The Last Show: Destiny Decreed
GRANADA: An ancient Moorish kingdom in southern Spain, capable of conjuring visions of romance and adventure for modern day man; movie palace extraordinaire, a heartbeat away from Edgewater, where dreams could be dreamed, and commoners become kings, far from the madding crowd.
Prologue(The lines introducing a discourse or play)
The grand Granada is no more. As crews leveled the more than 60 year old movie palace this past week, souvenir hunters scurried through its once-ornate aisles and enclaves, gathering scraps of curtain or chunks of plaster relief, last remembrances of a pseudo-Moorish monument to fantasy built by the Marks Brothers (the movie showmen, not the comedians). Despite a million-dollar renovation more than a dozen years ago and recent efforts to preserve at least its towering façade, the long-dark theater is coming down to make way for a 16-story apartment building and shopping complex to be known as Granada Centre.
(from the Pulitzer-Lerner News-Star Saturday, Jan. 13, 1990)
Act One - Destiny
The box office has been closed for quite some time, and there are no uniformed ushers anymore. But the security guard drinking convenience-store coffee and reading the Sun-Times in his car tried his best, nonetheless, to keep out a particular set of theatergoers without tickets in their hands.
Little did he know that Murphy’s Law meant nothing to usually meek-mannered historiophiles on a mission of serious intent. When he refused admission to these non-ticketholders, they just did what some other nameless locals had done for years - they went in through one of the fire-escape doors.
On that chilly Sunday morning in January, they saw one of the last shows in the stately old Granada Theater - a tragedy in the fine tradition of great tragedies, and a show that never should have played there at all.
The fire-escape door they entered was at the end of the lower aisle in the balcony. After taking a seat, front-row center (first come, first served), the theatergoers caught a glimpse of the coming attractions.
The north wall, the one behind the stage, had been knocked down the week before. The view through the proscenium was like a super-wide screen view of Sheridan Road, the vacant lot to the north, and the “L”.
It was an eerie sight. Sheridan Road and the “L” were in motion but, in the vacant lot the crane brought in to do the dirty deed sat still, except for the taunting motion of its wrecking ball swaying in the cold north wind.
It soon became obvious that not only was this preview not suitable for younger or more sensitive audiences, but also that it would continue uninterrupted until the final credits rolled. Since the action on the screen failed to enthuse the audience, they decided to do what people had done in the building for 60 years - walk around and marvel at the splendid and wonderful lobby.
Descending the marble staircase into the main hall, the theatergoers were still filled with awe. Even the broken windows, torn carpeting and missing chandeliers did not detract from the impressiveness of the space. Being in this space - more ornate than many cathedrals and larger than perhaps 90% of U.S. churches - was almost a religious experience.
Through this non-denominational space millions had passed before, people of all religions, races and ages; and, in this space, they found a common ground where all were welcome (well, all that had the admission price or were able to sneak in). Standing there one wondered how, in this day of preservation awareness, someone could do what was about to be done.
After most great shows, the viewers tend to linger after the curtain closes, exchanging excited quips on the performance before departing with a smile. And so we were not the only ones that lingered in front of the theater that Sunday. Dozens drove and walked past, many of them trying to stake their own claims on the site. We exchanged favorite Granada stories, but most departed in a glum mood.
As the sun climbed higher the morning of our visit, it grew colder. The security guard, tired of our loitering-with-intent, called the Chicago police, who told us to leave. They seemed embarrassed to be involved in the situation. As the squads pulled up and the officers got out of their cars, I heard one say, incredulously, “These people?”
Technically interlopers, we more accurately were lovers of art and culture, intent upon keeping alive a piece of local history. Not to mention a piece of local terra cotta.
Unmolested, the real vandals crouched knowingly outside and waited. Time and the wrecking ball would have their way; the Granada’s destiny had been decreed - “a Clod… washed away by the Sea.”
No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
-from Meditation 17 by John Donne
Interlude(A [usually] short farcical entertainment performed between the acts of a medieval mystery or morality play)
“Does anyone want to go catch, like, the real last show at the Granada?”… “The what?”… “The Granada - you know - the theater that means pomegranate in Spanish - the one they’re tearing down. The one our folks always raved about, how gorgeous it was and all”… “Guess it wouldn’t hurt to take a few pics and a plaster piece for the historical society.”
“But don’t you think playing cops-and-robbers is a bit radical for respectable, middle class people our age? This isn’t exactly a raid on Entebbe”… “Isn’t it? Look… it’s going to be completely gone - NADA - forEVER - in a few days. You want to just read about history or be part of it?”… “Well… when?”… “Sunday morning - there won’t be any wrecking crews then - 8:00 a.m. - BE there!”
“What does one wear to a raid?” I thought. “Black jacket, hard hat and flashlight accessory might be good… but can we really get inside - get one last glimpse of the beauty discarded?” I replied silently.
We arrived to find a security guard in his green car, motor running. People strolled by, slowing down to look; it seemed part of a ritual to check out the program of destruction… like rubber-necking an accident scene on the expressway. But some stopped and spoke of days gone by, of the elegance and vaudeville, of graduation ceremonies and movies. The guard was annoyed that onlookers were assembling: “Keep behind that fence; you can’t come in here!”
Photographers appeared like hounds hunting prey: “Are there any good shots left?”… “I’ve been here every day”… “I have a sequence”… “The light is good today”… “I wish they could save it”… “It’s a relic, poorly constructed; you can see it now as it comes apart - there are beams set on masonry walls.”
As these ideas - shallow, sentimental, scintillating, sorrowful - rose together like a fugue in the cold air, it seemed almost therapeutic. These visitors to the shrine, the relic - the moment in the past when movies were movies - were consoling each other. Guilty! They had failed to save the grande dame. The “big momma” of all theaters was dying; the “pomegranate” would bear no more fruit.
The guy with the video camera was frustrated. He really wanted some footage of the interior - the exposed areas of the theater where the seats, long gone, had been. He talked the guard into holding the camera and shooting for him.
Perfect cover!! We hoped the guard wouldn’t notice a sudden thinning of the crowd and moved to the back boarded-up entrance. Except someone had torn it down so anyone could walk in. What luck!
Camera at the ready, I felt a chill as I stepped into the doorway. The ornate plaster work was overwhelming despite the fact that scavengers had already torn apart the base of every column. The three-story lobby with decorative arched ceiling was dark. Light filtered through broken windows to the south… good enough for the speed of film I was using.
My sense of nervousness and anxiety started to register on the Richter scale as I snapped away; the guard would notice our absence soon and come looking through the ruins for us. I quickly glanced around on the floor, looking for some small, inconspicuous piece to take. I grabbed some worse-for-the-wear, decorative pieces and stuffed them in my jacket - looking suddenly overweight.
In a second I froze. I heard voices. A thief… caught in the act! “Good God in heaven, how am I going to explain this to my kids?!” I prayed in exclamation.
An older man and his teenage son entered from the back, talking. In the half-light they called to me. I recognized them! We’d just shared stories on the outside. Now inside - fellow conspirators - we spoke in hushed tones: “There’s not much left!” From above us came another voice, three stories up: “We found the projection room… and the manager’s office is beautiful!”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw the guard, flashlight in hand. He was climbing through the wreckage that once was the seating of the theater. I called in a stage whisper, “Here comes the guard!”
The guard was furious - half, a genuine concern for our safety and half, an “act” to keep his job in this theater with no more performances. He herded all of us out the front entrance, behind the walkway, to an open area where his car was parked.
Along the way he dutifully threatened, yelled and called us “trespassers.” When we got to the open area, he refused to open the gate and made us climb over the fence by stepping on two blocks of wood and jumping. I made it to the other side, clutching my jacket full of broken plaster. As he continued to yell, the other onlookers got an earful. He moved to his car and I moved to mine.
I placed my well-intentioned, ill-gotten goods in the trunk, held my breath a moment, and then said to my compatriots: “I saw some better stuff setting on a ledge as I came out. I have to get back in!”… “You’re kidding!”… “You’re not kidding!”
Rather suddenly, the guard made a decision to leave the area and headed for a telephone at the “L” station. In a seriously demented but clear frame of mind, I moved quickly to push over the flimsy fence and run inside to the ledge. Obviously, this was someone else’s “collection” that hadn’t been returned for. “DOUBLE JEOPARDY” flashed in neon somewhere in my brain.
The pieces were face down but a lyre-shaped one caught my eye. I grabbed it - a face and part of a column - and ran back to the fence through which I slipped awkwardly. I deposited the booty in the back of my car and then thought better of it. I switched everything to the trunk. The spoils, the discarded fragments, would soon become treasures… architectural orphans alone in the world… too valuable to be left lying in the open.
The guard returned and threatened, “Clear out of here!” I moved away from the sidewalk, back toward the south side of the building. A fellow member of the S.W.A.T. (Save What’s Artistically Terrific) team pulled up in his truck just as the police arrived. I quickly motioned that he should make himself scarce for the time being. I returned to the area where the police stood reinforcing the guard. The guard swiftly pointed to me - “She was one of those who entered the building!”
I stood there, suitably meek and mild, camera around my neck. “We came for pictures. I meant no harm.” A policeman walked up close and barked, “Lady, we’re going to arrest you if you re-enter that building!”
I made no comment and looked chagrined, calling to mind all the proper, docile responses to aggressive behavior. Years of watching “Wild Kingdom” on TV were paying off. Just as in the animal realm, I knew that if I cowered and appeared willing to move away, nothing more would happen.
I joined one of my colleagues and we returned to my car as the second police vehicle arrived - nothing much else happening for them on a sleepy Sunday morning. How did I get into this anyway?
We drove north and turned around. The trip south showed policemen on the west side of Sheridan, watching. A second trip north revealed that one police car had moved on. By the second trip south, the guard had moved away from the fence and seemed less interested in the new small crowd that had gathered. He was probably pleased as punch that the varmints had been vanquished and tired from the effort.
Lost in personal reverie, he didn’t notice the raiders had returned to the crumbling ark, the temple of gloom. In no time flat, “Indy” was up on the roof - a glorious view he later related. We wanted to see everything - to freeze-frame the memory, the beauty, even the chill in the air. We grabbed more momentos. It was hard to leave.
Voices called from inside the hulk: “A few more minutes and we’ll come out”… “Leave now; we’ll meet you later”… to talk about the day, the hours of our return, our raid. We’re part of the history now - those who returned to pay our respects during the months-long memorial service.
The Granada is gone. The farce is ended. Go in peace.
Act Two - Denouement
The denouement - the clarification or unraveling of the plot, the mystery solved - the outcome, the end of the play.
In the beginning, the Granada was a monument built for fantasy, a theater for vaudeville and movies, a grand escape from the ordinary and mundane. It was built in 1928 by the Marks Brothers, who owned other theaters and capped off their chain with the construction of a twin of the Granada at Crawford and Madison, the Marbro.
The Granada was of Spanish motif and quite large, as was the trend of the day. It was symmetrical, beautiful and spacious, and ornately appointed in every detail. It reeked of elegance, and its pipe organ was of the latest design. The stuff dreams were made of.
Formats in the heyday of theaters were pretty much alike. First-run pictures plus a stage show became the norm. The show changed weekly, generally running Friday through Thursday. The Granada and Marbro had two orchestras, Charles Kaley’s and Benny Meroff’s, which alternated each week. And the people gladly paid.
As the age of TV gained momentum, theater attendance dwindled, along with box office receipts. Movies gradually gave way to concerts, special performances and meetings. People stopped coming; people stopped caring. And cash-strapped movie palaces couldn’t afford the upkeep of elegance.
No wonder no one noticed the drama, “The Granada: Ownership or Bust,” playing behind the scenes, on the silent screen.
The mortgage (so to speak) was due, Little Nell was tied securely to the railroad tracks and the villain, land banker Lou Wolf (whose name strikes dread into the hearts of aldermen and city housing prosecutors), stood smugly by, twirling his moustache with ease, the new legal owner of the deed.
The hero never showed. “Land-banking,” the strategy by which one buys enormous properties and allows them to sit vacant and disintegrate until huge profits on the land can be made, also called scavenging or speculating, happens to be legal in the state of Illinois, you see.
Wolf bought the Granada, not for love of the building or its history, but for the land. The building became dangerous and was boarded up. Squatters invaded, teens met there and gangs inevitably appeared to write slogans. Villain, fade to background and exit stage left.
Developer with a vision, enter stage right: “This land was also once the site of St. Ignatius Church. It could be useful - for housing and shopping - and beautiful again… something for the ’90s!”
The preservationists do battle, showing photos, seeking restoration of the elegance, the fantasy, the dreams.
“Dreams! Let’s be practical. The building has structural weaknesses. It can’t work without parking. It’s a relic of a former age. Let’s get on with the new, with what people need.”
The developer is well-connected, thousands of dollars at his command. Restoration fundraising is next to impossible; theater historians can only shrug their shoulders - the place is too far gone. Community reps want the removal of a hazardous eyesore: “We need a rebirth, something new - an economic act of faith in a depressed community.”
The preservationists seek a compromise: “Save the façade - save the lobby - combine the old with the new!” “Nonsense! It can’t be done!” was the victor’s reply. Exit developer. Conflict over, only nostalgia buffs, the artists, the dreamers stay for the last act.
Enter the wrecking crew and scavengers. Granada memorabilia for sale cheap - St. Louis firm will sell! The wrecking foreman wants to save it - he wants a fragment too. So they begin at the north end: smaller storefronts first, then the north wall and stage, façade for last, hold the dream.
The process is slow and painful. The old theater is a tangled web of structural steel; her skeleton demands blow torch destruction. She proudly refuses to fall over and die. The company that was to save the façade backs out of the deal; no hope now.
The dreamers return for one last look. Years later they will say, “I was there. I saw the end; I treasure the memory.” Today they bring their cameras; they stand and talk in secretive whispers; they watch the fantasy crumble. They sneak inside for one last glimpse of craftsmanship that will never again be duplicated.
They stare with mouths agape. A death-like chill permeates the sad half-light as they strain to photograph the remaining friezes, heavy plaster held fragilely together with horse hair. They only have a few moments to try and rescue a chunk, a small fragment to jog the memory later on. Others have scavenged before; there is precious little left. Time is up.
“Trespassers, get out! You’re not supposed to be in here! You can’t look at this any more! It’s not yours; it must come down! Forget it; go on with your lives! Something new will take its place; something better! It was poorly constructed, not worth saving! It will all be over in a few more days… so go home and count the hours… the minutes… the seconds…”
Epilogue(A short addition at the end of any literary work, often dealing with the future of its characters)
The Granada Theater’s roof caved in at about 3 p.m. Monday after the wrecking ball hit the wrong support. Howard “L” trains were delayed because part of the east wall was leaning toward the tracks. No one was hurt in the mishap.
(from the Pulitzer-Lerner News-Star Wednesday, Jan. 17, 1990)
I was standing at the theatre door
The theatre isn’t anymore
And all the things that went before
They were still there.
I was staring at the silver screen
The silver’s nowhere to be seen
But every once a passing scene
It is still there.
I was hanging ‘round the entry hall
Since that time the wrecking ball
No more looking at the gilded wall
The shine’s still there.
I was under the grand marquee
No more tickets there for you or me
Just the memories which are free
Don’t you see them there?
I was looking out there from the stage
That it’s now gone fills me with rage
But every usher every page
Knows I was there.
I was sitting in the audience
The balconies now a parking fence
And though I haven’t been there since
I am still there.