Monday, June 09, 2008


Ah, simple pleasures for simple minds. I went to a movie yesterday afternoon…the first in-a-theater film I’ve seen in quite some time, not because I don’t love movies, but because Chicago has relatively few, and the huge chain theaters have effectively driven out the smaller neighborhood houses. (The city of Chicago taxes a single-screen Mom-and-Pop-run theater at the same rate it taxes the 42-screen multiplexes. Hardly fair, of course, but who cares? Certainly neither the city nor the chains.)

At any rate, Gary and I took the bus to the Loop and finally found the multiplex, tucked on the upper floors of a building on Michigan Avenue’s Miracle Mile. We paid the low, low matinee rate of only $8.50. We eschewed the snack stand both because I can no longer eat popcorn and the fact that a small (and they do mean small) box of the stuff goes for $3.75.

As we sat in the 200-seat not-all-that-comfortable theater (the seats are all on one level, making it difficult to see if you’re behind someone tall), I reflected on the time when movie-going was a national pastime, and most people went at least once a week. Tickets cost a quarter for kids and, I think, eighty-five cents for adults. There were no such thing as a multiplex, and the “better” theaters were gigantic, ornate palaces, which gave people still reeling from the Depression the illusion that things were not quite so bad as they appeared.

I remember hearing, too, that at the height of the Depression, theaters were kept afloat not on ticket sales, but on the sales of popcorn. More than nine cents of every dime bag of popcorn was pure profit, as I suspect is $3.70 of every $3.75 box sold today.

At the time I was growing up in Rockford, Illinois (population then around 90,000—today probably near 200,000), there were nine theaters: the dowager empress of them all was the Coronado, a true “movie palace” with blue, starry-sky ceiling and an interior designed to look like a Moroccan village. Lots of gilt, and velvet curtains which pulled majestically back at the start of every show. Plush carpets throughout, and huge, sweeping stairways leading to the enormous balcony. All the best of the first-runs came to the Coronado. It’s still there, saved from the wrecking ball in the nick of time, and is now, I understand, used as a performing arts center.

The Midway, on the East side of downtown, was not quite as ornate, but still large, and also played first-runs. In the block south of the Coronado was the Times: a very nice but much smaller theatre that offered the lesser-grade first runs and a lot of second-runs. Directly beside it was a small shop selling Carmel Corn which you could smell half a block away.

The Palace, on the same street as the Coronado and Times, was a cavernous second-and-C-movie place that had seen better times and ran Vaudeville between movie showings on weekends. The bottom of the barrel in theaters were the Rialto and the Capitol, located within a block of one another on the grimy south side of town. The Rex, the Auburn, and the Park (basically a Quonset hut) rounded out the list.

Every one of them served fresh-popped Manley Popcorn in tall, cylindrical bags, which featured an elephant with one leg on a large red ball. Each bag cost ten cents, and I always got two bags. While waiting for the show to start, I would be careful to eat only one kernel at a time to make it last. I honestly don’t remember theaters serving soft drinks at the time: if you were thirsty, you went to the water coolers in the lobby.

So much more that could be said about those days, not to mention the films that fed the theaters’ tills and the dreams and imaginations of their patrons. I miss them all.

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