Turn down Southport Avenue in Lakeview and it’s hard to resist the flickering lights and letters of Chicago’s Music Box Theatre – a beacon for independent, foreign, classic and cult films for nearly 100 years.
Music Box Theatre holds a special place in our hearts as a partner we have done some great events with in the past, such as our screening of Carrie in the Stagg Court on Halloween a few years back. A venue as special as this deserves a deeper look – so let’s dive into five fast facts about this Chicago institution.
The Roaring ’20s
Music Box Theatre opened at a fortuitous time in history – August 1929, just two months before the stock market crash that would trigger the Great Depression. At the time, theaters in Chicago could seat about 3,000 people so Music Box’s 700 seats were considered a “little brother” to these grand dames of gathering places.
An Architectural Gem
Though smaller, Music Box Theatre’s elaborate architecture was dubbed by Chicago Tribune architectural critic Paul Gapp as an “eclectic melange of Italian, Spanish and Pardon-My-Fantasy put together with passion.” To this day, Music Box Theatre retains its original architecture and design. With a dark blue ceiling, “twinkling stars” and moving cloud formations suggesting a night sky, and walls and towers suggesting an Italian courtyard, it feels as if you are watching a film in an open-air Tuscan palazzo.
Restoration and Rebirth
After an odd period from the late 70s to the early 80s, new management purchased and reopened the theatre in 1983 with a format of double feature revival and repertory films. Foreign films, independent and cult films were also added to the programming and these days Music Box Theatre presents a yearly average of 300 films. (Playing now for instance: the much buzzed about Last Night in Soho.)
Today, the theatre boasts an architecturally-considered second screen, as well as a Lounge & Garden that opened in 2015 serving specialty cocktails and local beers and wines.
The Theatre Ghost
Many old theaters are rumored to have ghosts and The Music Box is no exception. “Whitey”, as was his nickname, was the manager of The Music Box from opening night 1929 to November 24, 1977. His wife was the cashier and they raised their family two blocks away from the theater. According to one of Whitey’s daughters and his daughter-in-law, he spent most of his time at the theater. On Thanksgiving eve, 1977, Whitey returned to close the theater. He fell asleep on the couch in the lobby and never woke up.
Today, the Music Box Theatre thanks Whitey, who they call their Manager Emeritus, as a “tireless protector of The Music Box Theatre.” He has been known to express his opinion of a bad organist by causing the drapery to drop in both organ chambers simultaneously. Or, he is sometimes felt to be pacing Aisle 4 – protecting the alley doors where kids used to sneak in.
Music Box Direct
Super relevant in the time of COVID, Music Box Theatre launched a digital platform in 2019 that allows you to bring the art house to your house. And while nothing can beat seeing this eclectic, cultural landmark in person, this streaming platform allows you to bring the Music Box Film library into your home through on-demand movie rentals, or “Virtual Cinema”, or a subscription on-demand service where subscribers get instant and unlimited access to a collection of films from the Music Box Films library.
Ready to add Music Box Theatre to your Chicago bucket list? We know just the place to call home base during your visit to check out this cultural landmark.