It's a Wonderful Life at the Music Box Theatre

You haven't seen It's a Wonderful Life until you've seen it at the Music Box Theatre. It doesn't matter if you've watched this movie every year on TV or own it on a dusty VHS tape, everyone who enters the Music Box Theatre's annual showing for the first time is starting at ground zero.

And man, I couldn't be more jealous of all the first-timers.

The Music Box is an old movie theater on Southport Street that's been around since the early 1920's. When you walk in, you immediately fall in love with the place. By comparison, when you walk into an AMC or a Regal, those feel like modern movie theaters. The one in Chicago feels the same as the one in Midland which feels the same as the one in Missouri. It feels like it should be located in a strip mall next to a Dick's Sporting Goods and Barnes & Noble. The posters on the walls are familiar too. There's the new Marvel superhero movie. There's the new Will Ferrel movie. There's the latest from Disney Pixar.

The Music Box feels completely different. It's like you're walking into an actual theater, like you're going to see Hamilton or a Shakespearean play. From the giant Music Box letters outside hanging off the building, to the way the title display lights up at night, to the old time popcorn machine, everything about this place makes you feel like you've been transported back to the golden era of Hollywood.

It's the type of theater that spells itself "theatre" and refers to movies as "films." And they don't just love film, they adore it. From the movie itself all the way down to what it was shot on. They will email their subscribers about upcoming showings with the giddiness of a kid on Christmas morning. "Hey - you'll never believe it! We've got a 70 mm print of 2001: A Space Odyssey. We're gonna be showing it all week! Tell your friends. Tell everyone. It's gonna be awesome!" 

And right when you think, "Ok, this is some sort of pretentious art house that sees itself as too good to show anything mainstream," the Music Box will defy that classification by playing a midnight showing of Rocky Horror Picture Show or The Room. Last week, they were playing three small release movies that I've never heard of but also playing Elf and The Muppet Christmas Carol. There is no elitism about this place. Music Box just wants you to come in, see a handpicked movie from their staff, and enjoy it with a bunch of other people. It's everything a movie theater should be.

When you drive by The Music Box in mid-December, you'll see a long line of people standing outside wearing Christmas sweaters and Santa hats. There are a decent amount of people with Christmas lights hanging around their neck as if they were a human Christmas tree. I'd say at least half of the people are carrying bells. It's the biggest Christmas party in Chicago that doesn't involve much alcohol. Everyone is drunk on Christmas spirit.

After getting some popcorn, drinks, Junior Mints, you follow the red and green shirts into a theater in the back. And it's packed. Your ticket has an assigned seat, and it needs to be, this show is 100 percent sold out. On stage, there's a man playing Christmas carols on an organ as if you were walking into in an old catholic church. Three or four Christmas carolers join him on stage and begin singing everything from Jingle Bells to Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. It really does feel like you're sitting in a church. The way I see it, Christmas Eve and Easter services are the NFC and AFC Championship games, but It's a Wonderful Life at The Music Box Theatre, that's the big one. This is church's Super Bowl.

A few songs in, they announce to the crowd, "Alright, make sure to sing this one loud because we might have a special visitor."

Santa Claus is coming.

Santa Claus is coming...

Santa Claus is coming...

To town! 

Then he enters. Santa Claus walks on stage. He's waving to the crowd, letting out ho-ho-hos. Everyone goes crazy as if this were a guest appearance by Michelle Obama or Bruce Springsteen. He joins for a few more songs, concluding with, "I'm dreaming of a Chicago Christmas" with references to the old Marshall Fields, a mint at Frango's, and a dinner at the Berghoff restaurant.

All of the caroling, the jingle bells, the heavy pour of Christmas spirit combine to tear down any walls that you might have had going into the theater. If it's been a tough year, this 15-20 minute tradition is the equivalent of Scrooge finally losing the bah humbug or the Grinch's heart growing three sizes. It doesn't erase all of the bad stuff, but you get this feeling of whew, we made it. We got through this year. If it's been a good year, if you hit your Happiness Deductible, then it's just this wave of gratitude and happiness that fills you up like a glass of hot chocolate. And, if it's been just an average year, you'll find something small to be disproportionately happy about in that moment. Man, those blueberry pancakes this morning were incredible!

All of this tradition before the movie essentially preheats the emotional oven to get you in the right headspace for It's a Wonderful Life. The result is the equivalent of watching Toy Story 3, Forrest Gump, and Inside Out combined. It's an absolute cry fest.

What's pathetic is I can't even make it five minutes into the movie before the tears start to flow. The movie opens with the different prayers going up for George Bailey. Help my friend, Mr. Bailey. Help my son George tonight. George is a good guy. Give him a break, God. Then you hear his wife: I love him, dear Lord. Watch over him tonight. Then the daughter Janie punches you in the gut with: Please, God. Something's the matter with Daddy. And Zuzu goes in for the knockout punch, right to the face: Please, bring Daddy back. 

Camera pulls up from the town and goes into the sky where a group of stars are talking to each other. And maybe this scene is corny, but not when the emotional oven is running at 425. One of my favorite lines of the whole movie:

You sent for me, sir?

Yes, Clarence. A man down on earth needs our help.

Splendid! Is he sick?

No, worse. He's discouraged.

I wrote earlier that It's a Wonderful Life is like church's Super Bowl, and part of that is the singing and the organ music, but a major part of it, too, is about how much those first five minutes (and the next two hours) get right about two major concepts of the Christian faith. The two concepts being the value of prayer and God's relationship to people. These are both huge subjects to try and tackle, be that for a movie, for a church, for a writer, and an explanation often gets pretty muddy.

For example, with prayer, there are the questions: Well, does it work? Is God actually listening to us? Or what if like a Bears fan and Packers fan both pray to win before the game, is God deciding, "Eh, I think I'm a Bears fan today."

I think what can get lost in this shuffle is how prayer isn't so much about if the immediate result will be a yes or a no, it's more about the strength it can give a person to have a few friends or a whole community around them attempting to share in the burden. The strength of not being alone. It reminds me of Stuart Scott's ESPYs speech when he was talking about fighting through cancer and said, "Live. Fight like hell. And when you get too tired to fight then lay down and rest and let somebody else fight for you." He went on to showcase how others fought for him when he didn't have the strength himself. 

"As of Sunday, I didn't even know if I'd make it here. I couldn't fight. But doctors and nurses could. The people that I love and my friends and family - they could fight. My girlfriend, who slept on a very uncomfortable hospital cot by my side every night, she could fight. The people that I love did last week what they always do. They visited, they talked to me, they listened to me, they sat silent sometimes, they loved me."

And this is where another conflict shows up with prayer: Is it enough to "just" be praying? Especially in the last few years, when a major tragedy happens, there will be a bunch of Facebook posts that say, "Thoughts and prayers. Thoughts and prayers." And then there will be a backlash right after that of people saying, "Yeah, well, I think they could use a little more help than your 'thoughts and prayers' right now."

It's a Wonderful Life gets this part right too. Because yes, Clarence comes down and does the angel stuff, working on George at the heart level, but the ending of the movie is also about the action--not just the prayers--that his friends take to get George out of the financial bind.

Everything in the movie has been adding up to that final scene. George has been helping people out his entire life and here at the end we've got the community returning the favor; and not because they feel required to, it all comes out of love. If you can get through Harry's toast (To my big brother, George, the richest man in town) or Clarence's note (Remember no man is a failure who has friends) without crying, or at least tearing up a little bit, then you've got a heart of steel. At this point, I'm just trying to pull myself together enough so that I don't look like Ron Burgundy sobbing in the phone booth when the theater lights come up.

And I can totally understand an argument here that Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens might make that says, "Well, then why does the prayer part need to be included at all? Isn't it just about actions or lack of actions?" My response here would be that someone who is in regular prayer asking God to intervene will likely be looking for ways that they too can personally intervene. It's kind of like how a person who regularly practices yoga will likely be eating healthy too. Or why the nicest person at church will say, "I'm praying for your family" after a loss but will also show up with a massive lasagna. The two usually go together.

The result, then, of prayer is a kind of a blurred line of where God intervened directly vs. where people helped out. Which I imagine is what God pictured with the church all along.

The other key aspect that this movie gets right is the message about God's relationship to people. What happens a lot of times in the church is that faith and a reliance on grace can morph into "religion" which can become a distorted view of the people-to-God/God-to-people relationship. A distorted view looks like, "If I do these things right, God will be proud of me and bless me. If I do these things wrong, he'll turn his back on me or bring some bad things into my life." What started out as faith becomes more like appeasing the Greek gods.

It's a Wonderful Life throws that Greek gods philosophy out the window. The overarching story is all about trying to restore/save George Bailey, not to condemn him. Minutes before Clarence comes down from the heavens to help out, George is at his absolute worst. He's just screamed at his entire family, yelled at Zuzu's teacher over the phone, wrecked his car into a tree. When he prays at the bar, "Dear Father in Heaven, I'm not a praying man, but if you're up there and you can hear me, show me the way. I'm at the end of my rope. Show me the way, God" the response from God is out of love and grace not out of anything he did right to "deserve" the help. The words "I'm not a praying man" and "if you're up there" are important too, because God's help isn't tied to some type of perfect faith from George Bailey either. He loves people at their absolute best and their absolute worst; believers and non-believers alike. This is a major part of the Gospel and it's one that a little black and white movie from 1947 gets right every year around Christmas.

How this blog post ballooned up to 2,000 words is beyond me. And while I feel fine revealing major plot points of a 70 year old movie, what I don't want to spoil is what the atmosphere is like for those two plus hours inside the theater. I want all of that to stay a surprise. My only hint: just like Rocky Horror Picture Show has its own crowd participation traditions, so does It's a Wonderful Life. This experience will make you want to go back each and every December. You can also do a double feature with White Christmas afterwards, which, hey, no disrespect to that movie, but it's no It's a Wonderful Life. 

So bring the tissues. Bring the jingle bells. I'll see you this time next year at the Music Box Theatre.

It's crazy to think that we've only got one week left of 2018. I'll have one more post going up on New Year's Eve, part of the "Please, Take These Ideas" series. This one introduces an idea for an app that helps you save money; which is perfect this time of year when the credit card balance causes an immediate scream. 

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