Remember when you could have a Saturday night movie date in a grand old neighborhood movie theater with a screen as big as half a city block? Today, many of those theaters are gone, torn down to make way for parking lots, grocery stores and other less grand buildings.
Before thousands stormed the mall multiplex, the average American saw movies at grand movie houses. Chicago was no exception. The birthplace of the film industry, Chicago’s movie houses were big and ornate, often with gilded walls and beautiful ceiling murals.
The South Side still has several of those majestic movie houses hanging on. Bridgeport residents and others driving on Halsted Street pass the old Ramova. The Avalon has been renovated and is now the New Regal Theater, reminding us of the original Regal on King Drive that was torn down to make way for a parking lot.
Although most of the big movie palaces have been replaced by parking lots and other modern structures, there are several movie theaters on the South Side that are hiding in plain sight. They are available for viewing if you know where to look.
The Beverly Theater (1543 W. 95th St.) was a one-screen, 1,200-seat theater located in the Beverly neighborhood of Chicago. Warner Brothers owned the theater at first, until the Coston family took it over in the mid-fifties and operated it until 1976, when it closed.
Since 1979, the theater has been the home of the Third Baptist Church of Chicago, but the original edifice still exists—upon entering the church, you can still see the beauty of the movie theater that was once there.
In the Auburn Gresham neighborhood on the corner of 79th Street and Ashland Avenue is the Ambassadors for Christ Church. It was originally the Highland Theater (7859 S. Ashland Ave.). This magnificent structure has been the site for high school graduations and theatrical performances, but walking in the lobby, you see what a splendid movie house it once was.
The Highland Theater opened in 1926 as a one screen theater with over 2,000 seats. It was built by architects Newhouse and Bernham, the firm that designed the last incarnation of downtown’s McVickers Theater.
The Highland closed over thirty years ago, reopening as the Ambassadors for Christ Church.
In South Shore, east of Park Manor, sits the Jeffery Theater (1952 E. 71st St.). This one screen, 1,798 seat theater was built in 1923 as part of the Cooney Brothers circuit, playing movies and vaudeville acts.
Warner Brothers operated the theater in the thirties and forties, showing only movies. Later, the Coston family, of Beverly Theater fame, also ran the theater. The building was demolished but the façade and lobby are still standing. Those fixtures housed ShoreBank from 1973 until the bank closed in 2010.
Chicago has always been known for great architecture, but few are aware of the city’s history of building opulent movie houses. The styles were as varied as the inhabitants of the city and ranged from Art Deco to Neoclassical to Moorish. Theaters had lights flashing through the skies and fountains in the lobby. The success of the movie palace industry ushered in the idea that moviegoers were kings and queens deserving of a palace.
Unfortunately, due to the cost of maintenance and the advent of suburban multiplexes, movie palaces have been demolished in most cities with only a few—like the Chicago Theatre downtown, the Music Box in Wrigleyville, the Fox in Atlanta, and the Fox in Detroit—still in operation.
For those of us who had the pleasure of viewing a Saturday matinee or a date night movie on the big screen, we mourn the loss of those movie palaces. Once you’ve seen classics like Star Wars or Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen, viewing them on the television or computer screen is simply not the same. And never will be.
Karen Ford is the author of Thoughts of a Fried Chicken Watermelon Woman and runs the blog caviar-grits.blogspot.com. She lives in Auburn-Gresham. Some of the information in this article can be found on cinematreasures.org