It was with a measure of trepidation that I entered Alamo Drafthouse Wrigleyville last night for its dedication ceremony held prior to its opening today at 3519 North Clark Street. The venue is located not very far from the Music Box Theatre, which I along with countless other movie lovers in Chicago consider a sacred temple for the communal experience of cinema. Would the opening of an Alamo Drafthouse in the same neighborhood somehow endanger the Music Box's survival? It didn't take long for those fears to be put to rest: this theater chain offers an entirely different type of moviegoing experience, and it only expands upon the great mixture of new releases and revival screenings that have long been the Music Box's trademark. With over 500 people attending the current Billy Wilder weekend matinee series at the Music Box, there is clearly enough movie love in the city to justify the existence of multiple spectacular movie theaters.
Tickets for Alamo Drafthouse Wrigleyville's six-screen, 372-seat theater are now on sale here and through their mobile app. Located in the theater lobby is Video Vortex, which combines a cocktail bar with a video store that contains 13,000 films on VHS, DVD and Blu-ray. You can rent three at a time for free, provided you return them within five days. Naturally, I couldn't resist renting my first films in several years, and decided to go with Lina Wertmüller's "Seven Beauties," Robert Towne's "Personal Best" and Steve Binder's "The Star Wars Holiday Special" complete with a Rifftrax commentary track. Yet it's the VHS tapes available for rental that are the most enticing, and luckily, VHS players can be borrowed as well. How can one afford to miss such gloriously obscure titles as "Angela Lansbury's Positive Moves: A Personal Plan for Fitness and Well-Being at Any Age" or "How Can I Tell If I'm Really in Love?" starring siblings Jason and Justine Bateman?
What made last night so moving was its dedication ceremony attended by James Hughes, the son of Chicago's celebrated filmmaker, the late John Hughes. A plaque was unveiled, proclaiming that the venue would be known as the John Hughes Cinema, while a memorable scene from the writer/director's 1986 classic, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," in which a Ferrari sails to its doom, is recreated in the lobby as an ideal photo opp spot. Six Hughes pictures were screened simultaneously, including "Ferris Bueller," which was preceded by a special in-person introduction from Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League, clad in a Bueller bathrobe, and James Hughes, who recounted how his father used to love sitting at the dearly missed Julius Meinl cafe on Southport and sketch the customers.
"In 1984, I was fourteen and shared the same hairstyle, untucked Polos and braces as Anthony Michael Hall in 'Sixteen Candles,'" said League in a statement. "I maybe wasn't the king of them at my school, but I was undeniably a dork. The classic ‘80s John Hughes films hit me like a sledgehammer. For the first time, I experienced movies that truly understood my teenage experience and challenges. I am honored to be paying tribute to a revolutionary storyteller who both positively affected my life but also changed cinema forever."
As for the in-theater dining, the Alamo Drafthouse has the least intrusive system I've seen, involving order cards, a push button for service requests and attentive staff. I sampled the Royale with Cheese, Salted Caramel milkshake and popcorn with truffle parmesan seasoning, all of which I highly recommend. At the pre-show press conference, Roger Ebert.com publisher Chaz Ebert asked League how he's been able to expand his theater chain when so many others have been nearly derailed by the ongoing pandemic.
"All theaters during Covid had a really hard time," answered League. "We went through a chapter eleven restructuring process, and we came out of that stronger and leaner. We learned a few things about how to be lean, and now we're ready to keep marching. It's funny, the press that you sometimes hear is that cinema is dead and that it's all streaming from here. Pardon my French, but I think that's utter bullshit. The idea that you have a kitchen in your house but yet you still continue to go to restaurants, that's been proven tried and true. So it's the obligation of cinemas to have an incredible experience and compel you to come out of the home. Great directors want their movies to be seen with great presentation in this setting, not on a laptop while you're in bed multitasking and checking email. The industry is strong and it's coming back. We actually had a great year last year and this year is going to be even stronger, and so yeah, we got close to death during Covid. Regal, which is currently closing their theaters, is going through that same sort of restructuring process right now, so it's not like Regal is going to die. They're going to shed a few theaters, and maybe we'll pick up a couple of those theaters. We're ready to march, we're ready to expand and 2023 is going to be a great year for exhibition."
To which Chaz replied, "Long live cinema!"
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the official site of Alamo Drafthouse Wrigleyville.