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Film Exchanges

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Tour Chicago's old film district on Wabash and Michigan avenues around 13th Street and you won't get chased by Indiana Jones's boulder or attacked by a giant mechanical shark. Instead you'll see some history in a cluster of small buildings built by the major Hollywood studios in the 20s, 30s, and 40s to handle film distribution to local theaters. These were "film exchanges," equipped with bunkerlike fireproof vaults for storing film, which was highly explosive and flammable.

The one-story Famous Players-Lasky Corporation building at 1327 S. Wabash is easy to miss. Close inspection finds the Paramount Pictures emblem--a mountain encircled with stars--done in multicolored terra-cotta. Pioneering film mogul Jesse L. Lasky owned this exchange, finished in 1923. A different emblem on the other side of the carved name fell off about ten years ago.

It's no accident if the classical detailing in creamy terra-cotta recalls the opulent movie theaters from that time. The Lasky exchange was designed by the firm of C.W. and George L. Rapp, one of the country's leading designers of movie theaters in the 1920s. Its local works include the Chicago, Oriental, and Uptown theaters.

Lasky and Paramount are long gone, but the building has possibly achieved greater immortality as the longtime home of Filmack Studios. Filmack's work includes producing those commercial shorts shown during movie-theater intermissions, like the classic dancing popcorn and soft drinks singing "Let's all go to the lobby ..."

Nearby is Universal Studios' former home at 1234 S. Michigan, a sleek, streamlined 1947 building with a carved marble relief of its trademark spinning globe. The Publix Theater Corporation exchange at 1306 S. Michigan doesn't feature any trademarks, but it's an interesting three-story art deco fortress. And check out the distinctive undulating first-floor wall on the exchange at 1300 S. Wabash, built in 1941--it's an early work of architect William Pereira, who created the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco three decades later.

--Tim Samuelson

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Hedrich Blessing.

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