Chicago’s venerable Music Box Theatre turned 90 years old Thursday.
Since it opened in 1929, the movie house in the Lakeview neighborhood has offered all kinds of entertainment. It started as one of the first theaters playing movies with sound and after taking a 1970s detour playing porn movies (among other genres), it took on the life it's currently known for — independent films and special events like its popular Christmas Double Feature & Sing-A-Long.
The Music Box is holding a week of programming around its 90th anniversary starting Thursday.
Here’s a look at some of the quirks and features that make the Music Box beloved by moviegoers.
Kimball pipe organ
The organ stationed stage right is a Chicago original. It was built in 1929 by W.W. Kimball and Co., according to Thom Day, husband of house organist Dennis Scott.
The couple bought the organ about four years ago and refurbished it. Scott, 72, plays "double bills" on Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday matinees. That means he plays as theatergoers enter and exit the main theater in between screenings. “I don’t expect people to sit there in rapt silence while I’m playing,” the organist said on a recent Saturday night. “Actually, the noisier the more fun it is.”
Scott hopes he’ll still be playing when he’s 87 and the Music Box celebrates the 50th anniversary of its Christmas Sing-A-Long, which he called one of his favorite parts of the job.
The projection room
Between Music Box’s two theaters, there are seven projectors, both digital and reel-to-reel. The original projection booth is still next to the current, temperature controlled set-up on the second floor. It’s guarded by a heavy fire door because, according to Oestrich, if the old, highly flammable film stock caught fire “the door would slam shut and burn [the projectionists] alive and save the people in the theater.”
Running the projector is a much safer job today, Oestrich said, because film stock is no longer as flammable. He added that the theater’s 70-mm film screenings are more expensive to host because of the extra labor required.
“We put up our special screen ... and we pay our projectionist more money to do 70,” Oestrich said.
The starry sky
Inside the Music Box’s 700-plus seat main theater, you can settle into one of the red velvet— sometimes wobbly — seats, listen to live organ music, gaze up and be transported to an open-air courtyard. Dozens of twinkling lights on the 30-foot-high ceiling resemble stars across a dark sky with white, wispy clouds.
Oestrich said when he started at the Music Box about fours years ago, many of the blue lights were burned out.
“So one year, I spent some of our repair budget on getting them fixed,” he said.
And the task wasn’t just unscrewing an old bulb and slipping in a new one.
“We had to rewire and change out every single blue light bulb,” he explained. That made us wonder, what’s the repair budget for the 90-year-old theater? “A lot,” was all Oestrich would say.
Christmas Double Feature & Sing-A-Long
Now in its 36th year, the annual event has become one of the Music Box’s most popular attractions.
Oestrich said the idea began when the Music Box’s owners were looking for a way to fill seats on Christmas Eve. They thought holiday classics and a sing-along to the live organ music might draw a crowd. And it did. During the holidays, there are now more than 30 screenings of the double feature White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life, with live music by house organist Scott.
It’s become a multi-generational outing for some families.
“We’ll have three or four generations [in the theater],” he said. “And some of the generations were coming here as kids when I first started doing this.”
Scott said some fans of the event have told him they’ve come every year of their lives.
Carrie Shepherd is a news reporter for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @cshepherd.