INTERIOR. AN OLD MOVIE THEATER.
Early evening, the day before Memorial Day. Customers crowd the lobby of the Patio Theatre at Austin Boulevard and Irving Park Road in the Portage Park neighborhood. The movie is scheduled to start at 8 PM, but the hour has passed and the audience is getting restless. ALEX KOUVALIS, a heavyset man in an open-necked striped shirt with three pens stuffed in the breast pocket, is feverishly ringing up orders for popcorn, pop, and candy at the concession stand.
Next please. Dots, Raisinets, medium popcorn, medium Diet Coke. That's $8.25. Wanna butter?
(Kouvalis looks to his cousin, Louis Faklaris, who scoops out the popcorn and ladles on the butter. A high school girl hands up the drinks.)
Next please. Medium popcorn. Large Diet Coke. $4.75. Wanna butter? How about some extra butter?
Can I get a small drink?
We don't have small. Small is associated with practically nothing. We serve
regular--regular for the regular man.
Say, when's the movie going to start? It's 8:15, for God's sake.
Whenever. Whenever. When I feel like it. It's Memorial Day tomorrow, a day off. Relax. What's a few minutes out of your life?
After several minutes, Kouvalis relieves projectionist Louis Antonelli in the ticket booth, and Antonelli scurries up three flights to start Pulp Fiction. Downstairs the house lights dim amid surroundings that recall another era. The auditorium is expansive--1,494 seats, including 424 in a section above the entry ramps that's called the balcony. The screen is 45 feet across. The seats may be hard and uncomfortable, but the overall atmosphere is lush, "like a Spanish arena," Kouvalis says. Globes atop pedestals and red bulbs in iron casings glow in the dark. There are ersatz boxes, a proscenium arch that lights up when the movie's off, and an arrangement of inlaid petals fanning out from the screen. Out of sight is a Barton pipe organ, original to the theater.
Chicago was once filled with big, overdecorated movie theaters like the Patio, but they've evaporated as neighborhoods have declined and the motion-picture business has changed. Most of the survivors have been sliced into several screens, following the trend toward multiplexes. There are only a trio of single-screen movie houses left within the city limits--the Patio, the Adelphi (which now shows Indian films in Hindi), and the Broadway (part of the powerful Cineplex Odeon chain).
The Patio is the last of the big-screen independents. It's been restored lovingly by Kouvalis, who shows boundless enthusiasm for the place and the experience of going there. If he refuses to offer small drinks, it's to make his customers feel more important. If he starts the movie late, it's to ensure that everyone who wants popcorn gets a proper bucket with plenty of butter. Kouvalis can be testy and windy; as the movie plays he can usually be found in the lobby delivering healthy doses of cracker-barrel philosophy. Yet there are many who think he's entitled.
"Alex runs a mom-and-pop operation," says Willis Johnson, owner of Classic Cinemas, a chain of suburban theaters, including the grand old Tivoli in Downers Grove. "He manages the building and fixes what's broken. He sells the tickets and the Cokes. He's improved the place. The seating's still bad--after a two-hour movie, you know you've sat for two hours--but if it wasn't for Alex the Patio would be closed, another old barn sitting vacant."
INTERIOR. THE PATIO LOBBY.
Later that evening. Fifty minutes into Pulp Fiction, Uma Thurman and John Travolta are about to do their pas de deux at the nightclub. But ALEX KOUVALIS, sitting in a chair, is still perturbed with the man who chided him for starting the movie late.
Five minutes isn't killing anybody.
It was 15 minutes.
Whatever. You have to have a little compassion. A guy like me has to stay in business and pay his bills. This is a $2 show. My God, today $2 buys you a
cup of coffee and a tip to the waitress.
The Patio is a second-run movie theater, meaning it plays films that opened many weeks or months before. Most second-run houses today have several screens, so proprietors can hedge their bets by booking several different attractions. But Kouvalis, with only one screen, doesn't have that luxury if a film can't draw an audience. "If you have just one screen, like the Patio does, each week you have to try to put the best bullet in the chamber," explains Brian Boylan, a booking agent. "You've got to hope that every time you bring in a picture it's the right one, and that's not easy to do."
The Patio aims less at attracting kids, the staple of the movie business everywhere, than the middle-aged and the elderly. "People come in every week like they're going to church," Kouvalis says. "A second-run movie is the cheapest form of entertainment you can have and still get out of the house. A lot of old people come. They stay home all day, and in the afternoon or at night they go out to the movies. It breaks the monotony. Sundays are 90 or 95 percent old people. They take the bus."
To lure his clientele, Kouvalis tries to secure mainstream films like Crimson Tide and French Kiss, but only if they boast a proven track record. "Every Friday I look in the Tribune, where they show the top box-office grosses from the week before," Kouvalis says. "If a movie has made money across the United States, I'll order it. It can be the stupidest comedy ever made, it can be Dumb and Dumber. But if it made money in America, it'll make money for me. That is my criterion."
Well, not quite. Notwithstanding Pulp Fiction, Kouvalis prefers to avoid violent and foul-mouthed movies. "With that stuff you get the wrong crowd, rowdy kids, and you have to devote too much time monitoring the balcony," he says. "I have 50 percent regular customers, and they'll stay home if the tough kids dominate." Sometimes too he imports quasi-art-house fare he knows will bomb, yet he feels it ultimately helps build a following for the Patio. "Nobody's Fool, that Paul Newman thing, was a bomb, but it brought old people to the theater," says Kouvalis. "If they like the place they'll be back with their friends."
Kouvalis usually pays Boylan $60 to book movies from one of the eight major Hollywood studios. For the privilege of showing their films, he will have to return anywhere from 35 to 55 percent of the gross to the studio (a substantially lower percentage than the amount kicked back by a prosperous first-run house). Almost every Friday Kouvalis drives out to a shipping depot near Midway Airport to fetch the film he's ordered, returning with canisters for projectionist Antonelli.
Kouvalis regularly takes out a small, eighth-of-an-inch advertisement in both the Tribune and the Sun-Times; the ads cost $50 a day, his largest expense after the heat. "If you don't advertise, you die," Kouvalis says. "Thirty percent of the time, people decide to take in a show on the spur of the moment. The ad seals the decision." But the Patio's offering appears lost amid the large display ads touting new releases at the first-run theaters owned by Cineplex Odeon, Sony Theatres, and General Cinema.
The Patio has one screening on weeknights and two or three on Saturdays and Sundays. Once Kouvalis experimented with a weekend matinee, but you could count the audience on one hand. Now he sticks to late-afternoon and evening presentations. Callers to the Patio phone line hear Kouvalis's thickly accented voice announcing the week's feature. If Siskel and Ebert raised their thumbs, he makes sure to mention it.
Kouvalis, who's 57, lives close to the theater with his wife Magdalena and their two young children. He met Magdalena at the Patio. "She was a nice Polish girl selling tickets," he says. "I kind of liked her. She was from the old country, with nice values. She's 30 years younger than I am, but after work one night I asked her out for pizza. It wasn't long before I popped the question. You know what? The age difference didn't matter to her." Kouvalis says, half-seriously, that he's semiretired. Yet he toils at the Patio seven days a week. His last vacation, five years ago, was at a conference on fish farming, a subject that intrigues him.
He arrives about a half hour before the first show is slated to start. He warms up the popcorn machine and fetches change from the currency exchange on the corner. He gets ice from an ice maker in back. In the auditorium he turns on a device that projects clouds onto the ceiling, where they drift among tiny blinking lights to simulate the night sky (the Patio's slogan is "Where the stars twinkle and the clouds roll by"). Before the movie he plays light classical music, such as "Pomp and Circumstance" and themes from Carmen. "That kind of music provides a little uplift," Kouvalis says.
The Patio's outer lobby is a rotunda resplendent with arched windows, mirrors, medallions, and a dome painted with mythical figures. A wrought-iron chandelier hangs directly over the ticket booth. The booth has a ring of lights at the top. Kouvalis slips into the back of the booth and greets his clientele. He dispenses tickets at a brisk pace, yet has kind words for regulars and offers tips to newcomers ("There's a nice gift shop down the block," he'll say).
As show time approaches, Louis Antonelli takes over the ticket booth, and Kouvalis moves to the concession counter, the Patio's profit center--there's a 60 percent take on sales. "This is where the money is," says Kouvalis, who's unusually adept at totaling orders and making change. He uses a wooden box, not a cash register, and he keeps the line moving briskly.
Louis Faklaris prepares the popcorn. Faklaris is a retired restaurant grill man who wears a bright blue cap and a thick band to hold his glasses in place. Kouvalis insists the Patio has the best popcorn in Chicago and everybody knows it. He likes to tout the butter topping, which Faklaris applies, and when Kouvalis can he coaxes additional sales. "What else would you like? Some Twizzlers perhaps? Some Raisinets?"
As a hawker he's Mr. Nice Guy, lavishing free popcorn and drinks on regular customers. Yet once the feature goes on--there are no previews because there's no guarantee about what's coming next week--Kouvalis assumes the role of vigilant usher. Affronts to the theater rankle him. "This place is like my child," he says. "If somebody tries to beat up your child you get angry, and sometimes I get really upset." He descends to the basement-level washrooms, policing for graffiti, and he roams the auditorium hushing kids who talk during the movie. Tonight he notices a boy entering Pulp Fiction toting a hidden container of orange juice. "Give me that," he tells the boy, who reluctantly delivers up the container. "He was going to mix up some screwdrivers for him and his friends," Kouvalis speculates.
But there are limits to his vigilance. Spying the orange-juice offender enjoying a cigarette later on by a pay phone, Kouvalis keeps his tongue. "Who am I to do anything?" he remarks. "If kids don't get a good upbringing at home, I'm not going to be a policeman." Little restrains him, however, from discoursing at length on society and what ails it. As Kouvalis talks his voice rises in pitch, and he emphasizes every third or fourth word. The effect is strangely compelling, a sort of siren's song in the lobby.
One night Kouvalis is sitting on a chair when a well-heeled older woman approaches and implies that the Patio's ad has misstated the start time of the evening's film. When the woman asks for free admission, Kouvalis's eyes spark behind his glasses. "There is no free lunch," he informs the woman. "Give out free lunches, and people become dependent, especially the kids. It's like you're giving them dope. Society today doesn't provide enough constructive things for kids. We're too permissive. Parents bend too much toward their kids. And a kid, when you give him an inch, he wants two." Ultimately he relents and admits the woman and her husband free of charge, on the theory that maybe they'll turn into regulars.
Another common topic is the state of modern film. Kouvalis agrees with Senator Dole's complaints against Hollywood: "Even though I'm in this business, I don't like the guns and bad language in the movies. There is bad product out there, and the big-guy corporations have to be more socially accountable. I might even vote for Dole."
Kouvalis's workday comes to its conclusion once the final showing is over. He checks the auditorium, shuts off the lights, turns on the alarm, and locks up. In the morning a Polish couple will clean up. "I'm particularly interested in their mopping the floor so it's not sticky from Cokes," he says.
EXTERIOR. THE PATIO THEATRE.
It's the night of January 29, 1927. Searchlights rake the sky in front of the Patio, which is having its premiere screening. The marquee advertises the film The Blonde Saint plus three vaudeville acts and the eight-member Patio Symphony Orchestra. Chicago mayor WILLIAM DEVER makes some opening remarks. Off to the side are WILLIAM, JOHN, and GEORGE MITCHELL, three young brothers who built the theater.
The Mitchell brothers changed their last name from Michalopoulas after emigrating from Greece as boys. They opened a nickelodeon on Belmont Avenue in 1914, and in the boom times that followed World War I they built the Patio, plus adjoining retail space and 17 apartments. The Chicago movie theater scene was dominated, as it is today, by large chains--in those days Lubliner & Trinz, Balaban & Katz, and Essaness--and to compete the Mitchells pulled out all the stops. The Patio cost $750,000, including $25,000 for the Barton pipe organ, which was substantially larger than those of their competitors. The facade was trimmed in terra-cotta, with urns and zephyrs adorning the cornices. The interior had an outdoor feel. "It was supposed to be an open-air Moorish setting, with clouds and stars that shine," says Elaine Simms, John Mitchell's daughter.
The architect of record was R.S. Wolff, but the press credited the theater to someone named Buhl, who had been associated with the firm of Rapp & Rapp. George and C.W. Rapp designed many of the nation's top movie palaces, including the Chicago and Riviera theaters, as well as the Paramount in New York. The Patio had an orchestra pit and an elegant proscenium arch that lit up in cobalt, ruby, or amber, a particular signature of Rapp & Rapp.
The Blonde Saint, the opening silent movie, starred Lewis Stone and Doris Kenyon as lovers marooned in an Italian fishing village. Although Variety panned the picture as "an ordinary feature with no particular kick," the Patio survived its stay. "When the Patio opened, it was out in farmland," recalls Simms. "People would say to my father, "Why are you going so far out?' But soon the streetcar came out to Harlem Avenue, and everything developed." For decades the Patio flourished as a first-run movie theater serving the far northwest side, one of many neighborhood film houses. William Mitchell died in 1942; then John managed the theater, and George acted as the projectionist.
The Mitchells ran other theaters, but the Patio held a special place in their hearts, especially for John. "It was his life," says Simms. "He loved to deal with the public there. But he was of old-country stock, and the business side of things he kept to himself." For years the Patio did well. Families from the neighborhood regularly attended the theater, and the apartments and retail stores were easily rented. For a time the second-floor office space contained a busy pool hall, complete with a bookie in residence.
But eventually the Patio, like its peers, went into decline. People were moving to the suburbs. "When television came in, the business started to go bad," says Simms. Movie patrons wanted parking, and the Patio had none. Later on local Catholics prevailed on Mitchell not to show R-rated movies, and he bowed to the pressure. "But R movies were moneymakers," relates Simms, "and when my father showed family movies nobody came." And nobody came to the daily matinees Mitchell insisted on scheduling as women, the mainstay of the afternoon events, returned to work. He sold popcorn for 10 cents even when common sense dictated he hike the price to 25 cents.
"Keeping the building going was a tremendous expense for my father," Simms says. "But the rents he could get got lower, taxes were high, and he just couldn't see putting any more money into repairs. The building became run-down." Movie booker Brian Boylan remembers visiting the Patio during Mitchell's reign. "I went down to the men's room to take a whiz, and the pipes weren't even connected."
The Patio organ had also fallen into disrepair. In 1966 Bill Rieger, a design engineer with the Hammond Organ Company, persuaded John Mitchell to let him look over the old Barton, and he was shocked at what he found. "Nothing worked," recalls Rieger, who discovered old popcorn, theater programs, a dead rat, and a pork-chop bone inside the old instrument. "We were busy for weeks just to get the thing to even start, and once we got the motor running it wasn't playable." Rieger and some associates fixed the drums, bells, and glockenspiel, refinished the console and the lift platform, rewired the electrical switches, and added an electric piano.
The restoration of the organ led to some concerts. Hal Pearl, from the Aragon Ballroom, rebaptized the Barton, and he later teamed with Pearl White, who had once played the Balaban & Katz theater circuit, for a performance that recalled the silent-film era. The two organists were billed as the "Fabulous Pearls."
In 1970 the Patio became a second-run house. The vertical section of the marquee, which had dominated the streetscape, came down because it was unstable and because its presence meant more taxes to the Mitchells; only the canopy portion remained. George Mitchell died in 1976, and John and his family hired outside operators to run the theater. "But we couldn't get qualified people," says Simms. "We got people who wanted to make a quick dollar."
John Mitchell passed away in 1981 at the age of 94. "He left no will or anything in writing about the business," Simms says. "His affairs were a mess." The city sued the Patio, charging it lacked proper ventilation, and Simms was fined $1,000 (she ended up paying $452 in 1987). She complains that the burden of property taxes, running up to $42,000 a year, grew crippling. The family put the building and theater, by now shuttered, on the selling block.
EXTERIOR. AN OLIVE FARM.
It's 1952. Fourteen-year-old ALEX KOUVALIS is standing with his mother VASILIKI on the family farm outside of Astros, a seaside town on the Peloponnesian peninsula. VASILIKI has just returned from the Kouvalis summer home in the nearby mountains.
Mom, when you were away I went to Athens, and I have the papers for me to go to America to stay with Uncle Nick in Casper, Wyoming. You've got to sign them.
I'm only going to stay for six months, and then I'll be back.
"I was never a good student," Kouvalis explains. "My destiny was to be a small farmer taking care of olive trees. But I had the name of Alexander, and from the time I was a little boy I felt I would make more of myself."
Vasiliki was a strict woman (Kouvalis still has a mark on his shin from where she struck him). Yet she let her son go to America, where Alex found life with his uncle in Wyoming to be a disappointment. "There were so many Indians," he recalls. "There was no place for me to learn English, and when I went to high school I couldn't understand a thing." In September 1953 he migrated to Chicago, where he had a distant cousin. He was 15 years old; he boarded in a rooming house and enrolled at a grammar school for foreign students. Soon he switched to Austin High School: "I met a lot of Greek boys and girls there, which helped me adjust." By the time he graduated, his grades put him in the top 10 percent of his class.
Kouvalis attended Elmhurst College, served in the army, and earned a bachelor's degree in physics from the Illinois Institute of Technology. He then worked for the Sunbeam Corporation ("I neutralized the vibrations on the Lady Sunbeam") and for Zenith. He earned master's degrees in physics and economics from Northeastern Illinois University and IIT. "My goal was to get as many degrees as General MacArthur had stars," he says. And with a second bachelor's from IIT--this one in management--he nailed down four sheepskins.
He published arcane scientific papers on solid-state physics in publications like Physical Review. Among the sprightlier titles was "Formation of F2 t-centers in potassium iodide." Kouvalis says, "My dream then was to walk into a library and be able to look me up. That builds a little immortality, like I could always depend on living on a certain page of a certain volume."
By 1972 Kouvalis was overseeing energy conservation projects at Argonne National Laboratory. The work was demanding and required some travel, and after a decade he tired of it. "It got so I could only communicate with other scientists," he says. "The general public doesn't give a damn about the spin of an electron." In 1981 he returned to Greece, where his parents had died leaving lots of property. A scheme to go into business with his brother selling marble off some of the land came to naught. "There were problems with the government," he says. "After a year of frustration I said, 'To hell with it.'"
Back in Chicago Kouvalis became a real estate broker. He taught courses at Triton and Wright colleges, and he set up an agency called Alexander Realty. He dabbled in residential sales, but didn't like dealing with women, who, he contends, invariably dictate the choice on whether a family will buy a house. "I got sick of being a Sunday-afternoon taxi driver, taking women around to look at kitchens," he says. He took to specializing in commercial properties. One day he was eating at the Burgundy Restaurant on Irving Park Road and glanced across the street at the Patio Theatre. He saw a sign advertising the building for sale.
Elaine Simms says her family put the Patio on the market for $650,000, though Kouvalis recalls the asking price was nearly double that figure. "I went to some Greek people I knew to see if they wanted to make a deal, but they didn't," says Kouvalis. "By then the price had dropped, and then the sign came down. I was reading this book on business that said you've got to take the bull by the horns, and so I did." Kouvalis knocked on the door of John Simms, Elaine's son, who was living in an apartment upstairs from the Patio, and inquired if the theater and building were still for sale. "You got $450,000?" John Simms asked.
Figuring a purchase at that price would be a steal, Kouvalis again tried to rustle up some interest among his clients. Finally one man said, "Alex, if this is such a good deal, why don't you buy the place yourself?" The question gave him pause. A bachelor, Kouvalis considered movies a prime form of relaxation. He'd take in as many as four films a week. For years his Friday routine had been to have supper out and then see a picture; despite it being a date night, Kouvalis usually went by himself. He decided to buy the Patio.
The shuttered theater had already attracted its share of tire kickers. "I went over for a look-see," recounts Willis Johnson, president of the Classic Cinemas chain. "One boiler worked, and the other didn't. When you walked over the carpet, it felt like you were walking on cement. It was a typically tired old theater, and they wanted a lot of money for it. I took a pass--I couldn't deal with it."
Kouvalis says the Mitchell family spurned his initial offer, but he was undeterred. He became partners with his barber, the barber's plumber brother, and an architect-engineer. He tried to sew up a bank loan, but "I kept getting turned down," relates Kouvalis. "They would never say why, but I knew it was the theater. The banks considered it a white elephant." After proposing to convert the theater into a self-storage warehouse, Kouvalis secured a loan and entered a complicated sale arrangement with the Simms family, but the deal fell through. At last Kouvalis abandoned the self-storage maneuver and bought the Patio and the building for $380,000 in back property taxes.
"When Alex took the theater from us, we asked him not to divide it up," says Elaine Simms. "He said he had no intention of doing that."
Kouvalis's intention was to reopen a swell-looking Patio. Every day for months he and an assistant washed and repainted the theater. Kouvalis did all the painting himself, and to this day he takes great pride in the color scheme. "What is beauty?" he asks one afternoon while conducting a tour of the theater. "Beauty is appealing to the eye, and so I went with colors that weren't garish. See this silver blue gold and this nice green? They call the pink over there Arizona Clay. That off-white color is called Poindexter, like the guy with Reagan who got into trouble. People tell me, "Why go to Rome when you can go to the Patio Theatre for $2 ?"' Decorating the Patio exacted a price, however; exposure to paint inflamed Kouvalis's prostate, and he had to be treated at the hospital.
He installed carpeting discarded from the Chicago Theatre, and there were other cosmetic upgrades. But Kouvalis faced one last, seemingly insurmountable problem. "Four college degrees, and I didn't know how to make popcorn," he says. To rectify the situation he imported a veteran from the Gateway Theatre to teach him how.
The Patio was reborn on October 30, 1987, with a showing of the Kevin Costner thriller No Way Out. It played to a disappointing house, but Kouvalis continued to book movies he wanted to see. Subsequent offerings included The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Hope and Glory, and David Mamet's House of Games, all art films that bombed. The box office picked up only after Kouvalis lowered his sights and began aiming for people whose idea of a movie was an excuse to get out of the house.
INTERIOR. PROJECTION BOOTH.
An old projector throws images from Pulp Fiction 126 feet to the screen. The booth contains posters for such classic movies as Fallen Angel and Vertigo, as well as an original print of Dr. Zhivago and signed photographs of Orson Welles and Ida Lupino. LOUIS ANTONELLI is moving around in anticipation of switching to a second projector. A colored dot will appear as a signal on the upper-right-hand corner of the screen, and he'll then have seven seconds to make the change.
The job of a projectionist is to be invisible. If people know you're there, you've failed. It breaks the illusion of cinema.
Antonelli, who's 32, grew up and still lives near the Patio. He saw his first movie when he was six years old. "It was a rerelease of Quo Vadis? at the Will Rogers Theater," he says with precision. At 12 he joined a film club at Northwest Federal Savings and Loan. At 17 he made his first film, a 16-millimeter gangster tale. He has since studied film at Columbia College and with Martin Scorsese at the American Film Institute in Washington, D.C. Antonelli's won many prizes for his work. His first and only feature, Last Day in Chicago, a piece of self-described "poetic realism" about a woman's life after World War II, had a showing at the Cannes film festival this May. Being a projectionist at the Patio, Antonelli couldn't afford to go ("Plane fare's expensive, and Cannes is a $12-grapefruit town," he notes), but much to his delight the movie landed a one-week booking in Paris.
Antonelli's heroes are Orson Welles and particularly Ida Lupino. "Ida is a very reclusive woman and a misunderstood artist, and I'm enamored of her work," he says. "She's 77 now and fascinating. She was an actress, of course, but she also directed six movies, as well as many segments of Gilligan's Island." Antonelli restored The Hitch-Hiker, an esteemed thriller that Lupino directed in 1953.
One day in 1987 Antonelli was walking by the Patio and noticed the doors open. He peered inside to see tarps covering the floor and a hulking figure high up on scaffolding with a paintbrush in hand. "Hey, what are y'doing?" Antonelli called out. Kouvalis turned around, eyed his inquisitor, and barked, "Hey, what do you want?" The two became friends, and in short order Antonelli became the Patio's part-time projectionist. The full-timer, Val Escobar, was a watchmaker who moonlighted for Kouvalis.
Officially, all movie theaters in Chicago are supposed to employ only licensed projectionists. After Kouvalis reopened the Patio, a city inspector ticketed him for noncompliance with the law. A member of the Motion Picture Projectionists and Video Technicians Union then drew an average salary of $40,000 a year--an amount Kouvalis couldn't afford. He contested the ticket in court. "Your honor," Kouvalis told the judge, "it's true I'm in violation here, but if the city is going to enforce this law they should give the licensing test." The city hadn't given the test since 1982, and the judge tossed out the case. (The city has yet to offer the licensing test. The major chains continue to use union projectionists. Steve Spano, the union's business manager, says second-run theaters need union projectionists to guard against fire, "but we have no move on to organize the second-run houses.")
Escobar died in 1993, and Antonelli took over the projection booth. "I'd work for nothing, just to be a part of this," he says. Antonelli cherishes the Patio's two old projectors, which draw their illumination from a flame that crosses between positive- and negative-charged pieces of carbon. The projectors require constant fiddling while a film is playing--as contrasted with modern xenon-lamp machines, which demand little of the operator--but Antonelli likes nothing more than futzing. During off-hours, he can be found oiling the projectors' brass innards. "Oil is the blood of the machine," he explains. Most theaters rely on an up-to-date system that automatically feeds the film into the projector and then respools it, but the Patio has old-style reels, which Antonelli rewinds with relish.
He's papered the projection booth with posters and memorabilia--"I want people walking in to get a sense of history, like they're entering a shrine"--and he takes special joy in screening classics. The Patio has played Casablanca as well as Rose Marie and Naughty Marietta, a pair of Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy vehicles presented with an organ prelude. Last December the Patio showed a collection of Antonelli's own films, including The Wizard of Austin Boulevard, a short about Kouvalis.
"Louis, I have no doubt that you're going to make it," Kouvalis is forever telling Antonelli.
"Alex is a tough man, brutally honest, and that's the best you can ask for in a friend," Antonelli says. "His confidence in me means more than any prize I've ever won."
INTERIOR. A COFFEE SHOP.
At the Burgundy Restaurant, ALEX KOUVALIS has a word with the waitress and joins an ACQUAINTANCE for breakfast in a booth by the window. As he eats a bagel with butter, ALEX keeps his eye cocked toward the Patio marquee, clearly visible across the street.
Business is good?
Can't say that. The Quick and the Dead, that Sharon Stone thing, did terrible business. Nobody's Fool had Paul Newman in it, but it was terrible, too. The one before that was terrible. Actually, it was so terrible I forget the name of it.
Kouvalis never knows how the box office will fare. The Patio's principal deficit is having no parking lot, and other than that it's victimized by intangibles. "Show business is very susceptible to external factors," he observes. "When it's nice outdoors, nobody goes to the theater. When it's cold, nobody goes to the theater. When the holidays come around, the Fourth of July, say, people have picnics in the park. There's always a Bulls game or something spicy on television. People have a tendency to stay away."
Brian Boylan sympathizes. "Alex could put Christ and the apostles up there on the screen, and if something good was going on anywhere else there'd be no people in the seats."
The Patio must draw 1,500 customers a week to break even. Sometimes the theater makes the threshold, but just as often it falls short. Quick and the Dead brought in 580 customers. Nobody's Fool delivered a paltry 540. To compensate, the Patio needs a dozen or so blockbusters each year, along the lines of Forrest Gump, a 3,500-patron draw, and Pulp Fiction, which saw 2,300 ticket buyers. Fortunately for Kouvalis, there are just enough hits so that the Patio scrapes by.
For Kouvalis, one salvation is that some nearby theaters--the Gateway, the Mont Clare, and the Luna--can no longer steal customers because they're no longer in business. Another plus is that owning the building with his partners enables him to defer rent on the theater and other expenses. Bill Rieger and fellow members of the Chicagoland Theatre Organ Society come in most Saturdays to maintain the organ, another expense lifted from Kouvalis's shoulders. Rieger actually purchased the organ when the Mitchell family had the building on the market to guarantee that the instrument wouldn't be sold independent of the theater; in recent years he's added a rank and augmented the flute sounds.
Yet Kouvalis's overall maintenance costs have been high, and he's had to make certain capital improvements. The decaying arched windows on the second story were replaced, and the roof has been repaired. There are new stoves and refrigerators in the apartments. The one faulty boiler required a compete overhaul. After a city inspection in 1990 Kouvalis had to install a costly new fire alarm. He also bought a sophisticated Dolby sound system ("which is like putting a turbocharger on a Studebaker," cracks Boylan).
"I'm always behind with bills," Kouvalis says. "We go from week to week. Whoever hollers the most we pay. I owe the electric company $2,700, and I just paid off enough of the bill--a thousand bucks--to keep them off my back. Sometimes there are penalties. It used to be you could be two or three months late on a bill, but now if you're late they ask for the money up front. They take it from you before they take it from you."
But Kouvalis has kept the apartments and offices rented. Occupying the first floor are a travel agency, a currency exchange, a children's resale shop, and a purveyor of foreign military surplus; a large space on the second floor is leased to a Polish school. Kouvalis pockets the $30,000 surplus that the theater earns annually as salary, and he takes a $15,000-a-year commission from his partners for managing the building. The bottom line is that neither the building nor the theater earns a profit.
Most old neighborhood theaters that have survived have done so by cutting their space into smaller theaters or else by adding a side theater or two to augment the giant original house. Kouvalis resists the trend. "I like the theater," he says. "It's something unique. A lot of my customers come here and feel they are revisiting the 50s. Those new small theaters are two walls painted gray with two little exit doors. You get claustrophobic. There's no atmosphere. Plus, it would be counterproductive to put in more screens without having parking. That would be spitting in my own face."
Not surprisingly, Antonelli finds the suggestion of dividing the Patio particularly repulsive: "You'd bastardize the place. You'd get awkward seating and bad acoustics. You'd be left with shoeboxes, not the grandeur of cinema."
For now the Patio will remain unchanged. The partnership doesn't have the $200,000 to $300,000 it would take to add screens, and Kouvalis discounts an outright sale.
"Running this place is a challenge," he says. "When everybody says you're going to fail and you make a good go of it, that's the pleasure. The Patio may make no money, but money isn't everything. Oh sure, it can buy you a better car or a bigger meal, but if you aren't happy who cares? This theater is something special. It may not be the Parthenon, but it gives a service to the community. It's a place to go and a hymn to the past."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/J.B. Spector.