Chicago’s Once-Grand Movie Palaces

Photographer Eric Holubow offers a rare glimpse inside five of Chicago’s most grand movie palaces, and Roger Ebert shares one of his most unforgettable moviegoing experiences.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Most of the theatres in this photo essay were still in business when I started reviewing movies for the Sun-Times. In those days a lot of movies still opened in “the nabes,” of ten as double features, and as a newcomer to town, I found going to view them was a way of exploring the city. These majestic palaces would cost unimaginable amounts today, but those still standing are, as you can see, falling into ruin.

Whenever I hear the names of these wonderful places, I remember one of the most unforgettable moviegoing experiences I’ve ever had. Michael Kutza opened his 1975 Chicago International Film Festival at the Uptown, at Broadway and Lawrence, by showing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with Jack Nicholson, who was at the height of his fame. The Ken Kesey novel was a cult favorite, but no one in the audience had any idea what to expect, and only the cineastes would then have known the name of its Czech director, Milos Forman.

The theatre was one of the largest in America. Every seat was sold. The lobby before the show was vibrating with excitement. To call that screening a success would be a cruel understatement. I’ve never been part of a more excited movie audience. They laughed, they cheered, they applauded individual lines, and Nicholson did what Hitchcock said a movie was supposed to do—he played the audience like a piano.

It was a great movie, yes. Was it as great as it seemed that night? The waves of human energy from the audience bounced off the screen and reinforced themselves. It was Michael Douglas’s debut as a producer. His father, Kirk, had optioned the rights to the novel and perhaps envisioned himself as R. P. McMurphy. But Hollywood was in the throes of takeover by a new generation. A foreign director was brought in. Stars were born. It was nominated for nine Oscars and was the first film in 41 years to sweep the categories of best picture, director, actor, actress, and screenplay.

I ran into Michael Douglas afterward, surrounded by admirers in the lobby. “No matter how long I’m in the business and no matter how many pictures I produce,” he told me, “I know I’ll never experience another night like this one.” It was what every filmmaker dreams of: a big picture on a big screen with a big audience in a big theatre. Words like “boffo” still meant something.

The Uptown still stands at Broadway and Lawrence, its decaying interior like a mausoleum. The laughter has faded. The smell of popcorn no longer drifts in from the lobby. Some landmarks have been restored: the Chicago, the Oriental, the Bismarck (now the Cadillac Palace). All over Chicago, the bones and the memories of our other movie palaces linger. For them, the last picture show has closed.

Correction: January 22, 2013
Since this article ran, readers have let us know that the screening of
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest described by Ebert in this essay took place not at the Uptown Theatre but at the Granada Theatre, located then at 6427 North Sheridan Road. Ebert says he misremembered the venue. We regret the error.

 

Have fond memories of one of these amazing buildings? Share your story in the comments section.

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2 years ago
Posted by Neal - Bridgeport Transplant

Great Article about the theaters of Chicago! It's amazing to me that Chicagoans allowed these theaters to fall into such disarray over the years. I also find it VERY exciting that there has been a resurgence of interest in getting these old places back up and running. As a resident of Bridgeport fixing the Ramova Theater is the NEXT big step our community needs to take. With new restaurants, new art centers, new shops, new bars and frankly many new residents Bridgeport needs this theater to complete its positive transformation. Revitalization of these beautiful old structures is an excellent way to spur economic growth in a particular area and I hope that the Ramova is next in line ... Bridgeport needs it!

2 years ago
Posted by davidhj

This is why we go to live theatre-- AND to the movies... loads more energizing than sitting in one's living room watching a big screen. As Ebert so eloquently states: "The waves of human energy from the audience bounced off the screen and reinforced themselves". What could be more exciting?

Eric's images of these palaces communicate the soulfulness and intensity of those human moments-- even as Ebert says "...the last picture show has closed".

2 years ago
Posted by Maureen@Save The Ramova

I have loved the Ramova Theatre since I saw Bambi there when I was 4 years old. In 2005 we started Save the Ramova to advocate for the preservation of our beloved old girl. At that time, the City of Chicago was claiming full blocks of S. Halsted via eminent domain for a re-development project of some type. It was unclear about the fate of our beloved theatre. So, we began research to determine the City's intentions for the theatre and found that they had acquired the theatre in 2001. Furthermore we found that the City had issued an RFP looking for a developer to buy and restore the theatre into a performance venue. Needless to say, we were thrilled! So, we put together a petition and within a short time we gathered 4000 local signatures to show that we loved and would support a restored theatre. Throughout the recession the homefires burned with hopes that once the economy improved, we'd find the right people to join together to restore our theatre. 8 years later our community wants this restoration more than ever! Bridgeport has become the artist mecca of the South Side. We have Michelin rated restaurants, craft beer bars, hell we even hosted Barack Obama's birthday party! We are still advocating for the restoration of the Ramova. Save the Ramova, IIT, Ray Shepardson of Market Value Productions (acclaimed theatre restoration expert who restored countless Atmospheric theatres including the Chicago Theatre) and others have been trying to find the right people to make this dream a reality. We will not give up until we find the proper mix of investors and bring our lovely friend back to life. Bridgeport is the community of now!

2 years ago
Posted by Kessler

I love the born-again Patio by Irving & Austin.

2 years ago
Posted by zombielogic

The Midway in downtown Rockford http://www.zombielogicblog.blogspot.com/search/label/Midway%20Theater

1 year ago
Posted by lslaw

Absolutely wonderful!
lorre Slaw

1 year ago
Posted by mattcchambers

I hope somehow the Uptown is restored to it's former glory.
Strange to read the article and immediately know that Ebert had misremembered about which theater had the Chicago screening of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I remember because I was at that screening. Ebert also failed to mention that Jack Nicholson was at that screening and signed autographs afterward. I remember he looked small and appeared to be inebriated, but I was still totally star-struck especially after having just seen him in that incredible film.

1 year ago
Posted by kareneashby

I'VE FINALLY FOUND A PLACE TO POST A COMMENT..MINE REGARDS TO THE REGAL THEATER ON 47TH AND SOUTH PARKWAY, NOW MLK DRIVE. I'M NOW IN MY 70'S AND MY MEMORIES OF THE REGAL GO BACK TO WHEN MY MOTHER WOULD WALK ME FROM OUR APARTMENT ON 51ST AND SOUTH PARKWAY TO THE REGAL ON 47TH STREET. MR BLUETT ALWAYS LET MY MOM IN SHE WOULD VISIT IN THE OFFICE AND I WOULD SIT IN A SEAT THAT WAS SINGLUAR FACING THE STAGE. I REMEMBER NAT KING COLE AND HIS TRIO,TO LAST JAMES BROWN SHOW WHERE HE KEPT CHANGING CAPES, IT WAS TOO FUNNY. I REMEMBER JOSEPHINE BAKER AND HER PONY TAIL, I THINK AT THAT TIME I BEGGED MY GRAND MOTHER TO HAVE THAT STYLE.. SO MANY AFRICAN AMERICAN TALENTS EMERGED FROM THE PROMINENT STAGE SHOWS. SAMMY DAVIS AND OTHER EMINENT DANCERS WERE STRUTTING AND TAP DANCING FROM ONE SIDE OF THE STAGE TO THE OTHER.BRINGING THOSE VENUES BACK WOULD GET PEOPLE OUT OF THEIR HOMES AND FROM INFRONT OF THEIR HOME MULTIPLEXES, THESE WERE DAYS GONE BYE THAT WILL NEVER RETURN, ONLY IN VINTAGE MINDS, ITS TIME TO LIVE IN THE PAST WHEN WE THINK OF THOSE GLORIOUS TIMES, EVERYTHING WAS LUXUROUS.THE BASIS OF CLUTTER. THE THINGS DREAMS ARE MADE FROM....THOSE WERE THE DAYS ETHNIC GROUPS STUCK TOGETHER, THERE WAS TOGETHERNESS THEN AND LIKE COUNTRIES NEIGHBORHOODS CAN STICK TOGETHER..

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