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New Venue, Same Stellar Programming For Silent Summer Film Festival

By Chuck Sudo in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 1, 2013 4:10PM

Photo credit: Stephanie Barto

When Eddie Carranza padlocked the Portage Theater in May over a liquor license dispute, it threw the plans of several film societies who called the Six Corners landmark home into flux. The Northwest Chicago Film Society has been able to move its screenings to the Music Box Theatre and Patio Theater. But the film society to watch has been the Silent Film Society of Chicago, whose recent history was intimately tied to the Portage courtesy of Dennis Wolkowicz.

Wolkowicz, who was the Portage’s longtime manager until Carranza’s latest fit of pique, also heads the Silent Film Society of Chicago and plays pipe organ accompaniment for many of the group’s screenings under the name “Jay Warren.” It was Wolkowicz’s sweat equity, financial investment and passion that transformed the Portage from a dilapidated afterthought into one of Chicago’s great modern movie palaces, with a rehabbed proscenium and refurbished Wurlitzer pipe organ tailor made for playing before film screenings and as accompaniment for silent films. The Silent Film Society’s annual “Silent Summer” Film Festival has been a centerpiece of the Portage’s film schedule the past seven years.

Carranza’s decision to close the theater left Wolkowicz and the Film Society scrambling for another venue. Luckily they were able to secure a new home at the Des Plaines Theatre. Built in 1925 on the site of the later residence of Socrates Rand, Des Plaines’ first settler, this is the only known movie palace built by the architectural team of Betts & Holcomb, who also built the still-operating Catlow Theatre in Barrington and Glen Art Theatre in Glen Ellyn. The Des Plaines Theatre has the distinction of being the only Betts & Holcomb design to depart from the Tudor aesthetic. It was designed in a Spanish Baroque Revival style with gleaming polychrome terra cotta. The theater was restored to its original 700 seating capacity in 2011 and now screens films, stages live events and is available for rentals. (Much like the Portage.)

This year’s Silent Summer Film Festival, running six Fridays from July 19 through Aug. 23, doesn’t offer much in the way of surprises but is loaded with some of the most enduring films of the Silent Era. The festival kicks off with a bang and some swashbuckling action as Rudolph Valentino stars in The Sheik with Wolkowicz-as-Warren on the organ and pre-show music from the Great Lakes Trio. Louisville-based silent film organist Tim Baker, a popular addition to the festival in recent years, returns to score Kid Boots July 26 and Faust Aug. 16.

Wolkowicz dons the Jay Warren disguise to score The Flapper (Aug. 2), Fritz Lang's Metropolis (Aug. 9) and closes out the festival with The Patsy Aug. 23. Pre-show music for The Flapper will be handled by the Rajiv Halim Quartet and vocalist Linda Collins.

The screenings start at 8 p.m. throughout the festival and tickets to each are now available through the Silent Film Society of Chicago's website using PayPal for $10 each or $49 for a festival pass. Student and senior admissions are $9 each or $43 for a festival pass. Day of show admission is $12.