Credit: Special Collections Center, Bradley University Library
Chicago cinema in the ‘70s was a filmgoer’s paradise. The movies were cheap. There were huge screens and there were tiny screens. Audiences were passionate and plentiful. The movies were new and groundbreaking, and everywhere you turned, you could catch a classic. Gene Siskel was the critic at the Chicago Tribune, Roger Ebert was the critic at the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Chicago Reader had a whole slew of rotating critics that included feminist writer B. Ruby Rich and auteurist Dave Kehr. Every critic’s year-end Top 10 List was a movie lover’s knockdown drag-out statement of beliefs about the entire medium.
You might catch the latest release in one of the surviving movie palaces from the teens and ’20s, either downtown (the Chicago, the State Lake, the Roosevelt, the Oriental, the Woods, the United Artists, the Bismarck) or in the neighborhoods (the Granada, the Uptown, the Nortown, the Century, the Central Park). Many venues in the city started showing movies at noon and stopped somewhere between midnight and 2 a.m. And in the Loop, chances are one of those downtown theaters was running a triple bill with either a so-called blaxploitation flick or a kung fu movie getting top billing, with cheap horror films and other sensationalistic fare thrown in, as well. Smaller suburban theaters still stood in such places as Glen Ellyn, Highland Park, and Downers Grove; it seemed as though every town had one.
Or you would go the mall. Multiplexes were just coming of age, and theaters housing two, three, even four (!) screens were opening up. There was a triplex at Marina City in the ’70s on the site of the present day House of Blues. Water Tower Place included movie theaters, one of which played a movie that had been shot there only months earlier, Brian dePalma’s The Fury.
The Film Center of the Art Institute opened under the direction of Barbara Scharres and the programming included new films by young directors, recent masterpieces from around the world, American premieres of films by Jean-Luc Godard, visiting directors (including a young Wim Wenders), and retrospectives, and every film came with typed program notes by a film scholar. Facets Multimedia opened its doors. Its founders Milos Stehlik and Nicole Dreiske featured world cinema and an annual two-week Christmastime booking of Marcel Carne’s masterpiece The Children of Paradise. It also hosted visiting filmmakers, including African director Osmeme Sembene and the seemingly omnipresent Werner Herzog. The university screening series at Northwestern and the University of Chicago featured documentaries, Marx Brothers films, classic horror films, and recent American releases that had been overlooked.
There was a brief phenomenon of commercial revival houses which changed their bills either three times a week or daily. The old Playboy Theatre on Dearborn, which had premiered Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, became the Sandburg. Films by Douglas Sirk, Sergio Leone, and Fritz Lang were on double and triple bills. They hosted a 24-hour B-movie film festival that included such Western titles as Terror of Tiny Town. The Parkway, a small north side theater on Clark Street near Diversey, changed double and triple bills daily, with films by Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Federico Fellini, and John Ford, plus such favorites as Harold and Maude and King of Hearts.
And seeing films that featured the city was a new delight. From Waiting for Mr. Goodbar to The Blues Brothers to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Chicago was popping up in Hollywood fare.
With the arrival of the VHS machine and eventually cable, the need for revival houses passed. The shape of moviegoing in Chicago changed once again.
“Let me take you to the movies.
Can I take you to the show?
Let me be yours ever truly.
Can I make your garden grow?”
--“Houses of the Holy,” Led Zeppelin