The Last Picture Show: What do we do with the empty Multiplex?

June 3, 2010

Lee Bey is away until Monday, June 7th. We are running some faves from his archives. This post originally ran on January 22, 2010.

(photo by Lee Bey)
(photo by Lee Bey) 

Suggested tongue-in-cheek movie bill for the shuttered ICE Lawndale 10 Theaters:‚  The Invisible Man. Ghost Story. The Man Who Wasn't There. And The Vanishing.

Jokes aside, what do we do with the empty multiplex?‚  Not just this one, but the others that'll likely come on line as the movie-going audience fractures and distracts itself with DVDs, Mp3 players and the very device you're reading this blog on.‚  And we can't depend on movies with blue characters to solve the problem, no matter how profitable they seem. "Avatar" 's $520 million gross is exceptional--only if you don't adjust for inflation. If you do, 1939's "Gone With the Wind"‚  grossed the equivalent of $1.4 billion in today's cash. In that matrix, "Avatar" barely out-grosses "Butch Cassidy‚  and The Sundance Kid."

Some of the closed multiplexes will become churches, no doubt, as did the old Hillside Theater in the late 1990s, and that's okay.‚  But the rest of them: could they be reused for live community theater? Or if possible, multiplexes of musical acts. Imagine a choice of 10 acts on 10 different stages in a single building.

The theaters could also become independent movie houses where the next budding‚  Cassavetes,‚  Micheaux or Lemmons can get their works‚  screened before a live audience?

A similar situation plays out in Calumet City, IL where the much older, but equally-empty River Oaks has been dark and boarded for four years.‚  This for a theater that was the talk of the industry when it opened in 1969.

(photo by Lee Bey)
(photo by Lee Bey)

(photo by Lee Bey)
(photo by Lee Bey)

 Designed by Loebl Schlossman & Bennett, the River Oaks was a state-of-the art, single super-wide screen theater when it debuted.‚  But it will likely never be a first-run theater again because the fully-functioning Lansing 8 multiplex sits almost right behind it.

The Lawndale 10, 3330 W. Roosevelt, was designed by Johnson & Lee, a minority-owned Chicago architecture firm. Johnson & Lee took the concrete movie box and gave it life with that colorful and textured gold-lettered blue metal screen.‚  The building has a machine-like and slightly-retro LA cinema modern look. A fine building fit for reuse.

Black-owned Inner City Entertainment built ICE theaters at‚  62nd and Western and 87th and the Dan Ryan. Today, only the 87th street theater,‚  the Chatham 14, remains in business.

(photo by Lee Bey)
(photo by Lee Bey)

(photo by Lee Bey)
(photo by Lee Bey)

 It's time to give some thought to the future of these buildings.‚  Otherwise, the theaters will stand there, big, idle and empty--needlessly awaiting demolition or a miracle when, quite possibly, a much happier ending can be scripted.