There’s an old, scarred movie house in my once-elegant neighborhood of Austin. It’s still waiting for a closeup that will never come. It hides not on Sunset Boulevard but along the boarded-up 5800 west block of Division Street.. Its graffiti face weeps for what once was. The Rockne, originally called Ambassador, was built there with art deco panache in the Roaring Twenties, its glory days spanning over 50 years of Chicago history.
While there are many such rotting movie palaces, this one’s history has a special roar. Four of Chicago’s famous natives almost met here. Capone and Hefner, Bob Newhart and Kim Novak. No four I ever met ever lived in the same neighborhood to become such different neighbors.
Sleaze. Sex. Satire. Sizzle. Each of them shared some of the same theater rows I did at almost the same times.
You won’t find those row there anymore. And although the four natives never sat in them on the exact same nights, they did share the exact same American ethos up on that screen. From Valentino and Gable forward to Doris Day and Debbie Reynolds. During those 50 years, the MGM/Warner Brothers/20th Century Fox studios dutifully celebrated home, family, flag, and happy endings. I bought into every one of them. The four celebrities probably saw those flicks each with different eyes.
Al — I saw him when I was just a kid and he was on his way to federal prison — lived in nearby Cicero, but frequented the Rockne. [Much to Mom’s fear and embarrassment]. Hef — lived just a mile away — served as one of its spiffy uniformed ushers. [He’d patrol our rows during noisy Saturday matinees]. Bob — he and I grew up together — was especially fond of the comedy bills. [No surprise there]. Kim — I met her there on a double date — was caught up with the romances. [As I remember, I was caught up with her].
Four ferociously different west side lives whose trajectories inconspicuously crossed in this little theater on their way to decidedly conspicuous careers. Now whenever I drive past this movie mausoleum, I remember their lives there. And especially their careers beyond there. What burns in my mind are the inexplicably different ways they were exposed to the same cinematic America I was. You’d think they might have grown up with a little more in common than their careers suggest.
Each emerged from my gentle childhood neighborhood to grab the klieg lights of history. One for his mastery of organized crime; one for his hold on the national culture; one for his wry way with the foibles of our species; and she for perpetuating Hollywood’s grandest myth: the blond bombshell.
Had their visits to my old Rockne ever co-incided, they would have stolen the show. Instead, they went on to steal our imagination….
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