Nations are usually judged by their cities. Cities, in turn, by their public buildings. In Chicago these surely include our movie theaters, for movies have become the art of our age.
But please, there are movie theaters, and then there are not. In the “not” category find today’s cineplexes who offer a network of sterile cramped viewing boxes. Hardly what the great old movie moguls had in mind when they built hundreds of their fantastical palaces for eager audiences starting in the 1920s.
Now almost a century later, Chicago is pockmarked with the shuttered and demolished remnants of all but a few. From the northside’s ornate Granada Theater to the Southside’s smart Piccadilly to the Westside’s art deco Rockne Theater.
Rockne…? Most of you have never heard of my cozy, walk-to Rockne at 5825 W Division Street. Your loss. For the record, Hugh Hefner ushered here, Kim Novak dated here, and Bob Newhart tried to work here. But what makes it worthy of a nod here is how it dutifully projected onto its great silver screen every memorable and forgettable film that roared out of those early Hollywood studios. Classics, Westerns, Romances, Epics, Noirs; plus a hundred thousand cartoons, selected short subjects, and Snickers wrappers. All for an estimated 14 million attendances from 1924 to its reluctant demise just a few teary years ago.
Much like one of its best silver screen heroes, the Rockne fought the good fight to live on against the odds. The odds of time and television; of a ghettoized neighborhood; of patrons who would’t come and gangs who would. During its crumbling post-1970 years it became an army surplus store, a porn movie house, even a house of worship.
Unlike the Coliseum in Rome or the Chicago Theater on State Street, my Rockne was like hundreds of other neighborhood theaters destined to die quiet gritty deaths with few if any mourners. It is, after all, the way of a changing world, a changing city, a changing time. And yet count us by the numbers — a guesstimated 50 million strong — we are what’s left of the Greatest Generation and the children of that Generation. We are that slice and swath of Americana still here to report there are teachable echoes in Chicago’s sealed movie theaters.
We can’t expect you have time to hear them. But we can assure you they are there. Echoes of a time when yes we believed too well in entertainment that ignored racism, slighted women, faulted the weak, and glorified the brutal; yet at the very same time honored home, community, school, church and law in hearty ways deemed almost foolish today.
Whenever you pass one of these aging buildings, you might just hear the echoes in spite of yourself…
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