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  • Writer's picturePaul Mcvay

Chicago Marquees & Movie-Goers Part One

One of the aspects of the motion picture that has always held my attention has been the photographs that capture the film and its audience (or potential audience.) This doesn't cover photos of an audience watching a film. We've all seen those fantastic pics of a theater audience filled, wearing 3-D glasses, staring up at a larger-than-life screen, waiting for a Gill-Man's hand to come swiping out towards them, or a House of Wax burning down before their eyes. Those are great, to be sure, but I am talking about a specific type of photograph that can be divided into two defining categories: People waiting outside a theater to buy a ticket to the show and those walking by a theater. One set of humans engaged enough in the advertising and ballyhoo to plunk down their hard-earned money to be entertained for 90 minutes and those hovering on that periphery.

Back in the good old days of journalism, the coverage of movie fans lining up to watch movies was good business for the local papers, studios, and exhibitors. Nothing sold tickets to a show better than a picture of your friends and neighbors waiting in line to see a movie printed in the local daily newspaper. What did they know that you didn't? What was the hubbub all about? If you were just a casual movie-goer, nothing piqued your interest in spending a few bucks to see a movie quite like photographic proof that "Everybody" else was already going to see it.

All the BIG city dailies had staff photographers who would exclusively walk the streets, night and day, attempting to capture that experience. Call it a study of the pedestrian activity on a city street or an opportunity to show throngs of ordinary people escaping reality. The result of these staff photographers had a definite impact. Decades later, looking at these freeze frames of time, if you are a fan of film and the overall movie-going experience, these photographs represent a mini time machine back to an era when seeing a movie was a big deal. Perhaps the best part of their week, month, or even year.

I grew up in Chicago, so I've always had a keen interest in its residents' history and culture. Because I also love film and everything that is connected to it (the making of and experience of watching), I recently spent an entire day pouring over the collections of Chicago The Chicago History Museum has a massive collection available to the public and one of the highlights of their collective Million plus photographs, is the collections of the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Daily News. Within these collections, I found the photographs that make up this post. I encourage anybody interested in history, in general, to visit the site and root around. See what you find. It is an amazing database made available for free (you can download pics for personal use, but be warned, if you plan to use anything from the collection towards a commercial enterprise, there is a cost attached to each photo. Even with that cost, The Chicago History Museum's pricing is far lower than you will find in any other massive image collective such as Getty Images.)

I will add my TIP to search their massive photographic database. Generic searches for obvious topics will result in minimal returns. Be creative in your searches. There is something for everybody within the museum's collections, and you need not be a native Chicagoan to appreciate what is there.

Let's get to my "finds" during my lost night spent searching The Chicago History Museum's archives looking for photos that fall within my previously mentioned two defining categories.

August 28, 1965- Throngs of teenagers (mostly female) stand in line to see Help! at The Woods theater. Just up the block, at the Michael Todd Theater, The Sound of Music must have had a line of customers, but the Help! Movie-goers have taken over the sidewalk space.

August 28, 1965- Closer to the box office at The Woods theater is a clutch of guys!

Were they not aware of the dating opportunities just 1,000 feet behind them?

Below: A Father & Son ape for the camera while waiting in line.

May 14, 1971- The Clark theatre showcases one of the most iconic horror triple-bills in film history. Color Me Blood Red, Blood Feast, and 2,000 Maniacs. All seats are $1.25.


May 14, 1971- Lower left of the photograph. Check out what appears to be a "salesman" eyeballing one of the lobby cards advertising H. G. Lewis' Trilogy of Blood. Did he set aside his suitcases and buy a ticket?

May 14, 1971- Three years after these pictures were taken, in 1974, The Clark theatre was razed along with the block it was a part of. 1,550 seats lost to time. The entire block was constructed in the late 19th century.

November 10, 1966- Texas Across the River starring Dean Martin & Joey Bishop, among others. Chicago Theater stunt advertised as a native American cleansing ritual or some other endeavor with a positive spin. The pedestrians walking right by seem nonplussed. Below: November 10, 1966.

Above: Astor Theater employee Charles Davis changes out the marquee on March 15, 1950.

January 23, 1975- The Cinestage Theater marquee. Located right next door to the Michael Todd theater. Today, the façades of both theaters make up the world-famous Goodman Theater entrance. The history of the Michael Todd theater and Cinestage can be read here and should be looked over to understand the importance of both fully.

February 6, 1975- The Commodore theater offers The Gambler and The Klansman.

January 26, 1975- Chicago Theater VS. State-Lake. The Towering Inferno VS. The Godfather II. The streets were bare in a rare late evening moment when both theaters were filled with movie-goers.


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