The Lost Cinemas of My Youth, Pt. 1

Late last year, coinciding with the release of Interstellar, the Chicago Tribune ran an interview with Christopher Nolan, the movie’s director, in which he was asked by columnist Christopher Borrelli how the years spent in Evanston during his preteens (he later moved to England) informed his love of film. And here Nolan did something unexpected; rather than listing the seminal movies of his youth, or reminiscing about his earliest attempts at the art form, he ticked off various local movie theaters. “I remember all the names of the movie theaters back then,” he said. “They definitely made a huge impression.”

This really struck a chord. Because I, too, can remember all of the movie theaters from my youth. And I’m not just talking names, mind you, but also the titles of pretty much every movie I saw at each and, goofier still, the quality of theatrical presentation, not just overall, but, in many cases, within individual auditoriums. Ask me what I had for dinner yesterday and I’d be lucky to have even the slightest clue. Ask where I saw “Poltergeist” back in June 1982 and I could tell you, without hesitation: Edens II, Northbrook, IL, in 70MM Six-Track Dolby to boot.

So what accounts for the freakish recall?

An intense love of movies and the movie-going experience, of course. And then there’s timing, a decade plus in which much of the stuff I watched on the big screen was of an ilk best referred to as “intensely cinematic blockbusters.” Let’s face it, even the most obnoxious film snob, at age 12, isn’t pondering Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being at the local multiplex, his little hand scratching notes on cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s use of the color blue. No, what he’s doing is drooling over the melting faces at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Appreciation for the more esoteric stuff cinema has to offer comes later and, sadly, usually on video. (How else to catch up with all those foreign flicks?)

We tend to remember extremes in life. Survive a serious car accident and 50 years later it wouldn’t be a stretch to think that you could pinpoint the exact location where it took place. On the flip-side, make a hole-in-one and that particular par-3 becomes, forevermore, the source of interminable fascinating blow-by-blow reminisces. Same goes for movies. An adolescent giddily emerging from Raiders of the Lost Ark will always associate the theater with that positive experience. The truth is, a movie theater can make as big an impression as the film itself—bigger, sometimes, especially if the movie is a stinking turd called Stargate shown at the now defunct McClurg Court in Chicago. Minutia can stick like burrs. Give me a sonically impressive crack of the bullwhip or the Well of the Souls rendered in beautiful widescreen and of course I’m going to want to come back for the next big show.

Sounds like Mr. Nolan is on the same page.

What follows (in three parts) is an exhaustive (and I hope entertaining) look at the movie theaters I frequented from the mid-1970s through the late-1980s. Alas, most of them are gone.

GENERAL CINEMA I & II (Highland Park, IL)

Play me the General Cinema corporate bumper and, like an acid-flashback, my brain transports me to this theater, home to my earliest movie-going memories and, consequently, the place most responsible for planting that movie-loving seed that continues to bear fruit to this day.

Once located at 1600 Deerfield Road, General Cinema I & II’s family friendly programming made it the go-to theater for kids of a mid-70s vintage. Here was the place that, in addition to introducing me to Disney live-action of dubious quality, I first discovered Lemonheads and Snowcaps, candies with such dynamic packaging that I couldn’t resist buying them even after I discovered they tasted like crap, especially Snowcaps, which, frankly, tasted like chocolate-infused sand.

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Here, too, was the theater responsible for my first ever movie-related nightmare courtesy a preview for the re-release of Fantastic Voyage, the 1966 sci-fi flick in which a submarine carrying five intrepid explorers–a CIA agent, a pilot, two doctors and Raquel Welch’s breasts–is miniaturized and injected into a comatose man who otherwise would die if operated upon by surgical team of normal stature. The offending preview hinted at a moment in which Raquel gets attacked by white blood cells, the little SOBs latching themselves onto her wet suit so she’d suffocate. Truly disturbing stuff to a borderline hypochondriacal seven-year-old. One can only assume that every father in the attendance had a similar reaction, although their angst would’ve centered on the threat of Raquel and her skin-tight scuba suit exiting the picture should she be killed rather than any fear that, while tucked away in bed that night, they might be attacked by giant white blood cells.

Regarding the presentation of movies at General Cinema I & II’s, technical matters of sound and picture of which I’m an insufferable snob, it wouldn’t be fair for me to judge because a) I was too young to notice and b) my movie-going at this theater predated the Dolby revolution.

Among the formative cinematic triumphs experienced by my pre-pubescent self at General Cinemas I & II:

The Island at the Top of the World (1974) – A film starring a dirigible and pre-Good Morning America’s David Hartman; what else could one ask for?

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Escape to Witch Mountain (1975)/Return From Witch Mountain (1978) – Although I remember very little about the films, I do remember my six-year-old/nine-year-old self having a crush on the 11-year-old/14-year-old lead, Kim Richards, who, it should be noted, still looked pretty/kinda/semi-good in her surprise cameo (as a waitress) in 2009’s Race to Witch Mountain, a continuation of this aliens-among-us saga starring Disney’s current de jour everyman, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

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In a nice bit of symmetry, I took my kids to see the continuation, a decision, it should be noted, based on necessity rather than interest—back then at least, early spring wasn’t a sweet spot for movies appropriate for seven- and nine-year-olds.

The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975) – Tim Conway and Don Knotts. Not since Newman and Redford in The Sting had such a powerhouse duo joined forces on the silver screen.

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Never in the history of cinema has so much camera mugging resulted in so few laughs.

The Littlest Horse Thieves (1976) – Originally entitled Escape from the Dark but subsequently softened for its more delicate U.S. audience, this bleak UK import involves kids trying to save ponies who’d spent the entirety of their miserable lives down pit in a Yorkshire mine. Could I be the only person alive who remembers this film?

The Shaggy DA (1976)/Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo (1977) – A one-two punch of sight-gag hilarity featuring the 70s version of Disney’s de jour everyman, Dean Jones.

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Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown! (1977) – The feature-length cartoon responsible for the psychological scar tissue that compels me to arrive at the airport a full three hours before departure, much to my wife’s disgust. Thanks a lot, Charlie Brown, you sad-sack shithead, for getting left behind by the camp bus not once, but twice!

Grey Lady Down (1978) – Salty Charlton Heston chews the murky, claustrophobic scenery as a submarine captain on his—oh shit!—“last mission” before retirement. The big-screen debut of soon-to-be-made-famous-by-Superman: The Movie Christopher Reeve. And then there’s David Carradine as the pilot of an experimental DSRV.

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My hands get sweaty just thinking about his—spoiler alert!—selfless sacrifice so that others may live. Or maybe they’re sweaty thinking about Carradine’s real-life and ultimately fatal dabbling in erotic asphyxiation. At least we still have his brother!

Theater-o-Meter (10-point scale)

  • Status: Demolished
  • Nostalgia Quotient: 11*
  • Screen/Picture: NA
  • Sound: NA

*Bonus point awarded for the Toys ‘R’ Us across the parking lot

GENERAL CINEMA – Deerbrook Mall (Deerbrook, IL)

Opening in the mid-70s under the General Cinema aegis, this theater complex featured two auditoriums, each equipped with a decent-sized screen and passable Dolby surround sound. But then, like so many theaters in the bad old days of multiplexing—the early 80s—the original two were divided into four. Actually, that’s not quite right. In a good news/bad news proposition, the original Auditorium #1 was left alone. Which meant that, because there was no overall footprint increase, Auditorium #2 was divided into thirds. Yes, thirds. And so, what had once been a satisfactory movie-going experience was suddenly this:

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Here’s what it looked like both inside and out post-multiplexing:

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Photo by raduniverse

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Photo by billymac72 

Among the cinematic low- & highlights:

Chariots of Fire (1981) – Greatly anticipated by my 12-year-old self after seeing the preview in which a bunch of guys in vintage tracksuits splashed through the surf accompanied by Vangelis’ dramatic yet anachronistic score. And then I actually sat through it. Maybe the closest I’ve ever come to walking out on a movie, probably would’ve were it not for the fact that my mother had driven us to the theater and so we were basically stuck. Subsequent viewings by a far more mature version of myself have revealed that the movie more than lives up to its classic stature.

Strange Brew (1983) – Bob and Doug McKenzie never really did it for me; I thought their bumpkin “Great White North” shtick was funny for about two seconds and then, like 99% of all sketch comedy and improv, death-spiraled into the lame. Eh, hoser? I paid to see the movie, though, because my uncle played the assistant to (and organ player for) the evil Max von Sydow, who, one can only assume, must’ve gotten lost on the way to the Ingmar Bergman soundstage.

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Either that or they paid him extraordinary amounts of cash. Trivia: did you know that the script was a riff on Shakespeare’s Hamlet? Of course you didn’t. Nor did anyone else comprising the movie’s target demographic, including my idiot 14-year-old self. I have yet to revisit, life being too short and precious and all.

Uncommon Valor (1983) – From the creative team that brought you First Blood comes a movie in which, as opposed to a single unstable Vietnam vet murdering small-town Washington state police officers, a entire group of them get to stab, shoot, immolate, skewer, detonate and machete a bunch of nefarious Laotians still holding our boys in a prison camp nearly a decade after the last American chopper took off from that roof in Saigon. Starring Gene Hackman, a very young and very much alive Patrick Swayze and Randall “Tex” Cobb, the latter’s flattened nose almost as scary as the live grenade he wears on a chain around his neck…at least until the movie’s denouement.

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Beverly Hills Cop (1984) – The movie that introduced the world to Steven Berkoff’s expansive and tanned forehead.

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Commando (1985) – Directed by the action hack Mark L. Lester, this steaming-turd vehicle for Schwarzenegger (hot off his The Terminator triumph), is mentionable for three reasons only: a) it co-starred Rae Dae Chong who, back in the day, was eye-candy;

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b) Arnold gets to drop this killer line on David Patrick “Warriors, come out and play!” Kelly…

…and c) it showcased one of the more creative kill-shots of the 80s: Arnold impaling the main baddy (doppelgänger of Queen’s Freddie Mercury) with an 8-inch HVAC pipe thrown like a javelin. If I recall correctly, steam then shot from the pipe to demonstrate that it indeed had penetrated not just the baddie’s chest cavity, but also the boiler behind him. Another vivid memory: there was a guy sitting in front of me, a middle-aged dude with his wife who, whenever there was a gory onscreen kill, cringed at the violence of it. I remember rolling my eyes, thinking: pussy. Now, of course, that’s me.

Back to School (1986) – Little could my 17-year-old self have imagined that my future wife not only was a frosh on the campus where they filmed the non-diving scenes (University of Wisconsin – Madison), but she also bumped into Rodney Dangerfield as he left his trailer and walked with him for a bit. Literally touched by greatness, she was, a scenario that would play out a second time when she met me.

Others of note: Hero at Large, Mr. Mom, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, Teachers, Never Say Never Again, WarGames, Ghostbusters, Sixteen Candles, Missing in Action, Teachers, Prizzi’s Honor, Jagged Edge, Running Scared

Theater-o-Meter (10-point scale)

  • Status: Standing, but shuttered
  • Nostalgia Quotient: 6
  • Screen/Picture: Auditorium #1: 6; the other three: 1
  • Sound: Auditorium #1: 6; the other three: 0

EDENS I & II (Northbrook, IL)

Located on Skokie Boulevard just north of the Edens Expressway overpass, Edens I & II consisted of two separate, one-screen buildings, the first going up in 1963, the second following eight years later. Designed by Perkins & Will, Edens I was something of an architectural curiosity, its concrete slanted roof rising to a point resembling the prow of a ship or, to use a more appropriately cinematic allusion, a Star Destroyer:

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Yet, despite a funky exterior, its interior was very traditional, harkening back to the days of giant movie palaces with its balcony seats and red-velvet curtain that parted (rose?) to reveal the screen.

As for its younger brother, what Edens II lacked in unique design…

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…it made up for with its huge, curved screen and state-of-the-art sound system, both quite simply the gold standard in terms of movie presentation.

To spot the name of a movie I was chomping at the bit to see on the theater’s marquee with a “70MM Six-Track Dolby Presentation” under it was like Christmas morning. I still use memories of certain scenes projected at Edens II as sonic benchmarks for my current A/V gear when I play the same movie at home.

Among the highlights at Edens I:

Moonraker (1979) – My first-ever Bond on the big screen. How I suckered my parents into letting their precious, impressionable 10-year-old go see it remains a mystery to this day. Of course, most of the screenplay’s lame bon mots (“Take a giant step back for mankind, Mr. Drax.”) and innuendos (“Bollinger? If it’s ’69 you were expecting me.”) went right over my pre-pubescent head. But that mattered little in relation to what I did appreciate: the little homage to Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s five-tone motif when Bond used the keypad to gain entry into the Venetian laboratory (or, as Bond would say in his meticulous public-school diction: “la-bore-atory”), the return of Richard Kiel’s “Jaws” and a space-based finale riffing on Star Wars. Lois Chiles remains one of my favorite Bond girls.

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Dreamscape (1984) – In response to the public’s outcry over violence in PG-rated movies such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the MPAA, in the summer of ’84, rolled out a new designation, PG-13, to warn parents of content not suitable for kids under 13. The first movie released with the new rating and thus forever after the answer to an obscure trivia question? John Milius’ Red Dawn. The second movie released with the new rating and thus faded into obscurity despite featuring Eddie “Green Acres” Albert as the President? Dreamscape, of course.

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Ruthless People (1986) – At the time I thought this was the funniest movie I’d ever seen, much funnier than Down and Out in Beverly Hills, which had played a couple months earlier in the same theater. Pauline Kael, movie critic for The New Yorker, had an opposing view, hailing Down and Out as a modern comedic classic while lambasting Ruthless as a stinking pile of feces. I recall rolling my eyes at her take; she was, after all, forever the contrarian. However, after recently re-watching Ruthless People for the first time in almost 30 years, I now can see the wisdom of Pauline’s review. So too can my wife who, forced to watch with me (she’d never seen it before), mumbled for days that she’ll never recover those two hours of her life.

Field of Dreams (1989) – Here’s one of those smallish movies where you go in expecting nothing only to emerge two hours later completely exhilarated. The Shawshank Redemption comes to mind as another example. And while subsequent viewings of Field of Dreams have revealed certain script and acting flaws (Amy Madigan, for the love of God, please knock it off!), it still has its charms.

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Others of note: For Your Eyes Only, Something Wicked This Way Comes, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Sudden Impact, The Killing Fields, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, The Mosquito Coast, Someone to Watch Over Me, Frantic, Parenthood, Batman, Back to the Future II, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

Among the highlights at Edens II:

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – Quite possibly the seminal movie-going experience of my youth, one made all the more memorable by this theater’s huge screen and thunderous sound, the latter opening my eyes (ears) to the fact that audio plays such a huge part in expanding the two-dimensionality of a movie screen; in regards to storytelling immersion sound is just as important as picture . Even now, 33 years later, I vividly remember the sonic discoveries of those famous first 10 minutes: bats screeched from the statue’s mouth, the whoosh and crack of Indy’s bullwhip, the handgun discharging on a rock, the low-end collapse of the temple, the crunch of the rampaging boulder and, most of all, the loud thump of Indy’s turncoat porter as his body, riddled with arrows, drops unimpeded to the forest floor. Here was a movie in which my 12-year-old self emerged from the dark theater literally giddy, a feeling I sadly wouldn’t experience but a handful of times since. Which begs to question: are movies of a more recent vintage just not as good as those I grew up with or is it that growing up itself takes away the fun?

The Right Stuff (1983) – Three hours and 12 minutes of space-race bliss and another movie that sticks in the brain in terms of certain audio elements as delivered by Edens II’s six-track Dolby sound. Among the highlights: the fiery crash that cleverly expanded the vintage B/W footage of the movie’s first minutes into widescreen color; the subsequent “missing man” formation executed by four jets above a test-pilot funeral; the whooping and catcalls apparent in the surround-channel channels during the scene in which Sally Rand does her ostrich feather fan dance; the deep-bass subwoofer thump of Yeager’s experimental jet crashing in the desert. And then there was the movie’s tour de force: an incredible marriage of cinematography, editing and sound design in which the camera moves towards a hangered jet Yeager’s inspecting, dollies into its pitch-black engine only to have a dot of light appear in the distance. The muffled sound of cheering is heard, slowly growing louder and crisper as the dot of light expands to reveal we’re in a tunnel preparing to emerge into a huge stadium, which, when it happens, is accompanied by a roar of delight from the crowd, a roar coming from every speaker in the theater. Almost as cool to a 14-year-old’s ears: they dropped the f-bomb five times, unheard of (literally) in a PG-rated movie.

Romancing the Stone (1984) – Here’s obscure story for those geeky enough to actually appreciate this blog: stumbling upon the television broadcast of this, his third movie, its director, Bob Zemeckis, was so disgusted by how much the picture was cropped to fit the square aspect ratio of TVs—enough that it ruined, among other things, a sight gag involving a character fainting at the edge of the frame—he decided to stop filming his movies using ‘scope framing, a boycott he maintained for a decade, until 1994’s “Forrest Gump.”

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) – No offense to the movie, which I enjoyed, but here’s what I remember most about the opening night screening that I attended: just as the opening credits began running over cinematographer Douglas Slocombe’s magnificent widescreen images of Arches National Park, a murmur ran through the packed theater, a murmur soon followed by half the audience rubbernecking towards the back of the auditorium. Then everyone started clapping. The fuck? Turns out that Michael Jordan and his entourage had sneaked into the last row just as the lights went down, the 6’6” Jordan not having to sweat his sightlines being blocked back in those nosebleeders.

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Later Jordan and Co. reversed the process, hightailing it out of there just as the movie wrapped. I remember thinking: what a shitty way to live, creeping around so you won’t be noticed. Then again, his $2.25M salary, not to mention the additional millions in endorsement dollars, has a funny way of helping certain inconveniences go down a little smoother.

Back to the Future III (1990) – For those familiar with Romancing the Stone you know that that particular Robert Zemeckis’ movie opened with a short but very loving homage to Hollywood westerns of yore. So the fact that he eventually decided to revisit the genre came as little surprise. What did surprise was that he used his Back to the Future franchise to get this accomplished. Marty McFly and Doc Brown in 1885…huh? Of course, if one thinks on it more rigorously one realizes that, considering the state of the western in the 80s—the genre had pretty much folded up tent since the disaster that was Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) and the box-office disappointment of Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado (1984)—it made all the sense in the world that only a successful franchise anchored by a bankable star and cutting-edge visual effects might convince a studio to shell out bucks for such a decrepit genre. The real fun of this movie, beyond the Old West setting, is letting Christopher Lloyd’s Doc take center stage over Marty, even giving the former a love interest. It’s always a pleasure to see a great character actor get his due. And then there’s Zemeckis’ tip of the hat to Hollywood westerns of yore by giving cameos to Pat Buttram, Harry Carey, Jr. and Dub Taylor, three actors famous for being cowboy sidekicks back in the day.

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Others of note: Poltergeist, Return of the Jedi, Purple Rain, The Goonies, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, Ladyhawke, Aliens, The Witches of Eastwick, Beverly Hill Cop II, Empire of the Sun, Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, Tequila Sunrise, Presumed Innocent, Backdraft

Theater-o-Meter (10-point scale)

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