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Celluloid Hero

Forgotten movies flocker to life at LaSalle Bank's hidden theater

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By J.R. Jones

When Scott Marks took over the LaSalle Bank's classic film series two years ago, it was dying. The Saturday-night screenings--always a community-relations project, with any profit given to charity--had begun in 1972 when the bank, then Northwest Federal Savings, sponsored a nostalgia night in its basement cafeteria. Five years later the bank added a 300-seat theater to the second floor of its building at 4901 W. Irving Park, and the series drew crowds with mainstream nostalgia like Nelson Eddy-Jeanette MacDonald musicals. But cable and videos wiped out the audience for repertory films.

Pat Odom, manager of the bank's video-production department, realized that the only way to save the series was to beat out the video stores, and he recruited Marks, a former teacher of his at Columbia College, to supervise. Marks had managed the Parkway revival house at Clark and Diversey in the early 80s and had been teaching film at Columbia for a decade. "The whole student body knows Scott and knows that he's a film fanatic. That's what the series is all about--discovering the real gems and treasures."

"They didn't pay me a lot of money," says Marks, "but they basically gave me a theater and said, do with it whatever you want. So I started booking as obscure as I could get, in hopes that if I showed stuff that's not on home video people don't have the excuse of saying, 'Well, I can rent it.'" Most video chains rent Hollywood classics, but their shelves are usually clogged with second-rate star vehicles; Marks is more likely to showcase B movies with half-forgotten players but superior writing and directing. The current film noir program includes old favorites such as Out of the Past and I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, but it's also unearthing classics such as Raoul Walsh's The Man I Love and Josef von Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress.

Gradually the crowds are returning. "Last week we showed [Andre de Toth's] Pitfall," says Marks. "Who ever heard of Pitfall? That was a pure vanity booking. I had never seen the film. I'd always wanted to. So I threw myself a bone. And we had almost 200 people for it!"

At three dollars a head--two for seniors--the series draws serious cineasts but still fulfills its original mission of giving families an inexpensive night out. "It's a wonderful mix of people," says Marks. "The average age is between my students in their early 20s and married couples in their 80s. Sometimes the old people do talk at the theater, but that's almost part of it. Maybe they can't hear the dialogue, and they're asking their husband, 'What did he say?' Or they just remember something that happened when they first saw the film. And they all know me too, so I can't sit there and say, 'Ah, shut up.' It's almost like a little family affair."

Marks's own family wasn't particularly interested in movies. "My ma was a housewife, and my father had heart attacks." Marks's father ran Larry's Grill at Broadway and Thorndale until health problems forced him to close it in the late 60s. Then he worked as a handyman, and Marks's mother became an accountant. Scott was an only child, and when he wasn't at school he was liable to be at the Granada, the Nortown, the Adelphi, the Howard. One of the first films he remembers seeing is Psycho. "I was five years old. My father took me to the Granada, and they had an ambulance out in front. That was part of the promotion--if anyone dies we'll have an ambulance to take care of you. About 30 seconds into the shower scene I screamed so much he took me home. Why he took me to see Psycho I'll never know."

By seventh grade Marks had discovered Jerry Lewis and the Marx Brothers, and every Friday or Saturday night he stayed up until the wee hours watching old comedies on TV. He took the el downtown to catch movies and rode the bus out to the suburban theaters. After high school he studied filmmaking at Columbia, where he met a student named Rick Marks (no relation). Rick had a 35-millimeter screening room in his basement, with a projection booth and a 16-foot curved CinemaScope screen. He taught Marks the art of film projection, and now nothing matters more to Marks than the integrity of the image. "My ass doesn't care as long as what's on the screen is in the proper aspect ratio and the focus is good. I don't even care about Dolby. When people put signs up for DTS, SDDS, I'd as soon have them put up a sign for 'in focus.' Because nine out of ten times it's not the proper aspect ratio, and it's shown in some glaucoma-rama."

Marks watches most of the LaSalle films from the projection booth. "I'm a perfectionist. I want the reel changes to be smooth, I want the focus to be perfect. I have my dad's World War II binoculars up in the booth, so when I focus that image it's as tight as it's gonna get."

For years Marks refused to buy a VCR, and though he now has hundreds of tapes, almost all of them are letterboxed. To him the idea of clipping the frame to fit a TV screen is blasphemy. "I guess I should have a laser-disc player," he says. "But you might as well get me hooked on heroin, I'd be spending so much money."

The current drain on Marks's wallet is movie memorabilia, which is slowly crowding him out of his small apartment. Years ago he learned of a Tennessee dealer who sold promotional merchandise at bargain prices. "One-sheets," 27-by-41-inch posters, were $2; Marks now owns 3,000 of them, laid flat in stacks in his bedroom. Lobby cards were $4 for a set of eight--a title card and seven scenes from the film--and he has hundreds of sets. A friend once gave him 800 black-and-white stills; now his collection has ballooned to 30,000. His living room is a library of videos, books on his favorite directors, and scads of movie-related toys and knickknacks--the Alfred Hitchcock Presents hand soap, the Bing Crosby ice cream box, the 1929 Popeye Dime Bank. He also has a large collection of vintage "photoplay editions," hardcover novels issued to promote films, including a copy of Buster Keaton's The General. "People ask, 'What is this valued at?' Well, it's not a collectible anymore--it's collected. It's mine. The value is the joy that it brings me when I look at it. But would I sell it? Probably not."

Among Marks's most prized possessions are his Jerry Lewis items. One-sheets of The Bellboy and Artists and Models decorate his living room, and The Nutty Professor hangs in his office. He has the Jerry Lewis hand puppet, the money clip, the tape dispenser. He recently bought a copy of the screenplay for Lewis's unfinished Holocaust film, The Day the Clown Cried.

Marks saw his first Lewis movie when he was five and has been hooked ever since. "I think it was a mixture of everything--the crazy comedy, the contorted faces. But here was a guy who felt very awkward in his own body, very uncomfortable. Nobody would shake his hand, nobody would connect with him, nobody would be his friend. Yet at the end of the movie he got Stella Stevens or Jill St. John. Wow! There was something about him that touched me and made me laugh very loudly."

When Lewis came to town in Damn Yankees in 1996 Marks sent the 70-year-old comedian a letter asking to meet him. He was out when Lewis called. "It was a horrible day. I'd shown my class Wuthering Heights, which is probably Bu–uel's only bad film, and it met with a horrible reaction. Then I went and saw Dead Man, which is not the film to see when you're really in a bad mood. I just didn't want to come home. I remember driving around for about an hour. And there on the answering machine is, 'Scott Marks--Jerry Lewis. Call me in my dressing room.'" When Marks reached Lewis he asked him to sit for an interview in Columbia's auditorium. Lewis asked to meet him first. "For two weeks he gave me complete access to his life. I was in his hotel room, I played with his kids and his dogs. He would call me all the time. I could call him whenever I wanted. And whatever he said, whatever promises he made, he made good on. 'I'm gonna be there at 11:30.' And boom--he was there, right on time."

Lewis spent over two hours fielding questions at Columbia, and Marks still has the can of diet Coke Lewis drank from that afternoon.

But Marks tries not to let his hero worship get out of hand. For him, the scariest movie ever made isn't Psycho but The King of Comedy, Martin Scorsese's black comedy about Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), a deranged fan who kidnaps a Carson-like talk-show host (Lewis). "That's the greatest reality check ever filmed. I watch that and it's like--stay back. Don't go too nuts, don't ever become a Pupkin. Rupert Pupkin is someone we should all fear, and he's someone that scares the shit out of me. Whenever I feel myself getting close to Rupert Pupkin, I pop that film in and get my reality check."

In June Cineplex Odeon hired Marks to manage the Woodfield 5-9, a multiplex inside Woodfield Mall that recently began programming art films on all five screens. Marks had taught for 12 years at Columbia, but he still didn't have a full-time position. And Cineplex Odeon was offering him a voice in booking the films. "I didn't want to work at a theater that showed Liar Liar for six weeks on end, where I would just have to sit and watch crappy movies that I can't really have any feel for, that I can't endorse. But as soon as they waved that under my nose, and they made me a good financial offer, and they seemed like a pretty good company to work with, I said yeah. And they have been very supportive of everything I wanted. I've gone to enough movie theaters in my life where I know what makes a good one. It's gotta be clean, your feet can't stick to the floor when you walk down the aisles, good sound, and it must be in good focus. Have enough poster art hanging up there, make sure the concessions are fresh--I hate the theaters that have bags of popcorn sitting in the back room, and they basically bring them out and reheat them for you."

Some of Marks's favorite titles haven't drawn crowds, but he isn't afraid to cut them loose. "You never know what's gonna connect with the public, and you just have to keep trying to bring in something new. If a film is dying, why waste the theater when you can bring in another film that may do better?"

Marks has no plans to drop the LaSalle. In fact, he'd like to start a Friday-night series showing cult films to young audiences and a Sunday-matinee series for parents and kids. "I still think there's money in this. Fuck the money--there's people who want to see these movies projected. To me that's the most important thing. I had one guy at the Woodfield a couple of months ago for Pillow Book. It was the last show at the end of the night, the day before the film ended. He goes, 'You're not going to cancel the screening, are you?' By law I can. But this was the only chance this guy was ever gonna get to see this thing in 35-millimeter. So I said, 'Screw it. I'll show it to you.' I have to! What if I was this guy, and it was my last shot at seeing a film that may thrill me and change me and inform me? I can't say no to that." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Scott Marks photo by Eugene Zakusilo.

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