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The Last Picture Shows

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The local movie house was once a hub of life, the place where we saw our first movie or our last one, where we fell in love or met our friends and neighbors. We shared a common experience in the dark.

Now we want choice as much as connection. When we go out we want convenience--easy parking and a buffet of films on many screens. Many of us prefer to avoid dinosaur venues where kids rip up the seats and hoot at the screen, thinking it's better to stay home, in safety and comfort, and be entertained by the television or VCR. As a consequence, theaters like the Patio are largely dead, or they've been converted into the kind of operations we find more palatable.

That's especially true within the city. Forty years ago, Chicago supported 170 movie theaters; all were single-screen houses. Today the city sustains only about 30 theaters, almost all featuring two or more screens. The greatest concentration is on the north side--elsewhere it's slim pickings. On the south side, where there were 33 theaters in 1955, there are currently just the Hyde Park, Ford City, and Burnham Plaza. The west side, once home to 17 venues, has no movie theaters at all.

Those who go against the grain face an uncertain future. In 1989 Kenilworth lawyer Barbara Salmeron happened upon the closed 70-year-old Hub Theatre, located on Chicago Avenue in West Town. "I was driving by with my daughter, who'd been a candy girl at the Bryn Mawr, and her boyfriend, and I thought, wouldn't running that be fun?" she recalls. With help from her daughters and their significant others, Salmeron, who had no theater experience, reopened the 600-seat house as a second-run venue. She served a menu of action adventures, horror flicks, comedies--plus Chinese movies on Monday--and she was friendly with local toughs, blunting potential gang problems. The Hub had no air conditioning, so customers sweltered in summer, but enough people came that Salmeron realized a small profit for three years.

Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, her audience vanished. In hindsight Salmeron blames several factors. The more multiplexes there were, the longer it took a hit movie to get to the second-run Hub--and the smaller the audience once it got there. With only one screen, she couldn't maximize her fixed costs--heat, light, electricity, and staff--the way her competitors could. As West Town grew more bohemian, the families that had been the Hub's anchor customers moved away. "And when I programmed for the artist types, only a handful of people showed up." The Hub closed permanently in June 1994. The building is being converted into a parking garage for a social-service agency, says Mary Ritchie, executive director of the Chicago Avenue Business Association.

Beyond the Patio, one of the few surviving single screens is the Adelphi, a fixture on Clark Street in Rogers Park since 1917. Look hard and you can still sense the Adelphi's former art deco splendor. Don Klein, until recently the theater's manager, concedes his audience had dwindled. He was a teenage usher at the Adelphi a half century ago, and from his perspective the downturn for one-screen houses began with a change in consumer habits. "A lot of people don't go to the movies anymore," he observes. "Those that do want a suburban shopping-center theater, with lots of choice and nice parking lots." He also blames neighborhood decay. "When I was a kid you could eat off Clark Street, it was so clean. Now look at it. Is it crummy or what? Actually, today it's better than usual. Don't ask me why, but people who live around here aren't moviegoers. They complain about our $3 ticket, but then they spend that much to guzzle a bottle of beer." In June Klein sold his lease on the theater to an operator of first-run movies from India.

For those old neighborhood theaters that can afford it, the usual approach is to subdivide and conquer. This summer Ron Rooding, for instance, is carving his Village North (formerly the 400) into four screens, enabling him to spread out his overhead and draw targeted audiences for different features. "Now I'll be able to show The Madness of King George to the small band of people around here who might be interested in it, rather than presenting it to an empty house." Rooding expects the Village North's net profit to increase tenfold, from $25,000 to $250,000 a year. The near north side Village, which Rooding also owns, is already divided into four theaters, and most other independents, such as the Portage, the Davis, the Logan, and the Three Penny, have likewise turned into duplexes and multiplexes.

Old theaters have also had to adapt in the suburbs. The Classic Cinemas chain has cut up most of its old properties, but a few still float along as single screens. The survivors trumpet service--free refills on popcorn and drinks and complimentary hard candy on the way out. The second-run Arcada in Saint Charles, a Spanish-style contemporary of the Patio that was recently renovated, has double features and stages organ concerts every Saturday night. "The Arcada makes money, though not piles of it," says Willis Johnson, president of Classic Cinemas. The chain's French Renaissance flagship, the first-run Tivoli in Downers Grove, prevails in part because a companion theater constructed nearby can take over movies that are waning in their drawing power.

In 1991, the Vlahakis family, owners of the Pickwick, the 1,400-seat art deco house in Park Ridge, saw themselves facing financial ruin with just one venue. Their solution: retain the main house, where Hillary Clinton and Harrison Ford first attended movies, and add three secondary screens. Manager Dino Vlahakis says weekly ticket sales have since doubled. (The Music Box in Lakeview, an art house, added a spillover screen for the same reason.) The Pickwick complex also profits from access to three parking lots and from leasing the main theater to a children's theater troupe during the school year.

Many exhibitors who've abandoned or altered the single-screen approach shake their heads at Alex Kouvalis and the Patio. "Alex is a nice guy, but he's not making any money, which is the idea here," reflects Rooding. "His real estate generates the cash--the theater just happens to come with the building." Vlahakis says, "I told Alex to split up the Patio Theatre, but he's concerned about spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to do that. If you've got to put food on the table, would you make that kind of investment?"

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

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