Where Have All The Movie Theaters Gone?
Vol. X No. 2 - SPRING/SUMMER 1999
Edgewater has been without a movie theater for some years now. The Bryn Mawr Theater is a fruit and vegetable market; the Devon Theater was demolished in 1996 and the Calo is home to live theatrical performances created by the Griffin Theater. These were just three of the theaters operating in Edgewater 80 years ago. But there have been many more movie theaters in Edgewater. In our collective memory, the movies were shown in storefront theaters as well as the intermediate size houses of 600-1000 seats and, of course, the grander venues of the glamorous theaters like the Granada and the Uptown. And for some reason we can’t get over those memories. Perhaps it was the manipulations involved in the Granada demolition, perhaps it was the tour of the vacant and neglected Uptown in 1993, but our memories just can’t let go of the idea of a neighborhood movie house. For many of us the movie houses live in our memories, as part of growing up, dating and just enjoying the fantasy of the movie world.
Today, there are few people who remember the first movie houses. One of the first, the Balmoral at Sheridan and Balmoral, was demolished in 1911. The location of another, the Foster, is unknown. Two theaters were opened in 1910 and no longer exist: The Hollywood Theater at 5628 N. Broadway and the Temple Theater at 5241 N. Clark have been gone a long time. But Dick Gengler has memories of the Temple which held 600 and had a balcony. It had originally been called the LeGrand. The location on Clark Street made it convenient for many, by streetcar or walking. Nearby were several restaurants and a favorite snack place called the Cat and Fiddle. Dick remembers some of the films he saw there like Rin Tin Tin and the Tom Mix and Richard Dix films. In the 1930’s Dick saw a Janet Gaynor film there. The theater had a large neon sign which is visible in a 1921 photo of Clark Street. It was open and busy into the 1940’s. It is now only a memory since the building that housed it was changed to a grocery called Happy Foods and then more recently to stores that have housed Studio 90, Ramsey Florist and Women and Children First.
By 1912 the theater business was thriving and expanding in Edgewater. Two motion picture theaters were opened, one at 5419 N. Ashland and the other at 6161 N. Broadway. The one on Ashland closed in 1926. Also opened in 1912 was a small theater called the Edgewater Theater at 1130 W. Bryn Mawr. It was located in a storefront which has the name Michael’s at the top. The storefront still stands, part of the Bryn Mawr Historic District. But if anyone remembers it as a theater, we’d like to know.
The Bryn Mawr Theater was also opened in 1912, but with much more space, 768 seats, and a Wurlitzer organ. This was important for both the presentation of silent films and the live entertainment called vaudeville. The Bryn Mawr survived into the 1970’s and there are many who remember it as a theater. It was built by the well known theater architects, Rapp and Rapp. It was, and still is, a simple design for a crowded street. The marquee was supported by posts on the sidewalk. Like some of the later theaters it was built so that at the street entrance there were stores on either side of the long lobby that reached back to the auditorium. According to the memories of Betty Jaci, Marion Lettner and Dick Gengler, this movie house was a busy place. The theater offered a variety of entertainment, serial flicks, vaudeville and magic shows. and feature films. The ushers here wore gray and burgundy. Because it was convenient to the “el” it attracted an audience from a larger area. It was not one of the grand theaters that were developed in the 1920’s, but it lasted a long time, showing second-run films in Edgewater long after many other theaters had closed.
Shortly after the Bryn Mawr opened, two larger movie houses were built on Edgewater’s main north/south streets. On Clark Street the Calo Theater opened at 5406 with a seating capacity of 880 in 1915. The building now houses the Griffin Theater which is using a portion of the space that was subdivided some time ago. Some in our community may remember it as a bowling alley, but remnants of its former glory can be seen in the performance space created by the Griffin. Dick Gengler fondly remembers walking in the front door past the beautiful white terra cotta entrance to purchase a ticket at one window in the lobby, and handing the ticket to the ticket-taker and then finding a seat. There were ushers and handbills announcing the upcoming attractions. At first the films were silent and a piano player added sound and drama to the images on the screen. There was usually a newsreel - the only way to see actual footage of world events. Once in a while there was a short comedy. “If it was the weekend you had the never ending serials,” says Dick. The serials were weekly episodes of a story with one well known character. The “Perils of Pauline” or the “Phantom” come to mind, but many of the serials were westerns and they always left off just before an impending disaster. They were often shown at a Saturday matinee that was frequented by the younger crowd.
In those days younger children could go to the movies without an adult. An older sibling would be in charge. Nicky Sievers remembers making the trip with his older brother from the area around Thorndale. They were given 25 cents which covered eating at a restaurant at Thorndale and Broadway for 12 cents. This lunch included a hamburger and milk shake. Then they hopped a street car going south to the Uptown for 3 cents. There would be a line in front of the place before 11:00 a.m. waiting to get into the show. Many kids got there early to get the best seats, which were in the center just below the balcony. The worst seats were in the front row. Snacks like popcorn and candy were served by vendors who carried them in a tray hung by a strap around their neck, like the old cigarette girls.
When the “talkies” came there would be a feature film. “In the 1920’s and 30’s they had an amateur night at the Calo with a competition for a prize, and they were almost always bad,” according to Dick Gengler. As a youngster Dick remembers taking advantage of an opportunity he just couldn’t resist, sneaking in from the alley through the window of the men’s washroom. The Calo was still in operation as a theater in the 1940s. The development of the famous Granada and Uptown did not force the closing of this popular neighborhood theater.
Another larger theater called the Knickerbocker opened in 1915 at 6226 Broadway. It had 949 seats and was operated by Essaness. This building was later called the Devon Theater even though it was two blocks from Devon. It was torn down recently to make way for the expansion of Loyola University into Edgewater. It is remembered fondly by members of the Granville Avenue Methodist Church, because the church was able to hold services there when their building suffered a fire and needed repair. The Devon always showed the older films or second-run films. They often showed films with actors and actresses that were unknown to many because they had been stars a decade before, or perhaps were not very big stars. According to Nicky Sievers there were never any newsreels shown there. The theater had only one aisle but it did have a marquee so that those going by on Broadway could always know what was playing. Even in the 1940’s and 50’s the building had boiler problems. Above the theater on the second floor was a beautiful dance studio. The movie house was still in operation in the 1970’s, prior to the expansion of the theater business into multiplexes and the abandonment of city neighborhoods like ours.
The name Devon must have been a popular one since several theaters used this name. There was a Devon on the 6400 block of North Clark in 1905. It was followed by the New Devon Theater at 1614 W. Devon in 1912 (the building still stands). Another theater on Devon, located at 1554 W. Devon, was built in 1917 to hold 1480 seats. The architects were Lubliner and Trinz. This theater was renamed the Ridge Theater, though it is nowhere near Ridge. It still stands today as the Clark Devon Hardware store. Some of the original architectural detail is still evident on the building. In a sense. the moving picture theater on Devon has been replaced by the Theater of Hardware. There’s an opportunity here to create some old/new movie posters featuring some of the fine tools and paint available inside. How about a poster for “The Money Pit” or “Mr. Blanding’s Dream House?”
After the construction of large, fantasy theaters in the 1920’s, Edgewater residents did not confine themselves to the local theaters and often enjoyed the Granada, the Uptown and the Riviera. Although we previously published a story about the demolition of the Granada Theater in 1990, it is interesting to note some of the facts about that Marks Brothers theater. It was built in 1926 and accommodated 3,448 seats. The style of architecture could be called Spanish with plenty of gold paint and decorative patterns in low relief. In 1932 the Balaban and Katz organization took over operations. Although it had been used by Loyola University for some special events, the University was not interested when it was sold to Louis Wolf in the 1980’s. Wolf held it in a sort of land banking plan (hold a deteriorating but important property until the land rises in value and the site becomes more attractive than the broken down building) while it stood empty and deteriorating. In 1990 a developer appeared and, despite pleas from community residents, it was torn down and replaced with what is called the Granada Center. In this case the building is gone but the name remains. What we wonder is what happened to the large circular stained glass window that was removed from the building prior to the demolition? Does Mr. Wolf have it or has it been sold to a collector in another city who holds it privately? We in the communities of Edgewater and Rogers Park have suffered an irreparable loss. What we have are our memories; memories that are fading. If you ever went to the Granada you can still enter the building in your mind, marveling at the gracious lobby and beautiful ceiling as you climb the long staircase to the balcony and sit in the plush seats. The Rogers Park Historical Society has an extensive collection of photographs taken in the Granada’s last days.
Another Rogers Park Theater that Edgewater residents often visited was the Adephi at 7074 N. Clark Street. It was built in 1917 by Edgewater architect J.E.O. Pridmore, who lived on Kenmore and later Winthrop Avenues. This building has undergone both renovation and name changes. Currently it is being operated as a specialty house featuring films from India. It is quite a popular place.
The list would not be complete without mention of the famous Uptown theaters. The Riviera at 4746 N. Racine was built in 1919 to hold 1886 scats and was once called the Orpheum. The building was completed by Rapp and Rapp for Balaban and Katz. In 1920 a Wurlitzer organ was installed. Today the seats are gone, as it stands duty as a popular night club. The music plays on; it’s just not the Wurlitzer. And speaking of the seats, Ara Mayian voted those seats as the most comfy. Does anyone know what happened to them?
Ara remembers the theaters in Edgewater and Uptown from his early days here. In particular. he remembers being taken to the Ardmore Theater at Winthrop and Argyle at the age of eight. In addition to the happy memories of the serials, Ara remembers the newsreels: “They were ‘the eyes and ears of the world’ and brought a bigger world to us long before television. The news clips from the war (WWII) did not seem real to me as a kid. Only years later did I realize what I had seen.”
And now, for the grand lady of theaters. the Uptown. Since we ran our tour there in 1993 many things have happened. Alderman Smith has been instrumental in getting some protection for this landmark building, repair of the facade. a new roof and other structural elements. It is not a solution, just a step in the process. The Uptown was built at 4817 N. Broadway by Rapp and Rapp in 1925. It featured a magnificent Wurlitzer organ which was installed in 1928.
One block buster film shown at the Uptown was “Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” which featured Bing Crosby and Joan Caulfield. This show was so popular that it was held over for an extra week. According to Jack Kessie, a former usher, this was a major event and ushers from other theaters owned by Balaban and Katz were sent to help at the Uptown.
Any mention of ushers may bring a response from many men who held this job as young men. The role of the usher was dictated by the day of the week as well as the size of the crowds. In most cases people did not attend movies at any scheduled time because there was no schedule for the live entertainment and various short subjects. Therefore, when people showed up to see a movie, the usher had to help them find a seat. They each carried a flashlight for this purpose, to lead the customer down the aisles to a seat. This meant, of course, that they had to keep track of when a seat opened up. On week days when the weekend “candy girl” was not present, the ushers had to sell candy. During the Depression, Tuesday evenings would be “dish night.” The ushers would have the job of handing out the “premium,” which might be a special bowl or a piece of Depression glass. Other jobs included carrying the films up to the projectionist, and carrying them down when they were to be returned. This was a once-a-week job. The films always changed after Thursday night, just like today, and this also required changing the Marquee. It was the head usher’s job to get up on a ladder and change the letters to announce the new film. It was not easy, before use of the arm extension, to reach the rows on the marquee. The shorter the title, the better!
The three former ushers who helped us on this report, Jack Kessie, LeRoy Blommaert and Bill Steinfeld, all agree on their description of the uniform worn by the Balaban and Katz ushers. It was given to each usher from a rack of sizes, and it included black pants and a short, light blue jacket. Under the jacket was worn a cummerbund and a stiff dickey which included a collar and a bow tie. This was worn instead of a shirt, and it meant that the usher could wear a T-shirt under the jacket. The ushers worked part-time, a 3-4 hour shift. On the weekends it was longer. The theaters were always packed on weekends.
The Uptown theater is gigantic. Besides the grand lobby, an immense theater seating area, large stage, and huge balcony, it had many smaller rooms. These rooms may have been used as waiting rooms or to serve refreshments. The decor was Spanish with gilt columns and many decorative elements. They are not shining anymore; the glory has faded. If you saw it today, you might prefer your memory of it in a day when movies were movies and 3000+ people could be counted on to show up for something other than a sporting event.
The future of the Uptown is uncertain. Its immense size would place its operation in competition with the downtown, clout-heavy theater operators. Any subdivision of the interior would have to be well planned in order to produce enough income to operate this immense space. As the site of a multiplex it lacks parking and, of course, the division would destroy the space and design of the interior. If it can he held and further deterioration prevented, perhaps a genius will appear with a plan. It is so big, it could have many uses. If you are the practical type, think about the problem. If you prefer the fantasy and the memories, close your eyes and picture yourself standing on the plush carpet, waiting by an elegant rope barrier for the earlier show to let out or for a seat to be vacated. Imagine looking at the double staircase and the beautiful gilt columns and thinking that, for this show, you’ll try the balcony near the front row where you’ll be in the center of elegant architecture. For a few hours of movies and entertainment, anything is possible.
Kathy Gemperle, Elizabeth Mayian; Research: Thom Greene and the Theater Historical Society
Editor’s note: Marion Lettner, Dick Gengler, Bill Steinfeld, Ara Mayian, Jack Kessie, Nicky Sievers, and LeRoy Blommaert provided information and memories. Thanks!