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Music Box Memories: A Legendary Theatre Celebrates 90 Years

The “theatrical experience” has become a hot-button issue in the last decade as more and more people watch movies in ways that don’t often include an actual movie screen. An executive at a theatre chain last year told me that the concern of his industry is finding new ways to get people back to the theater, including bells and whistles like in-theater dining and comfy blankets. The conversation may have hurt the chains, but it seems to have inspired even stronger loyalty to the beloved movie houses of the United States, the places that have been institutions of the theatrical experience for decades. In fact, one such palace of cinema turns 90 this week. The Music Box Theatre in Chicago remains not just a beloved landmark of its city but a vital organ in the body of the entire film industry. It’s more than just a movie theatre. It’s something that keeps the lifeblood of film passion in pumping in Chicago and beyond.

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I’m one of the producers of the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has called the Music Box home every Spring for the last six years. In that position, I have been lucky enough to host several special guests for our festival, and one of my favorite feelings every year is that crackle in the air when a director or star sees the 700-seat house in which their movie is about to play. Dozens of them have said something along the lines of “this is what I always wanted,” often in hushed, awed tones. These people work for years on their passion projects, and what’s so special about the Music Box is that it doesn’t treat that passion like disposable content. It unites the passion of the creator with the admiration of a loyal, film-loving cineaste. It’s a place, not unlike a church, that brings people together for something that feels like more than mere entertainment. What often gets lost in the debate over dining and blankets is the actual art of film. You feel that history and love of movies in every step you take at the Music Box. Here’s hoping they do it for another 90 years.

We asked some of our Chicago-based writers to share some thoughts of their own on Music Box, intercut with official anniversary tribute videos from the theatre, including comments by Werner Herzog, John McNaughton, Chaz Ebert, Michael Shannon, Joe Swanberg, and many more.

PATRICK MCGAVIN:

It’s true, as somebody I once interviewed said, people go to see films, and not theaters. That formulation largely refers to people who see four or five movies a year—not a week.

In my case, it hardly requires an anniversary, like the splendid 90th being celebrated this month by the Music Box Theatre, to be cast under its captive and enthralling spell. Any serious or just thrill-seeking moviegoer in Chicago has no doubt spent a day, a night, or in my case, a virtual lifetime there.

We all have our own nostalgia, and mine is for the large and beautiful ornate theaters that first captured my imagination half a century ago. A gorgeous Art Deco theater built in 1929, the Music Box is a living history. I feel deeply privileged to be part of their world, as a watcher, a critic, cultural journalist and occasional private contractor. (Full disclosure, I have written on and off for more than a decade occasional reviews for their quarterly and now bi-monthly film programs, for which I received a very modest fee.)

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The truth is I’d have done those pieces for free. Funny enough, the earliest theaters I haunted as a kid were of the grindhouse sort. The Music Box entered my consciousness as an undergraduate at Columbia College in Chicago. The grindhouse nature of the theater, when it was showing “Egyptian porn,” according to Chris Carlo, who ran the theater for many years with his partner, Bob Chaney, had just passed.

Chris and Bob took over and were helped immeasurably by the brilliant curatorial programming of Sandy Chaney (no relation to Bob) and his eventual replacement, Brian Andreotti. By 1989, the theater was the premier exhibition space for art house, revival and foreign language films. They were also the primary North Side venue for the Chicago International Film Festival for many years. (I have fond memories of the night Michael Moore, in an impromptu fundraiser, implored patrons to kick in so the theater could install refurbished seats.)

It was at the Music Box I saw my first or second Tarkovsky film, most of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s magisterial “The Decalogue,” the five John Cassavetes’s masterpieces that he owned: “Shadows,” “Faces,” “Woman Under the Influence,” “Killing of a Chinese Bookie,” and “Opening Night,” a knockout 50th anniversary print of “Citizen Kane,” and that was just from the late fall of 1989 to the spring of 1991.

The first two apartments I lived in following my graduation from college were walking distance to the theater, and it ostensibly became my second home. In the new lounge and cafe bar adjacent the theater, there are framed reproductions and posters from the theater’s repertory period. This is like Proust’s Madeleine. Every time I look at those double-features, most of it auteurist programming, and I am powerfully reminded of the weeks I saw five, six or seven movies there in a given stretch. As much as I love and cherish what the theater represents, I miss those days terribly.

Now the Music Box is a colossus, culturally and historically. In these fractured times, of the digital interruption and the rise of streaming, the theater has remained not just relevant but on the cutting edge, with its idiosyncratic and brilliant programming. They are what no other theater in Chicago has achieved, like its annual 70mm film festival.

In 2005, when Chris and Bob decided to get out of the business and return the running of the theater to owner Bill Schopf, I wrote about it for Crain’s Chicago Business. As part of the piece, I interviewed Alderman Tom Tunney (a cousin of the great actress Robin Tunney), and he rightly pointed out that the Music Box almost single-handedly transformed Southport Avenue from a somewhat dilapidated and shopworn area into the economic juggernaut it is today.

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I also wrote a story for Crain’s when Bill Schopf decided to expand and open a theatrical division. I heard a lot of negative comments, on and off the record, about the hubris. Music Box Films has made its mark. Some of the special 90th anniversary programming is dedicated to celebrating the works and filmmakers they have championed on the distribution side.

What a great story, and how thrilled I am to have been there for part of the ride.

COLLIN SOUTER:

For one week every year—in May, for the Chicago Critics Film Festival—I get to call the Music Box Theater my home away from home. While I could create a long list of CCFF-related memories for the six years we’ve been there (like doing Q&As, hosting midnight shows, meeting my girlfriend), I will try to make a quick list of memories unrelated to the yearly event, starting with my early days of attending this movie lover’s palace:

--1992. Seeing an animation showcase which introduced me to Aardman (“Creature Comforts”) and seeing the first ever “Ren & Stimpy” cartoon

--1993. Multiple midnight shows of Peter Jackson’s “Dead-Alive,” at the time, the “goriest film of all time” and a wild crowd-pleaser. I don’t think I’d heard an audience react like that before.

--1996. While my friends went to see the midnight show of “Wigstock,” I decided to go on my own to check out a film called “The City Of Lost Children.”

--1999. Midnight shows of “Babe: PIg in the City” weeks after Gene Siskel died (his favorite film of 1998).

--2000. A Joe Dante retrospective. Watching “Gremlins 2” with Dante sitting behind me laughing with delight at his own film remains one of my most cherished movie memories.

--2008. The only time I ever slept over at the Music Box for one of their 24-hour horror movie marathons, which culminated in the 10am showing of Brian DePalma’s “Carrie.”

--2014. Finally seeing “Stop Making Sense” the way it was meant to be seen: In a theater full of people on their feet dancing.

--70mm highlights include “Tron,” “Streets of Fire,” Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” and of course, “Lawrence of Arabia” and “2001.”

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Happy 90th, Music Box! Thank you for these cherished memories and so many more. Can’t wait for the big 100!

DONALD LIEBENSON:

Once upon a time in Chicago, repertory theaters showing vintage classic films on a daily basis, dotted the landscape. But now, the Clark Theater is gone, The Biograph Theater; gone. The 3-Penny Cinema; gone. The Playboy Theater; gone. You get the idea. But the Music Box lives! Not only lives, but thrives. My first apartment in Chicago was situated just three doors down and the Music Box became a second home. At that time, they programmed thematically-linked double features; the stuff that movie dreams are made of, to coin a phrase: “Casablanca” and “Play It Again, Sam”; “Allegro Non Troppo” and Warner Bros. cartoons; “Bedazzled” and “Dr. Strangelove.” All of these films, of course, are now available in a download instant, but you miss being en thrall to a big screen and the communal experience of sharing indelible movie moments with like-minded audiences (you won’t catch Music Box patrons checking their phones during a movie!). And the Music Box itself is a large part of the experience, an authentic Chicago movie palace that is living proof that you can go home again. Happy 90th birthday, Music Box. I hope in 90 years, you’re still showing Eddie Cantor double-features.

MATT FAGERHOLM:

Both of my most cherished memories at Chicago's greatest moviegoing venue, the Music Box Theatre, involve my dad's favorite actor, James Stewart. The sacrifices that Stewart's character, George Bailey, makes in Frank Capra's 1946 holiday perennial, "It's a Wonderful Life," resonate on a deeper level for my family with every passing year. My father has spent every day following his retirement as the primary caregiver for my mother stricken with Multiple Sclerosis, and like Bailey, he has been saved time and again by the community of friends and relatives whose lives he has touched. 

We still watch Capra's film together every Christmas Eve, and the ending never ceases to make us weep, yet no screening of the film can compare with the one we saw many years ago at the Music Box's annual Christmas Double Bill. The audience was as emotionally invested in every frame as we were, and it was such a thrill to join them in cheering on Bailey as he battled Mr. Potter's strikingly Trumpian corruption. We'd all attend this screening every year if my mom were in better health, but it is a memory that we will forever cherish.

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I'll also never forget the time Farley Granger arrived in person for a double bill of his classic collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock. First up was 1951's crowd-pleaser, "Strangers on a Train," with its climactic set-piece on an out-of-control merry-go-round that had the audience on their feet applauding. Then Granger apologized to the audience for the film they were about to see, 1948's "Rope," the deliberately claustrophobic thriller that Hitchcock himself had dismissed as a failed experiment. I had always found it to be a criminally underrated masterwork, with its innovative use of long takes mirroring the sociopathic nature of its central duo (played by Granger and John Dall) modeled after Leopold and Loeb. 

As their revered professor, Stewart brought down the house with his hilariously macabre asides, and the moral awakening that his character gradually undergoes results in a final confrontation both haunting and cathartic. When Granger returned onstage for his second Q&A, numerous audience members assured him that there was no need for an apology, and that the picture was exceedingly better than he may have long believed. The actor appeared visibly moved by the response, as did his longtime partner, who joined him for the book signing afterward. I have never felt more warmth shared between viewers, artists and the cinema itself than I do at the Music Box, and that's why I'll never stop coming back for more.

OMER MOZAFFER:

Chicago has had its iconic movie theaters. The Music Box outlasted them all. I watched the latest Amitabh Bachchan angry-young-man movies at the Arie Crown Theater. Soon, VHS gave us an access to Bollywood we could not have imagined. Now, it is likely that your local suburban theater screens a small selection of those movies. I watched titanic aliens on the giant screen at McClurg Court, though the common modern multiplex has a better screen. I discovered early Coens and Iranian filmmakers at the Fine Arts Theatre, which has vanished into memory. I performed in a play at Facets, and watched movies that no other theater carried. DOC Films at the University of Chicago screens everything, according to its student-selected themes. The Siskel Center joined the scene, providing its own share of alternatives, including the best of new Black cinema.

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The Music Box Theatre, however, persists through all the changes in the industry. At first glance, it is hard to identify its niche, but it is very clear. The first movie I watched there in the 1990s was the ninety-minutes-of-trying-not-to-blink of "Baraka." You can watch Tarantino at any theater, but there you can watch it in 70mm. You can watch all movies on your laptop, but there you can watch them on celluloid in an ornate auditorium. In the same day, you can watch Spielberg's magic wand, sing with Julie Andrews, learn from Osman Sembene, laugh with Buster Keaton, and groan with Agnieszka Holland.

What is its niche? This is not the Whole Foods of movies. This is not an antiques roadshow. It is not auteur cinema. Someone at the Music Box is not there to consume product pretending it is art. They are there to share in this universal language not limited by, yet not avoiding the constraints of genre or box office. Rather, they are there to immerse themselves in curated imaginations. What is its niche? It is "auteur cinefile."

PETER SOBCZYNSKI:

I have to admit that I do not specifically recall the very first time that I visited the Music Box—I think it may have been a double bill of “The Killer” and “Akira” back in the early 90s—but what I can say is that from the time I first stepped through the doors and entered the auditorium designed to suggest an open-air palazzo, complete with stars twinkling above in the “sky,” I immediately felt as if I was at home. (If they ever turn up a photo of the audience taken back in 1921, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see myself in it.) Over the years, I have been inside any number of movie theaters and there are indeed a number of them—the esteemed Virginia Theatre in Champaign, the huge Woodfield 1 and 2 screens that used to be the go-to place for the big blockbusters back in my beardless youth, the charmingly funky and still active Catlow in Barrington—that continue to hold a special place in this cineaste’s heart. However, the Music Box stands head and shoulders above them all—it is, when all is said and done, the platonic ideal of film exhibition and a reminder of the degree to which the circumstances under which we see movies contributes to our love of them.

As you may have heard, the modern moviegoing experience oftentimes leaves a lot to be desired. Sure, you can get recliner seats in a number of places now and the soda machine in the lobby does offer up dozens and dozens of flavor combinations. However, it is the items that you don’t get at the typical multiplex that make the Music Box so special. The place is 90 years old and has an ambiance that can only be acquired with the passage of time—you can feel the spirits of the movies that have screened there over the years as well as those who have come to bear witness to them during that time. (As for the actual ghost that supposedly resides there, I will leave that for you to explore on your own.) As for the presentation of those films, they can show films in practically every format up to and including 70MM and they have people who know what they are doing up in that projection booth. Very rare is the time when something goes wrong and when it does, the staff is on it in a heartbeat. Put it this way—this is not a place where you will often hear the phrase “That is how it is supposed to be” when things are out of whack.

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Then there are the movies. Good Lord, the movies. I cannot begin to recount all the movies I have seen there over the years, ranging from the classics that have turned up in their weekend matinees to the eclectic mix of foreign and independent titles that now make up the bulk of their programming to the weirdness that can be readily found in their eclectic late night programming on the weekends. (For single-handedly carrying on the tradition of the midnight movie, the place should be duly enshrined.) So many screenings from over the years stand out—taking my late father to see “Patton” in 70MM, going out at midnight to celebrate my birthday with a viewing of the Tony Curtis schlock classic “The Manitou,” watching “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” while somewhat hung over and being absolutely terrified by something that I had obviously seen numerous times before. This was where I saw such favorites as “Suspira,” “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” and “Myra Breckenridge” for the first time. I remember being the only person to turn up for a midnight screening of “The Three Stooges Meet Hercules” and the show still going on anyway. Just this year alone, they have screened—in 35MM no less—the likes of Robert Altman’s “OC and Stiggs” and the extra-gory cut of “Tammy and the T-Rex” and in the next few days, they will be showing an all-night Dolly Parton mini-festival (including “Rhinestone”) and “Old Boyfriends,” the undeservedly obscure first and only feature directing credit for Joan Tewksbury.

The people are a blast as well—a significant mention coming from me since I have never been much of a people person. The staff is top-notch—they have always been great people, they know their stuff, they genuinely care about what they are doing and when you ask for extra butter on your popcorn, they do it and them some. The crowds are also great. These are people who, for the most part, do not exhibit the appalling tendencies that can be found among far too many multiplex dwellers. They also have a genuine love of film to such an extent that it genuinely does feel like a community. I remember one time when I went to go see a midnight show of John Boorman’s legendarily weird sci-fi cult epic “Zardoz.” About 20 minutes or so into the movie, the film breaks, the lights go up and we are informed that it will be fixed and back on within a few minutes. Did the audience complain? Did they demand refunds? Did they stomp out into the dark? No—they essentially transformed into a discussion group to try to grasp and understand what they had just seen. And as one of the people who helps out with the annual Chicago Critics Film Festival, I am thrilled that we have been able to make the theater our home since 2014 and help share in its long and illustrious history.

So happy 90th, Music Box. In the world of film, you are a true anomaly. This is not just a theater by any means. This is moviegoing heaven in its purest form—even if the film one is attending turns out to be not particularly good, the simple experience of being there, absorbing its history and marveling that such a place still exists and thrives is enough to restore one’s faith that there is a future to the collective moviegoing experience after all. Now all they have to do is stay around for at least another 90 years or so. This is important because I have already informed that when I eventually shuffle off this mortal coil, some of my ashes are to make their resting place within its walls—ideally, they will be dropped from the projection booth during the Stargate sequence of “2001,” a film that has turned up there so often that the theater went so far as to commission their very own 70MM print. Besides, a place that great can always use an extra ghost, right?

 

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