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Chi Lives: Dennis Wolkowicz's Gateway to the past



Dennis Wolkowicz is as comfortable at the keyboard of a massive theater pipe organ as most people are at their computers. On a recent hot afternoon in the dimness of the Gateway Theatre, he flicked a switch, lighting up the console on this wonder of 1920s high tech. Then he ran through the riffs he uses to accompany silent films, tweaking the keyboard to make the organ's 1,241 pipes sound alternately like birdsong, horns, strings, and a chorus of voices.

Paint peels at the Gateway, at 5216 W. Lawrence, and the worn velour seats sag. But as Wolkowicz plays and the tattered grandeur of the theater works its magic, it seems possible to pass through a time warp and come out in another time and place.

That's the effect Wolkowicz hopes to create with the Gateway's second annual Silent Summer Film Festival, which starts at 8 PM tonight and runs for five consecutive Fridays, through August 24. The centerpiece of the event, a screening of Rudolph Valentino's 1926 epic The Son of the Sheik on August 3, will feature a restored 35-millimeter print accompanied by the 30-piece Lincolnwood Chamber Orchestra and internationally renowned silent-film organist Dennis James.

"It's all right to take a scholarly approach to silent films, but sometimes people forget that they were entertainment first," says Wolkowicz. "We try to present silent films as they should be presented--as an evening's entertainment."

A northwest-side native who still lives in the two-flat he grew up in, Wolkowicz started playing accordion at age 8 and organ at 13. As a kid he was a Laurel and Hardy fan, but when he stumbled onto WTTW's silent-film series "The Toy That Grew Up," he was hooked. "It was more than just pie in the face. It was gripping."

He started performing publicly as a teenager, when he was attending a seminary in central Illinois and the regular organist broke his leg right before an ordination ceremony. As a young adult back in Chicago, Wolkowicz started playing the church organ at his Chicago parish, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and joined the Chicago Area Theatre Organists Guild. Through that organization he started accompanying silent movies in old theaters around town. In 1981 he was hired as the house organist at the Chicago Theatre.

In 1985 he was handed the opportunity of a lifetime when Plitt Theaters pulled out of its lease with the Gateway's owner, the Copernicus Foundation. Wolkowicz felt attached to the old place--he had installed the theater's current pipe organ in 1983 (the original had been removed in the 60s)--and he persuaded Copernicus to hire him as theater manager. He arrived just in time to prevent the departing ushers from stripping the art deco aisle signs and light fixtures.

Since then he's booked hundreds of events into the site, from dance and symphony orchestra performances to heavy metal to wrestling. The most fun, however, have been the silent film screenings he launched in 1986, which alternate between the Gateway and Park Ridge's Pickwick. Wolkowicz accompanies the movies on pipe organ under the pseudonym Jay Warren ("I had to send out press releases, and it seemed easier than promoting myself"). The events proved to be so popular that he and fellow theater organist Dennis Scott founded the Silent Film Society of Chicago in 1998--mainly as an excuse to show more movies.

"We agreed from the beginning to package the events so the music would be an authentic complement to the film," Scott recalls. The Gateway itself--designed by architects Rapp & Rapp as Chicago's first sound house--is also part of the show. "Restored theaters like the Oriental downtown seem to lose a little something," Scott says. "The Gateway is just an old, operating Chicago movie palace. It's not pristine, but there's a bit of magic going on there."

It's not always easy to keep the magic going. Over the years, Wolkowicz has scraped, painted, and patched the theater with the help of a cadre of hard-core volunteers. His girlfriend, Linda Stagner, takes a week's vacation from her job each year to distribute posters and flyers for the festival. Upkeep for the 2,000-seat house can run into thousands of dollars a month; the theater was slammed with an $18,000 gas bill this winter, and in January the pipe organ suffered water damage. Although Copernicus foots the bills, Wolkowicz has to make sure the income matches the outlay.

Luckily, his enthusiasm is contagious. "You can't meet the guy without falling in love with what he's trying to do," says Tom Negovan, an on-line antiques dealer who came to his first Gateway screening about seven years ago. This year Negovan is helping produce the festival's hand-bound program, which is being printed on a vintage 1880s press. He also recruited artist Douglas Klauba, who designs packaging for Kino Video, to do a poster in art deco style.

Society members hope that by making the event a little slicker every year, the festival will eventually generate as much interest as similar events held in Atlanta, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. "There's a massive silent-film renaissance on the west coast, with people in their 20s and 30s getting passionate about the genre," Negovan says.

"It's our job to attract those audiences," Scott agrees. "And if we can present silent movies as an 'occasion' with a little mystery, I think that helps."

A series pass to the Silent Summer Film Festival is $39, $34 for seniors and students; individual screenings are $7-$13. Tonight's program is Fritz Lang's sci-fi allegory Metropolis, with accompaniment by Wolkowicz. For a complete schedule call 773-777-9438 or visit

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.

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