance-styled theater seated 1,390 patrons without a balcony. The theater has undergone several upgrades. In 1996, painters spent eight months repainting the auditorium, sometimes using a gold leaf paint costing $100 per gallon.
In 2002, larger, wheelchair-accessible restrooms were added. Plus, seats featuring fold-up arm rests with cup holders were installed.
In 2006, a state-of-the-art sound system was installed. Later, digital projectors were added to keep the theater technologically current.
The Tivoli is the proud home of the popular After Hours Film Society that presents alternate movie fare two Monday nights per month. Go to classiccinemas.com.
3. The Pickwick Theatre, 5 S. Prospect Ave., Park Ridge. The Pickwick opened in 1928 as a vaudeville stage and movie theater, named after the title character in Charles Dickens' novel, "The Pickwick Papers." Its marquee and 100-foot tower were so impressive, they appeared in the opening credits of "Siskel & Ebert & the Movies."
The main auditorium, built to resemble an Aztec or Mayan temple, seated up to 1,400 people. In 1990, the Pickwick added three screens behind the original auditorium.
The Pickwick continues to show current movies as well as special programming and live shows. It is also the home of the Park Ridge Classic Film Series that last month celebrated the 75th anniversary of "Gone With the Wind." Go to pickwicktheatre.com.
4. The Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., Chicago. Yeah, this takes a little longer to get to, but it's worth the trip, just to witness the "starry sky" lighting effects in the main auditorium.
The Music Box was built in 1929 with a relatively intimate 800 seats (other big-city theaters at the time boasted up to 3,000 seats). In 1991, a second, much smaller screen was added. Wisely, the original auditorium stayed intact with the smaller theater built in the storefront adjacent to the lobby.
Unlike other movie palaces at the time -- theaters that had stage facilities for live performances -- the Music Box had no stage, so it could only be used for movies.
When the theater was built, plans included both an orchestra pit and organ chambers just in case the sound system failed and silent film accompaniment was needed.
The Music Box is now the home for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, as well as other festivals and movie events. Go to musicboxtheatre.com.