Chicagoist Wayback Machine: Vintage Movie Houses
By Chuck Sudo in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 14, 2007 3:00PM
Now this brings back some memories. We've always had this fascination with old movie houses. It probably started with Sunday family days at the Will Rogers Theatre at 5641 W. Belmont in the mid-70's. It was the perfect capper to a day in Belmont Central. Mom would take us shopping for clothes at Goldblatt's — those stores were actually respectable then — or Jack Robbins, maybe have some lunch under the Golden Arches. Then we'd stop at a Rexall Drug store, buy candy and pop (movie theater concessions were always expensive), sneak it inside, and watch cartoons followed by a Disney movie, or maybe an old Benji flick.
But now about the theater. The Will Rogers was part of the Balaban and Katz chain of movie houses. Among other theaters in the chain were the Chicago, Uptown, Portage and Gateway. Christened after the legendary actor and humorist, the single-screen, Art Deco-style theater had 1600 seats and opened in 1936, a year after Rogers' death. It was designed by the architectural firm of Rapp & Rapp. Inside the theater were a beautifully rendered mural of its namesake and a twinkling ceiling. Mom told us a few weeks back that family days at the Will Rogers stretched back to when she was a kid, complete with prize giveaways.
As multiplexes became the norm, the Will Rogers became a second-run theater and eventually part of the Cineplex Odeon chain. It met its fate in 1987, when it was razed to make way for the strip mall that sits in its place today. The beautiful photograph above by Russell Phillips comes closest to how we want to remember the theater in our mind. When we came across the photo, we e-mailed Mr. Phillips and told him about our times at the Will Rogers. He graciously gave us permission to use the photo today, while asking, "Don't you wish you could have been around when they razed the Will to save that wonderful mural?"
We were always partial to the marquee, and we're sad to see both gone.
Image used with permission by Russell Phillips.