A Sense of Cinema: A Theatre’s Fade-Out by matthew c. hoffman


I thought for this entry I would wander off the beaten path by talking about a place that was very much off the beaten path. This past Saturday, December 18, 2010, was the final show at the Bank of America Cinema. The film was 1934’s Babes in Toyland with Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. There couldn’t have been a more poetic choice for ending a series. I certainly enjoyed watching it more this time because the last time it played here I was up in the booth nervously projecting it. (It just happened to be a 16mm print owned by director Joe Dante. I handled that thing with white gloves!) But all these years later I couldn’t help but think, while watching Mother Widow Peep tell Stanley Dum and Ollie Dee that they will have to find a “new home,” that somehow the shady Barnaby character was like corporate America kicking us out of the “shoe” we’ve been living in these past 38 years.

When I operated the theatre at the turn of the millennium, it was known as The LaSalle Bank Theatre. It’s been known by several names throughout the years, and it’s been run by several programmers. My predecessor was Scott Marks, who had been my film teacher at Columbia College Chicago.

This 298-seat theatre within the bank has been Chicago’s longest-running revival house for decades. The humble origins of the series go back to Radio Hall of Famer Chuck Schaden, who started a movie night in the basement of the bank– then known as Northwest Federal– in the early ’70s. It was a modest affair with a small 16 projector– and a patient audience that waited while the next reel was threaded up. They began by showing Laurel & Hardy shorts. (Keep in mind this was in the days before home video when few classic films were shown on television.) In 1978, the bank management built the auditorium. Thus continued the tradition of showing what Chuck’s “Memory Club” had started. The bank theatre was never at any point an art house, nor did it, in recent decades, ever cater to nostalgia for the sake of nostalgia. It was a very eclectic theatre that reflected the tastes and whims of whoever was in the booth.

I had two advantages when I was given the keys to my own cinema kingdom. I had Scott Marks who had taught me the importance of the director’s role, and how movie stars alone do not ‘make’ movies. It’s who is behind the camera that counts. So, as much as the older set loved their Bing Crosby, I tailored the theatre more towards a director-based format. My first series was the William Dieterle retrospective, and for the most part during my tenure there I stuck to the importance of style over story, of director over actor. We simply appreciated and admired the craftsmanship of studio contract directors like Dieterle and Michael Curtiz, Tay Garnett, Roy Del Ruth, and William Wellman– regardless of whether they were “auteurs” or not.  But there were some favorite stars of mine I did work in. I think I played more Ronald Colman films than anyone in Chicago. (He hasn’t turned up since.) And some of my own guilty pleasures of the distaff variety were appreciated by the regulars, who actually thanked me for playing Kay Francis movies like Mandalay.

I looked for some of the most obscure titles I could find in the rental catalogues. My second advantage was that I brought my own background as a collector to the job. My familiarity with the “Cinema Obscura” informed my programming. I had seen these rare titles before even though they were not on VHS… at least, not officially anyway. Due to years of collecting videos, I already knew something about these rarities from the 1930s and ’40s, and I wanted to share them with the rest of Chicagoland. And audiences came out to see these films even if there was not always a reviewer to tell them to check them out. 

The 16 and 35mm projectors…


My process as a programmer had always started with the days spent at various Chicagoland Hollywood conventions. I dealt with various “cinema liberators,” as one in particular called himself (aka video pirates), who had taped the most obscure titles off some Channel Z station in California. But if it were not for these contacts, I would not have known which films were worth playing on a big screen. There were some I discovered for the first time, but mostly I had some previous experience with them.  To this day, most of the titles I played remain unavailable on dvd. Good luck finding movies like The President Vanishes or The Narrow Corner or John Ford’s Air Mail and Flesh. I didn’t see D.W. Griffith’s The Sorrows of Satan or Merian C. Cooper’s Chang or Jacques Tourneur’s Stars in My Crown on any other theatre’s marquee. One of the most beautiful films in all of 1930s cinema is Rowland V. Lee’s Zoo In Budapest, but most people have never even heard of it. I also got my hands on a mint original 16mm print of James Whale’s Remember Last Night? which kicked off one of the programs I did.  You won’t find these films at the Music Box or at the Siskel Film Center. You would’ve only found them at 4901 W. Irving Park Road near Six Corners.  In the end, I played what I wanted to see and people turned out for them. Attendance grew because no one had ever seen these films. There was no other theatre that was showing them.

I spent one term as the theatre director, but for most of those last three years I was working with 16mm projectors that should’ve been melted down or sold for scrap metal. It’s a lovely moment in the booth when the motor starts to go and the characters onscreen start talking slower and slower and s-l-o-w-e-r and you’re standing there trying to keep the feed reel going for seventy-five minutes. Thanks to a couple ace repair men who worked mechanical miracles– keep in mind they don’t make “new” projectors  anymore– we were able to keep going and give audiences more and more. I tried to do as much as I could and give folks the best deal for their $3-$5. I played several double features and had an excellent piano player come in for my showing of Tell It To The Marines. We even had a 3-D show for Halloween. The first ever 35mm screening at the theatre was Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (with Ronald Colman, of course), and it’s success helped convince the bank to not only get a 35mm projector, but also a sturdier replacement for the 16mm projectors: the Bauer.

The theatre was literally a mom and pop establishment, and it remained that way even when corporate America renamed it. I was grateful to my parents for the work they put into it. My dad would always give me his report to the booth as to how the film looked and sounded downstairs. My mom would sometimes fill in occasionally in concessions when the family dynasty that was usually back there couldn’t make it in. Appearance was important to me, and thanks to my parents’ help, the theatre always looked good, especially when we decorated it for the holidays.

There were many regulars there such as Murray, who always seemed to laugh at the fade-outs– his thought patterns were truly jaw-dropping as he would jump from one odd topic to a completely unrelated one– and some other “characters” I’d rather forget. (These were usually the talkers, but not always. One motley reviewer for a suburban paper thought he could sneak in without paying, but after I went upstairs to start the film, my mom always caught him… There was some old guy who always flashed a badge, but that didn’t get him past my mom.) Yet, there were many whom I considered friends. Gene, who always called me “Movie Matt,” and Dana and her Pointy Heads. There was Bill and his wife. And Tom, always slumped low in his seat because of back problems. I’m glad I reconnected with the theatre before it closed because it gave me a chance to see some of them again. And on Saturday when Chuck Schaden kindly mentioned me in his talk about the theatre’s history, it was nice to get a cheer from this same crowd. That meant a great deal to me.

Being there that final night brought back so many memories, and for one last time I helped bring down the pop from the booth. In the final years, the theatre was being run with great success by Michael W. Phillips, Jr., who continued  the traditions that had been passed down to me. Though the booth door is now closed and the equipment slated for donation, Michael and his friends, Julian and Becca, will continue the film series at the Portage Theatre under the new name of “The Northwest Chicago Film Society.” I hope Chicago comes out and supports their program, which begins on February 16 with Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1956) in 35mm.

Keep your dvd projection! Nothing beats a 35mm film print. Pictured: some reels of Mickey One, the second-to-last film shown at the bank.


There are so many films out there that need to be seen again or just rediscovered. More importantly, the films at the Portage will be screened the way they were meant to be seen. None of that digital junk. Digital projection might offer a cleaner picture, but it’s removed from life. It’s all pixels, 1’s and 0’s. Most people don’t care about all that because in the digital age people are trained by television. Going to the local AMC now is like seeing a big-screen TV, but film–  since it’s a chemical process– is closer to life. It’s a philosophical sticking point for me, perhaps– like people preferring the sound quality of LPs over CDs– but it’s why I refused to install a digital projector at the theatre. I vetoed that idea. People can see and feel and sense when a movie is on film, be it 16 or 35. It really does come alive.

Running the theatre was a  rewarding experience but also an extremely exhausting one. Unlike those before and after me, I never had any help with the shows. I was the lone projectionist and had to do everything. But I guess I wanted it that way. That took its toll in the long run when the machines began to go. I suppose I could’ve gone on a few more years just as the programmer–a role which the bank did offer me– but I felt inside that whoever was doing all the hard work mounting the films each week should be the one who decides which films to show. After my last series, “35mm & Beyond,” I decided to move on. Michael King and Ian McDermott took over and I disappeared from the scene to work on my graduate degree. I ended my programming run with Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger’s Swing Time, shown in 35mm as the final show in 2003. At that time, I felt like I had done everything I had set out to do…

Almost everything.

I never programmed a comedy series at the bank. So now I’m making up for that with the Spring 2011 “Legends of Laughter” series at the Park Ridge Public Library. In this new role, I don’t just play the films; I get to talk about why they are special. Before, I only had that opportunity when I was taking admissions and the regulars would tell me about their reminisciences of seeing these films for the first time.

It’s a smaller venue now, but like the bank theatre, it’s an intimate group, and I have my core audience of regulars. Though the screen in smaller and the seats less comfortable, people are still getting excited with what I’m doing.

Though the theatre is closed now, the mission continues and the traditions live on in different forms. The things that got me excited about  movies when I attended the LaSalle Theatre years ago with my dad are inspiring me to get others excited. In a strange way, the spirit of the theatre, if a building can be said to have a spirit, lives on through the actions of those of us who were connected to it. Whether it’s at the Portage or at the Library or wherever, we are strengthening a community’s awareness of what we consider the greatest American art form.

For more information about my past association with the theatre, click here. This article was written by J.R. Jones, a terrific reviewer at the Chicago Reader who helped the theatre immeasurably over the years.

Pictured: Scott Marks (left) and Matthew C. Hoffman



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