Movie life in Chicago: managing the New 400 | Bleader

Movie life in Chicago: managing the New 400


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  • Mattia Luigi Nappi/Wikimedia Commons
The four-screen movie house at 6746 N. Sheridan formerly known as the Village North recently reopened in 2010 under new management and a new name. Despite receiving a substantial overhaul—which includes the introduction of a full bar to the concession stand—the New 400 feels very much like preserves the neighborhood vibe of the old Village North, making moviegoing feel like a natural part of urban social life. To emphasize its ties to the community, the theater has already pledged support to other businesses and charities in Rogers Park. Last week, I stopped by the theater to talk with manager Tom Klein (whose storied history involves managing the Vic Theatre and playing guitar with Liquid Soul) and assistant manager Jenny Shapiro about movie exhibition, doorstops, and the plans for the second New 400 theater in Hyde Park. Our interview follows the jump.

Ben Sachs: Where does the name “the New 400” come from?

Tom Klein: This theater has shown movies since 1912. This year, it will be celebrating 100 years as a movie theater. Nothing we have found has shown that it’s ever been anything else. No one ever came around and tried to turn it into a restaurant or condos or whatever. It’s been called different things over the years, but [in] the golden age of the theater it was called the 400...

When we were talking about a name [before reopening the theater], I came up with it. I thought “the New 400” had a cool ring to it. And people like it when you tip your hat to the past of their community... Everybody liked it immediately. Tony Fox, who owns the property here—the whole corner where we’re located—he liked it. So that was it: the New 400. We came up with a logo and everything.

BS: How long have you been in the movie theater business?

TK: I’ve been in the entertainment business my whole life. I’m a musician, and my brother and I ran the West End, at Armitage and Racine, for years. Before that, [my brother] was involved with Tuts, which was a legendary live music place that was located at Belmont and Sheffield. And through Tuts, he became aware of an empty movie theater right around the corner, the Vic. He envisioned [putting in] a stage, sound equipment, light rigs, the whole thing. I thought he was crazy... because when we got our hands on the Vic, it had three feet of water in the basement! But we turned it into a world-class music venue—I mean, people come from all over the world to play at the Vic.

The Vic has a capacity of 1,400, and it’s hard to maintain that seven nights a week. We were lucky to do two or three shows a week. So my brother came up with the idea... see, the Vic has this beautiful proscenium stage, which means there’s plenty of fly space and side areas. He thought, Why don’t we fly a movie screen up there? It would go up on the nights we had live music and we’d use rigging to bring it down. We already had a booth—we could put a projector up there and show movies. They wouldn’t have to be current releases either. They could be cult movies—you know, we’d show The Blues Brothers or do a week of Elvis movies. And we already had a liquor license in place... so it became the Brew & View for the three or four nights a week that we would’ve been dark... We didn’t expect it at the time, but that became a model in Chicago, serving alcohol at places that showed movies.

BS: When did you start the Brew & View?

TK: In 1987 or ’88. I’m sure other people had the idea in other places in the country, but we didn’t know of any in Chicago. In fact, when Tony got a hold of this property, one of the first things he said was, “Weren’t you involved with Brew & View? What do you think about running a movie theater?” So, we took the Brew & View idea and did it backwards. This is a movie theater where we got a liquor license later; that was a nightclub where we started showing movies.

BS: Do you want to do something like the Brew & View here? Do you want to show midnight movies or cult movies?

TK: We do, when it’s appropriate. Jenny’s involved with The Rocky Horror Picture Show. This place was famous for showing it every Saturday night for years.

BS: How did you get involved with the New 400?

Jenny Shapiro: One of my castmates [from Rocky Horror] lives up the street from here. One day he told me that the theater was reopening. I’m from Skokie, so I’ve heard stories about it all my life. My friend told me they were hiring and suggested that I fax over my résumé. I was like, “Fax my résumé over? To that little theater? It sounds a little sketchy...”

TK: What? We were hiring. That’s how you do it...

JS: But I’d never been inside before, I’d only heard stories. Anyway, I faxed my resume over, and I got the job.

BS: Are you projecting movies in addition to managing?

JS: Yes.

BS: Does everyone who works here take turns projecting?

JS: No, just the managers.

TK: I do it, Jenny does it, and so does the other assistant manager, Sabrina. In this business, you’re open seven days a week. So once you start doing [projecting], you either get good at it real fast or else you stop doing it. [laughs] There’s a lot that can go wrong, so there’s no messing around.

JS: You can’t “kind of” do it.

TK: If you’re scratching prints or you’re not getting things run in a timely manner, then you’re out... With the Brew & View, we hired a projectionist. If I had known that I’d be doing it full-time in a few years, I would have watched that guy more closely and learned how to do it back in the 80s.

BS: You told me you sold the Vic to Jam Productions about ten years ago. What were you up to between then and the time you got involved with this place?

TK: I’m a professional musician. I traveled all over the world with Liquid Soul, and I started playing with Gerald McClendon. I still play two or three nights a week... I was teaching music privately six days a week. That’s what I do. I spend so much time in theaters and clubs not because of movies, but because of music. [My brother and I] always had a club or something going, and I was always playing in other clubs. I’ve just been in theaters all my life.

BS: Were you always a movie fan? Or did that come later, when you started projecting them?

TK: I’m still not a movie fan. [laughs] It’s like you’re asking a plumber to fix the pipes when he gets home from work. But, sure, I like movies as much as the next guy. But I’m not a fanatic about them. Like, Machete was my favorite movie of 2010. That’s my style: goofy stuff, you know, with bodies landing on the hood of a car. But, yeah, everybody likes movies. Who doesn’t?

BS: How about you, Jenny?

JS: Same thing. I’m a movie fan, but I’m not the kind of person who can debate directors. I couldn’t hold my own in that conversation. But I like being here, I like watching movies, I like the atmosphere.

TK: I’m not the kind of guy who follows all the hip directors... because in the exhibition business, the focus should be the quality of the image and sound. Making sure your equipment is working properly and it’s kept in good repair. People coming in in a smooth, low-stress manner. Keeping the lighting right in the lobby. Making sure people get a fresh, hot batch of popcorn. People should enjoy themselves while they’re here. I’m more concerned with that than with who the latest director is. We could be showing the coolest movie in the world, but if it’s too cold in the lobby or the popcorn machine’s breaking down every other day...

I’m here at nine or ten in the morning sometimes. I bring a wrench and a pair of pliers, and I make sure the toilets are unclogged and that kind of stuff. That’s my contribution to the art of film.

BS: It’s an important contribution.

TK: It is, and I like it. Like last week I put new, heavy-duty doorstops on our doors. You know why? When people were trying to leave [the theaters], the doors wouldn’t stay open, and we were shoving wedges of wood underneath the door. That sucks. I mean, you’re going out to a movie and you’re trying to leave as the lights are coming up, you want to be able to walk out with the door all the way open. You don’t want it, like, sliding half-shut with this wedge of wood underneath...

This was driving me crazy, and our guy wasn’t fixing it. So I put in the doorstops. I know this sounds stupid—and it’ll probably sound stupider when you’re listening back to the interview—but that was a huge improvement for somebody who comes here regularly. They won’t notice it, but when they leave, they’ll get a nice, smooth exit. They’ll be talking about the movie with their friends and everything, and they’re not worried about the doors. Because that doorstop’s holding the doors—and it will be for the next ten years, the way I bolted it on there.

That’s the art of exhibition. Making sure the picture looks right, the sound... You know we’re in the middle of a huge conversion to digital, and that’s a whole new thing to worry about. It’s a weird time, because it’s the biggest change in exhibition since... I mean, this exceeds, like, CinemaScope and Dolby sound and all that George Lucas stuff.

BS: It’s got to be the biggest paradigm shift for exhibitors since the introduction of sound.

TK: Yeah, and that was 80 years ago! So this is huge. And the challenge is there now. [Jenny’s] a film person; she hates it. How do you feel about it?

BS: I’ll always prefer a film image to a digital image.

TK: Me too. But I’ll admit I’ve sat in a theater with a digital image where it looked great. Still, I like the graininess of film, the contrasts of the colors... But there’s no stopping progress. I would love to be able to say we’ll be showing film for the next ten years, but the distributors have been pressuring us, saying, “Hey, we’re not going to make 35-millimeter prints ten years from now.” They’re not going to be making them three years from now. So, it’s time for all the small theaters to either go digital or get out of the game. I guess we’re going to have to go digital.

A digital projector: this is the future
  • A digital projector: this is the future
BS: Are you holding out to see how long film stays around?

TK: We’re holding out as much as our money’s holding out. We’re not doing it on purpose. The conversion is pretty expensive. They’re offering up incentive programs, and we’re looking into those. Tony Fox is a financial guy—he’s a real estate developer—and thank God for that. I’m a musician. I couldn’t work out those deals to save my life.

BS: How do you choose the movies you show?

TK: Well, there are four screens. And that’s a bigger challenge than booking [for] the 16-screen theater out in the suburbs, which can just take everything that’s coming out in a given week. They can take them all and shift the older stuff to smaller screens. We can’t do that. If there are four big movies coming out in a given week, we’re lucky to get two of them. Sometimes the choice is made for us, because there are movies you just can’t get on 35-millimeter film anymore. But we try to get one of the big ones for the week.

BS: How do you decide on the other films you show?

JS: Attendance.

TK: The theaters vary in size, so the movie that’s in here [the biggest auditorium] this week might move to the smaller theater in back next week.

BS: When is your first show of the day?

TK: It’s at three o’clock. Do you want to stay and watch something?

BS: I can’t. I’ve got to be in Hyde Park by dinnertime.

JS: You should stop by our other theater.

BS: That’s right. You’re working with the University of Chicago to reopen the theater on 53rd Street.

TK: Yeah, at 53rd and Harper. It’s a huge development, the biggest on the south side in about 40 years. It’s not just the theater. It’s a whole city block, and they’re putting up a high rise office building, a hotel... We’ll be opening down there by Thanksgiving.

BS: How many theaters will be in that location?

TK: It’s very similar to this place: four theaters, about the same size. The total capacity might be a little bit less than it is here. It’s the old Harper Theater building, and they’ve totally... It’s going to be all brand-new construction inside. They wanted to keep the four walls the same: it’s a beautiful, Prairie-style building. Architecturally, it’s beautiful from the outside. What they did was they gutted the entire inside. The first floor is being built out for the four theaters, and the upstairs will be used by the University for workshops, clinics, lectures, and maybe live performances.

It’s going to be an interesting building; it’ll be a mix of a lot of different things. The lobby on the main floor is going to be a cafe style, which would mean coffee, WiFi for the people with laptops, food... What we envision—we don’t know if this is how it will work out, but we’ll try it—we envision opening around six in the morning and start showing movies around one or two in the afternoon. Hopefully, some of the people hanging out [and] working on papers or whatever will end up going to a movie, and people going to a movie will end up staying to work on papers.

BS: It sounds like the 24-hour movie theaters that used to be in the Loop, where businessmen would stop in for part of a film during their lunch breaks.

TK: It would be nice to have something like that.

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