The end of Chicago's majestic rat-ridden movie palace
In 1989 artist Mitch O'Connell visited the Chicago Loop's last cavernous decaying grindhouse on its final day of operation.
Short story first- I heart movie palaces.
Now for the long story - I moved to Chicago in 1979 right after high school to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. For a film lover, it was perfect time and place. I got to relish the last days of the cavernous decaying grindhouses where you could just lose the day watching action and horror schlock, and catch the evening screenings of the classic and cult at the revival theaters such as The Parkway, Varsity and Sandburg (among others). I'd have my first time exposure to so many great films as they should be seen, on the big screen with an appreciative audience. Double features of Hitchcock to Marx Brothers, to John Waters and David Lynch.
This is a story about one of the former, the majestic rat-ridden wonderful centers of entertainment that weren't long for this earth. In it's heyday, downtown Chicago was the place to catch a flick with dozens and dozens of downtown movie palaces projecting away day and night, but by 1989 only the Woods was left standing as the last surviving operating Loop movie theatre. Opened in 1940 with a year long showing of Gone With the Wind, for it went out with "I'm Gonna Get You Sucka" and "Hellraiser Hellbound 2" (not a pithy judgement call, I like 'em all!). I went there for the first time when visiting my dad and happily stood in a line around the block to watch the James Bond flick "Diamonds Are Forever."
Back then I was doing weekly drawings for a Chicago Tribune column titled "Around Town" where I'd illustrate whatever reporter Rick Kogan wanted to write about. I was also researching the history of Chicago theaters for a never realized graphic novel (which, 34 years later, will finally turn into blog postings). This time I thought I'd slightly fudge the facts and let the tail wag the dog using the press phrase "I'm from the Chicago Tribune" to get an all-access pass to the Woods last day. The manager, who was around my age, lets me, my camera and note taking yellow legal pad right in.
Today's crowd for the 9am first showing consisted of three teens already caught up in talking back to a 40-foot-tall Issac Hayes on the screen. The sleepy candy counter girl just seemed to be there out of habit. The popcorn machine is unplugged, there are no cups for soda and only 3 packs of candy are available under the glass display. I snapped away and worked my way up the 2 flights of stairs, stepped around the "Balcony Closed" sign, to the projectionist's room door and knocked. Morton Krugman, projectionist for the Wood's Theatre since 1953, lets me in. As soon as I get off my "I'm from the Tribune" greetings, a buzzer goes off warning that it's one minute before the cue appears in the upper right hand corner of the screen to signal the reel change. When that shows, he has another 2 minutes before the next reel starts. Morton starts to rewind the wheel on the table which quickly spins until the last bit of celluloid feeds through, turning off the machine. Today's films are have been duly written on the pages he keeps secured to a clipboard chronicling the last 10 years of movies shown there.
I pester and photograph away for the next half hour asking every unprepared question that pops in my head.
I find out that normally his door is locked and chained to keep out the curious and intoxicated, but I just lucked out. Today was a late start since the manager didn't get in until 8:50am but he still had to spend a half hour getting the machines ready. He'll be able to get everything back to showtime schedule by just dropping out the coming attractions.
He can watch the movie through the glass panel in the room, but since he doesn't like much of what's being screened, prefers to watch the tv (channel 5 comes in great but he can't get in channel 2). Right next to the TV is a tape player where he puts cassettes management supplies of "urban" music to pipe in during intermission, which he also doesn't like and doesn't listen to.
I ask to take a picture of him in his red chair that's perched front of the viewing window. He objects.
"A projectionist sitting down! Are you crazy?!"
His long career has had him working at most of the Loop theaters. It's in the blood as his father owned a chain of theaters all down Milwaukee Avenue. He remembers as a tot spending the day riding in a limo with dad to check on all the movie houses. It's still a family affair since to get in the union you've got to already be related to a member. It's also a strong union (the highest paid in the nation in fact). He started out at $60 a week and now he earns enough to easily retire. If fact, enough to have traveled to 30 countries over the years and, next week, has tickets to fly to Bora Bora with the wife. He started out like his father, acquiring second run theaters that changed double features every three days, but ending up with an almost 40 years projectionist's career. Along with two side businesses running a collection agency (including all Marshall Fields accounts) and owning an "active seniors" complex, Mr. Krugman seems to be doing well.
Hobbies? Bridge every week.
He starts to tell me a story about projectionists that would have loud conversations in the booth and disturb the patrons. I keep on talking for another 10 minutes before it dawns on me that that was my cue to leave.
I chit chat with some other staff, and former employees who are hanging out and reminiscing.
Within a month, the East West corner of Chicago and Randolph is an empty lot.
[Reprinted with kind permission from Mitch O'Connell's wonderful blog.]
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