Apr 7, 2023 - Things to Do

Chicago movie theaters: In memoriam

Exterior view of the Biograph Theater on Nov. 5, 1987. Photo: Santi Visalli/Getty Images

This month is a difficult one for Chicago movie theater lovers, as owners of The 400 (or the New 400) have announced they may close the historic Rogers Park movie house.

State of play: The closing has us thinking of Chicago's great movie palaces, from downtown gems like Chicago Theatre to iconic spots like the Biograph.

  • And, of course, there are other theaters we wish were still around:
Village Art Theatre

The Village was across the street from Latin School of Chicago at North and Clark Streets in Old Town. The red brick building was built in 1916 as the Germania Theater but was known to modern Chicagoans as a cheap place to see your favorite cult or art film.

  • It closed in 2007 to make way for a luxury condo complex.
McClurg Court Cinemas

This movie house opened in 1971 and was the precursor to the megaplexes downtown. Its main auditorium was a state-of-the-art experience, tailor-made for the blockbusters of the 1990s.

  • Loew's Cineplex closed McClurg in 2003.

Justin's thought bubble: I pulled an all-nighter standing in line to see "Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace" at McClurg. Somewhat recommended.

3 Penny Cinema

Everyone knows the Biograph Theater in Lincoln Park for its gangster lore: It's where the FBI killed John Dillinger.

  • It also was known for its midnight screenings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

Yes, but: Across the street, the 3 Penny Cinema gave movie buffs the best bang for their buck. It showed a healthy dose of foreign and independent films, and it even had a stint as an adult theater in the early 1970s.

  • You can still see the bones of the old joint when you catch your favorite rock band at Lincoln Hall, which has been housed in the same building since 2009.
The Nortown

This huge theater at 6320 N. Western was built in 1931 with mermaids on the walls and stars on the ceiling.

  • After an attempt to turn it into a triplex in 1984, the Nortown closed in 1990.

Monica's thought bubble: Our family lined up to see "Grease" and "Star Wars" at the Nortown, and it was the scene of many a grade school birthday party that ended at Sally's Stage across the street.

Ramova Theatre

The pride of Bridgeport opened in 1929 and is a sister site to the Music Box on the North Side. The ornate, Spanish-inspired architecture made it a premier destination for South Side moviegoers for decades, until it was forced to close in 1986.

There are hundreds more we could write about, and readers sent in some memories of their own:

Elyse F: "I loved the Granada! Such a beautiful theater! A real movie palace from the fabulous 1920s.

  • "The site of so many movie memories — including a live appearance by Sonny and Cher, promoting their truly awful 'Good Times' from my pre-teenhood, and the world-premiere of 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' with a live appearance by Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher."
  • Carol E., Marla K. and Loel M. also loved the Granada. As did Michael F, who said, "It broke my heart when they didn't keep the facade and put up an ugly, tall condo building."

John S.: "Clark Theatre, 11 N. Clark, immortalized in song by LeRoy Marinell and Warren Zevon, the 'Excitable Boy': He took in the 4am. show at the Clark / And he bit the usherette's leg in the dark.

  • The Clark was open all night, late show at 3am with their trademark double feature. A cheap, warm, dry if not safe place to hang out when suburban kids like LeRoy missed the last train out to Highland Park. The Clark was accommodating to the late-night guests; they turned the sound down around 2am. You could hear the change fall on the floor from the pocket of a sleeping drunk when he shifted position."
  • Stanley B. says, "It was full of some sketchy characters, but it was one of the first places to show foreign movies such as Bergman and all the French and Italian new wave cinema."

William T.: "Blue Island's Lyric was renovated and is beautiful."

Linda K.: "Terminal Theater in Albany Park."

Paul M.: "Don't forget the awesome Fine Arts theater on South Michigan Ave. Favorite memories were of the 1995 French version of 'Les Miserables' or the remake of 'Blade Runner.' Loved that theater so much."

Sean F.: "Check out the Harper movie theater that recently closed in Hyde park a few months ago."

Steve. D: "Avalon Theater."

Aaron C.: "The movie theater I miss the most is the Varsity in downtown Evanston, on Sherman Avenue. It was one of those ornate palaces, similar to the Music Box, but the Varsity had a balcony. While it had been a first-run theater, there was a wonderful period in the late 1970s and early 1980s when it was a revival house. (I believe the Landmark chain owned it then.)

  • "I was in junior high and it was wonderful to be able to walk over and get an education in film classics, or just weird '70s stuff. …
  • "The Varsity had a sister theater, The Parkway, on Clark & Diversey, which was smaller but it also became one of my favorite spots. ... For my birthday my parents took my friends and me to a double feature at the Parkway of 'Yellow Submarine' and 'Let It Be.' I got it all on DVD today, but it isn't the same."

Curtis W.: "I miss the Esquire Theater, Oak near Rush. Some of the best 60s into 70s movies played there and it was always 'a cut above' the others in elegance and sophistication. Today the marquee sign is all that remains but it's a great reminder of a wonderful theater."


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