The Lost Cinemas of My Youth, Pt. 2

EVANSTON 5 THEATERS (Evanston, IL)

Located on Central Street just west of Northwestern University’s Ryan Field (forever Dyche Stadium to us traditionalists)…

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…this theater first opened its doors in 1937. And while I’m sure that at some point in its early history it was a great place to take in a movie, by the time I began to frequent it, in the mid-80s, it majorly sucked:

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Why? Because the Lowes Corporation bought it and, keeping with the business model of the time, transformed what I assume to have been a nice little two-screener into a five-screen multiplex, just like the outrage at the aforementioned General Cinema – Deerbrook Mall. Tiny auditoriums, postage-stamp screens, tinny, worthless sound…

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…here was the theater of last resort, the place one grudgingly hit when the movie one wanted to see wasn’t playing anywhere else.

Among those movies:

War of the Roses (1989) – Pretty good stuff from director Danny Devito, as dark a comedy as Hollywood was making in those days. One small quibble, though: the cigarettes Devito smoked throughout (he played a lawyer friend of Michael Douglas) were so obviously not filled with tobacco that it became distracting every time he exhaled a pathetically thin stream of smoke:

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I found myself spending half the running time trying to figure out what those things were packed with. Corn silk? Mint? Cinnamon? Lemongrass? Clover? Drove me goddamn nuts.

A Midnight Clear (1992) – Here’s a movie that maybe five people in all the world saw upon its release, my father and me being two of them. Set during the Battle of the Bulge in WW2, the flick featured a veritable “Who’s Who” of up-and-coming acting talent, including Ethan Hawke, Gary Sinise, Peter Berg, Frank Whaley, Kevin Dillon, Arye Gross, John C. McGinley:

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Written and directed by actor Keith Gordon, he of Dressed to Kill (as Angie Dickenson’s son)…

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…and Back to School (as Rodney Dangerfield’s son)…

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…here’s a movie both criminally under-appreciated and, as of 2014, pretty much forgotten. Too bad.

Others of note: Platoon, The Crying Game

Theater-o-Meter (10-point scale)

  • Status: Demolished
  • Nostalgia Quotient: 6
  • Screen/Picture: 4
  • Sound: 3

HIGHLAND PARK (Highland Park, IL)

Located on Central Avenue, I recall this Tudor-Revival movie theater being a one- or two-screener back in the day (for some reason one really sticks in my mind)…

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…that showed first-run movies very late in their runs, thus discounted. Or maybe it was a second-run theater and that’s why it was cheaper. Anyway, like so many of its brethren, the theater succumbed to multiplexing sometime in the 80s, operating with four substandard screens until abruptly shutting its doors in 2012. Not that this made much of a difference—even before the conversion the sound was total crap.

Some vivid memories, many from when I was quite young:

The Black Stallion (1979) – Despite my relative youth, I distinctly remember being taken by the cinematography, especially those scenes filmed on the island after the shipwreck. Subsequently I ordered the The Black Stallion Picture Book from my grade school’s Scholastic Book Club so I could return again and again to that rainbow on the beach. Yeah, I was a major dork.

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Much later, when I became more interested in cinematographers, I discovered that this movie had been lensed by Caleb Deschanel, not only one of the greatest modern DPs, but also a true genius in terms of “magic hour” light, as evidenced by scenes he shot taking place at Edwards Air Force base in Phillip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff

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…or the dusk showdown between Roy Hobbs and “The Whammer” in Barry Levinson’s The Natural

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…or pretty much every other scene in Carroll Ballard’s Fly Away Home

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9 to 5 (1980) – Other than the prospect of seeing Dolly Parton’s breasts projected the size of on-deck circles it wasn’t like a movie about three harried secretaries gunning for respect at the office demanded viewing on the big screen.  So how to account for seeing this one in a theater? As I recall, the older sister of a friend was going and asked us if we wanted to tag along. ‘Cause it certainly wasn’t my idea, this being 1980 and me, just 11 years old, being all Star Wars all the time. I do remember laughing quite a bit, especially at Dolly Parton’s famous rooster/hen wisecrack:

Then again, considering my tender age and this being the Dark Ages before the Internet, it’s unlikely I had even the faintest idea what the hell she was getting at. Which indicates to me that my guffaws were the product of an intense longing to fit within the larger group rather than any real compulsion to laugh. Who would’ve thought a screening of 9 to 5 could present itself both as an adolescent metaphor and a general life lesson?

Tron (1982) – It’s strange, especially considering cinema is the realm of sight and sound, but the thing I most remember about seeing this flick was the smell of watermelon Jolly Ranchers infusing the entire auditorium. Go figure.

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Others of note: Rocky II, My Bodyguard, Say Anything…

Theater-o-Meter (10-point scale)

  • Status: Standing, but shuttered
  • Nostalgia Quotient: 8
  • Screen/Picture: 5
  • Sound: 2

GOLF MILL THEATER 1-2-3 (Niles, IL)

The Golf Mill Theater, located on Milwaukee Road, opened in 1961, which explains some of its more space-aged bachelor pad design elements such as, within its spacious lobby, a sunken lounge complete with sofas and metal fireplaces.

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According to the invaluable website Cinema Treasures, Golf Mill began as a single-screen, 1,800-seat theater, the aforementioned screen measuring an impressive 50’ x 22’. In 1969, however, the theater was twinned. And then, in 1973, it was triplexed. Despite all this chopping, I don’t recall any of the theaters having particularly small screens, which only demonstrates how big the original auditorium must’ve been. Or maybe they expanded the buildings, I don’t know. All three theaters offered top-notch projection and sound. Even now, almost 25 years later, I can vividly remember watching Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy and being amazed at the directionality of the surround sound when a character throws a cat, its screech panning down the speakers on the right wall.

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Steve Martin as “The Cat Juggler”

 

Golf Mill 1-2-3 closed its doors in 2000, the victim of the much better designed (all digital sound, stadium seating, etc.) movie multiplexes of the mid-90s.

Among the more memorable experiences:

The Blues Brothers (1980) – This was my very first R-rated movie on the big screen, at the delicate age of 11. What made this even more perverse was that my parents, being big Saturday Night Live fans, were the ones who took me, my 8-year-old brother and 13-year-old sister. Lest DCFS start wringing its hands, let’s remember that The Blues Brothers was essentially harmless—a couple f-bombs, perhaps, and that Frank-Oz-delivered line (“One Timex digital watch, broken. One unused prophylactic…one soiled”). Not that I had the slightest idea what a prophylactic was back then. Nowadays this flick easily would’ve gotten a PG-13.

Blue Thunder (1983) – In keeping with the under-aged R-rated movie theme, Blue Thunder marked the first time I was allowed to see an R-rated movie in the theater unescorted by an adult. And I have the late Roy Leonard to thank for this.

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For those not from Chicago, back in the day Mr. Leonard was a tremendously popular radio personality on WGN-AM. And sometimes he would discuss movies with listeners. Luckily for me, my mother heard his discussion of Blue Thunder, one in which he noted that, other than a scene involving naked yoga as viewed from hovering helicopter and a little salty language, the movie wasn’t too objectionable. So she let me go. Now, to demonstrate to parents of younger children how slippery the slope becomes once that first crack appears in your resolve to protect your precious child from questionable movies, by the end of ‘83 I’d gone with friends to two more R-rated movies, National Lampoon’s Vacation and Clint Eastwood’s Sudden Impact, the former pretty raunchy and the later both violent and sexual. Further ammunition that all my failings somehow can be blamed on my parents.

Gremlins (1984) – This being a couple years before I actively started reading about movies via a subscription to Premiere magazine (and various publications I’d track down in the library), I knew nothing about this Joe Dante-directed flick when my high school, through a deal with the theater or studio, offered free tickets to a test screening, the kind in which, before the movie begins, a disclaimer appears on-screen noting that the film is incomplete and subject to changes in color timing, sound effects, dialogue, etc. While far from a classic, Gremlins had its charms: Dante-regular Dick Miller playing xenophobic Murray Futterman (“Goddamn foreign TV!”)…

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…Phoebe Cates, tragically trading her Fast Times at Ridgemont High bikini for more winter-appropriate bulky sweaters, telling the darkly comic story of her father suffocating in the chimney dressed as Santa (“That’s when I noticed the smell.”)…

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…and, of course, the gross-out involving a microwaved gremlin…

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Trivia-nugget: Along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, this movie started the public debate over violence in PG-rated movie that soon resulted in the MPAA coming up with the PG-13 rating!

Total Recall (1990) – I’d become interested in Paul Verhoeven’s work after seeing 1987’s Robocop and, soon thereafter, a VHS of his 1977 Dutch-language film Soldier of Orange. I particularly appreciated how he combined dark humor and social satire with graphic violence—back in the day I was a bit of a gore-hound. So I came to Total Recall with high hopes, especially after reading a story on its production in Premiere magazine, which began something like this: “Paul Verhoeven, Netherlands hottest import since tulips, calls ‘action’ and, eyes fixed to a monitor, watches as a three-breasted midget disembowels a baddie with a large prop knife.” Disembowelment and supernumerary breasts—what else could a guy ask for! Alas, when I finally saw the movie, instead of The Godfather, Pt. 2-like gutting I’d envisioned…

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…the scene played much less graphically, the knife simply plunging into the guy’s chest. Apparently the MPAA demanded cuts to ensure an R-Rating.

Robocop 2 (1990) – Speaking of dark humor, social satire and graphic violence, while Verhoeven got the mixture just right in Robocop and kinda-sorta right in Total Recall, this sequel, directed by Irvin Kershner, dropped the ball completely. Which was surprising considering that Kershner, best known as the director of the best Star Wars movie by far, The Empire Strikes Back, was an excellent filmmaker. But he birthed a turd with this one, the level of gore so over the top and disturbing (vivisection, anyone?), even my youthful self came out of the theater disgusted.

Others of note: The Empire Strikes Back, Cocoon, A View to a Kill, Robocop, Innerspace, The Living Daylights, Born on the Fourth of July, Lethal Weapon 2, Dick Tracy, Flatliners

Theater-o-Meter (10-point scale)

  • Status: Now a health club
  • Nostalgia Quotient: 8
  • Screen/Picture: 8
  • Sound: 8

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