Brainiac On Banjo #027: Movie Sign

It’s time for another of my nostalgia-drenched-yet-timely essays that fall under the category “Old Man Yells At Cloud.”

The trick to all visual media is to appeal to our sense of wonder. Life, society, and time conspire to rob us of that which is truly our seventh sense. This applies to comic books, movies, television, the stage (or, as its denizens call it, “The Stage”) and even architecture. The proper experience opens our minds to all sorts of phenomena and inspire us to engage in the creative process.

I suspect the past couple generations first encountered this feeling when watching something utterly fantastic on television. For a great many of my braggadocios baby boomers comrades, our initial experiences with the sense of wonder occurred in the opulent movie palaces of yesteryear – particularly those of us who grew up in large urban areas. Every neighborhood had at least one such theater, and some of those venues weren’t simply palaces, they were movie cathedrals: ornate and intricate conflations of terra cotta, red velvet, brass fixtures, Tiffany glass and brilliant lighting. This environment jacked us up for what was to follow well before our butts hit the well-cushioned seats.

We would look up at the massive screen and sit through a travelogue (I have yet to meet anybody who liked those things), a cartoon, two or three trailers, and then the main feature. This was long before theater owners started running commercials before the movie.

In order to make money off redeveloping real estate, most of these great movie cathedrals closed and were replaced out in the suburbs by massive theater complexes, each component being roughly the size of a politician’s shoebox (I’ll explain that if you comment nicely). It worked, sort of, until television choice became glandular, and now those cinematic multiplexes are being replaced by somewhat larger, clearly more comfortable and obviously even more expensive IMAX (et al) screens.

You will observe the phrase “most of” in my previous paragraph. Across the country several of these citadels have been restored while an even smaller handful of others have been granted historic status, waiting the remote possibility of restoration. Which, at long last, brings me to the point of my long-windedness.

If there was one and only one movie theater that inspired me to take the path of visual communication, and of course there were several, it was the Uptown Theater in the (go figure) Uptown neighborhood of Chicago. It opened on August 18, 1925 – a couple years before Al Jolson broke the sound barrier, donned blackface, sang “Mammy” and killed his chance of becoming governor. At the time it was America’s largest movie theater, boasting 4,381 seats and more than 46,000 square feet of land. The place was designed by noted theater architects Rapp and Rapp, the mainstay designers of Chicago’s fabled Balaban and Katz chain as well as other theaters across the nation.

Fun Facts: B&K lead directly to the establishment of ABC television, and actor and swell guy Bob Balaban is the son of theater owner and ABC instigator Elmer Balaban. He’s also the nephew of Barney Balaban, who ran Paramount for 30 years and step-nephew of MGM vice-president Sam Katz. Another Fun Fact: during my exceptionally brief tenure as a caddy at the Bryn Mawr Country Club in Lincolnwood Illinois, I schlepped iron for Balaban family.

The theater converted to a concert venue in the 1970s – I saw Frank Zappa there a couple times, among many other performers. It bit the bullet in 1981, but nobody could touch the joint due to its historical status. Then-owners Plitt Theaters turned off the utilities so the water pipes froze and burst, and that along with time and neglect pushed the building to near-collapse. The Uptown changed hands several times and several attempts at restoration came and went.

Until now. At long, long last the money has been raised – $75,000,000 – and the hard work at restoration will begin in a few months. Work is expected to be completed in the summer of 2021. I do not care what their first event at the restored Uptown Theater may be. It could be a Celeste Dion concert with a conjoined documentary about the maintenance of abattoirs for all I care. I will be there… hopefully, sitting next to Bob Balaban.

That sense of wonder never, ever dies. It, too, is the stuff dreams are made of. And, with a little bit of luck, you can go home again.

Final Fun Fact: Well beneath the Uptown Theater lurks a series of rooms and tunnels that once reached out to Lake Michigan for the convenient off-loading of illegal hooch, courtesy of benefactor Al Capone. Storage rooms warehoused the stuff and there was a meeting room and bathrooms on premises. Some thirty years ago, after each of several Chicago Comicons, I took many of the comics pros on a tour of these tunnels which conveniently was accessed through the wonderful (and recently closed) used book and pop culture store Shake, Rattle and Read. I believe that when the Uptown Theater reopens, Geraldo Rivera will not be invited to the premiere.