Six short blocks from Wrigley Field, Chicago’s temple of baseball, is a shrine to another American pastime, the movies. Presenting a savvy mix of independent first-run and revival films for the past eight years, the Music Box Theater has established itself as a significant Chicago cultural attraction, a showcase for progressive filmmaking at a time when American movie theaters are as homogenized as the films they exhibit.
On a recent weekend, the Music Box offered The Killer, a Hong Kong gangster picture by hotshot director John Woo, midnight shows of Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town and Blonde Emanuelle in 3-D, as well as a festival showcasing Illinois film and video artists. The following night: a double bill of Last Tango in Paris and Tropic of Cancer. Meanwhile, the Coming Attractions case in the lobby promised the restored 311-minute version of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900. For variety, the Music Box has no commercial equal in Chicago.
Though the images inside the Music Box are progressive, the decor is strictly retro, the theater having been built in 1929 — thus the paneled-glass door front, a riotously multicolored tile lobby floor, and a Spanish villa motif for the 750-seat auditorium. Vermilion and orange lights encased in Spanish-style metalwork line the walls. Thirty-four twinkling starlights cover the cobalt blue ceiling. Faint clouds move southwesterly across those stars, the cloud projector a ”new” old touch provided by owners Bob Chaney and Chris Carlo.
The Music Box is yesterday’s theater presenting today’s films, and — surprise — it’s making money. The recent revival of Citizen Kane broke the house record, grossing $50,000 in only nine days. Prosperity means that owners Chaney and Carlo are about to give birth to an as-yet-unnamed sequel, a 115- seat theater next door.
Mainstream Hollywood is part of the Music Box story, film companies using it as a location in three recently made-in-Chicago movies: John Candy takes Ally Sheedy and his mother, Maureen O’Hara, out for a date at the Music Box in Only the Lonely; Jim Belushi and Kelly Lynch sneak into the Music Box to watch a 3-D movie in Curly Sue; and John Goodman as slugger George Herman Ruth uses the Music Box as a vaudeville theater in The Babe.
Technologically the Music Box is up-to-date in every way, including a new Dolby stereo system. ”We can show movies in all of the correct ratios, and we have a silver screen for 3-D,” says manager Chris Krol.
Best of all is the offbeat programming. The Music Box uses its vintage organ during the holiday season for a series of sing-alongs between double features. Last year, Christmas Eve featured the pairing of It’s a Wonderful Life and White Christmas. Nothing special about that, right? True, but the holiday double bill the night before was the pairing of John Waters’ Female Trouble and Polyester, the latter properly presented in Odorama with authentic scratch ‘n’ sniff cards. Remember? The smell-by-numbers flick offered the opportunity to take a whiff of an old shoe, a pizza, and a fart. ”Same program this year,” says manager Krol. ”We’ve still got hundreds of those Odorama cards.” Only at Chicago’s Music Box.
— Gene Siskel is the Chicago Tribune‘s syndicated film columnist.