Early beginnings in Chicago land movie theaters

It was the Chicago theater where I went to see my first movie. Though only three, I remember sitting on the right side of theater only a few rows from the front; fascinated by the colors, magic and amazing action presented in Sleeping Beauty. It was also at the Chicago Theater that I remember seeing Mary Poppins in 1964 and Sound of Music shortly after.

Chicago was known for having majestic theaters that included the Avalon. For me, on the South side with over 2,000 seats and I remember seeing IT’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Avalon was located on 79th street and I always felt like I was going on an exotic vacation designed in Middle Eastern style. Additionally, there were five huge murals in the lobby, which were made of tiny inlaid mosaic tiles, and a giant stage, which was guarded by four menacing gargoyles. The theater also once contained a 3/15 Wurlitzer theater organ. It is set to re-open next month as the Avalon Regal Theatre. 

Another favorite for southsiders was the Jeffrey theater on 71st in South Shore with a vertical marquee that could be seen up and down the street. In addition, The Hamilton Theater was opened in 1916, for the Cooney Brothers circuit, in the heart of the South Shore neighborhood’s 71st Street retail district.

Evergreen Plaza in Evergreen Park was a place we could hang out with our friends and Evergreen Theater was added in a separate building located on the malls south side in 1964. I remember seeing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Originally Evergreen Plaza, the shopping center opened in 1952 as an open-air mall, with Jewel, Lerners, Kresges,Carsons, Chas. A Stevens, Lyttons, and Walgreens being early anchors. The mall was enclosed in the early 1960s, becoming the nation’s first suburban indoor mall.

Now called Westfield Old Orchard, it was here we would travel to enjoy the open air mall that offered some of the first luxury stores in Skokie that were located downtown Chicago such as Marshall Fields and Lord& Taylor; the latter the oldest luxury department store in the United States. Old Orchard hosted a movie theater which is now called the Regal Gardens where I saw the 1967 movie, Thoroughly Modern Millie.

It was at the Ford City Mall Theater that I saw the Exorcist becoming one of the highest grossing films and the best in horror along with Jaws a few years later, of course, being released in the summer. Actually according to statistics, Jaws was the highest grossing film of all time until Star Wars was released in 1977.

After living in the south suburbs, the original one screen River Oaks Dimension 150 Theater was opened May 30, 1969 by ABC Great States Theaters. It had 1,600 rocking chair seats, a large curved screen, auditorium lights on the sides of theater that were dimly lit during intermission, and a giant curtain that opened from both sides at the middle. It was here that I saw the GodFather somehow remembering the horse head the most.

Opening at the Biograph,was the Rocky Horror Picture in 1975 which probably gets more attention now than ever before, always accompanied by a live cast.

Throughout the early 1980’s, there were many others that included the 400 on Sheridan Road in Rogers Park and the Genesee theater in Waukegan which opened into a huge lobby with a large chandelier. The stage was created for live theater and movies. In 1982, the Theater stopped showing movies due to economic decline and the rise of major movie cineplexes. And in 1989, it officially closed and went up for sale.

The City of Waukegan purchased the building in 1999 and began renovations at a cost of almost $23 million with the help of over 120 volunteers. The Genesee Theatre reopened on December 3, 2004 and still a host to many old time favorites that include Huey Lewis, Gordon Lightfoot and REO Speed Wagon.

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