Active Cultures: LaSalle Theatre's new helmsman finds his sea legs 

Last Saturday night 80-odd people gathered at the LaSalle Theatre on Irving Park near Cicero to watch Just Imagine (1930), a long-forgotten Hollywood musical set in the futuristic year of 1980. With elaborate art deco sets and sci-fi design, it plays like a Busby Berkeley remake of Metropolis starring the Ritz Brothers. The young lovers meet cute when the dashing J-21 pulls up alongside lovely LN-18 in his winged hovercraft. Sadly, the government marriage tribunal awards her to another man who's better advantaged, so the hero lodges an appeal and tries to distinguish himself by piloting an experimental rocket ship to Mars.

The 16-millimeter print was jumpy with edits, and during some scenes the dialogue lagged behind the action on-screen. It was possibly the weirdest thing going this New Year's weekend, and where else in the known universe were you going to see it? LaSalle Bank's film series was founded in 1972 by old-time radio guru Chuck Schaden, and the bank has stuck with the program ever since. It languished for several years following the advent of home video, then Scott Marks, a well-liked film instructor at Columbia College, took over in 1995. He began programming more obscure Hollywood titles and the series began to attract students and film buffs in addition to its core audience of neighborhood seniors. A year ago Marks left for San Diego and handed the flag to 25-year-old Matthew Hoffman, a former student of his who lives in Niles and had long frequented the series with his father.

As a programmer Marks oscillated between crowd pleasers and self-indulgent flights of fancy (like a six-month series of cheesy films named as guilty pleasures by Martin Scorsese, which Marks hoped might lure the director over to the LaSalle while he was in Chicago promoting Kundun). Hoffman's first series, which began in July, pushed the envelope with nearly two dozen films by William Dieterle, a German director who in the 1930s and '40s shot biographies (Oscar winner The Life of Emile Zola) and "prestige" pictures (A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Devil and Daniel Webster) under the watchful eye of Paramount, Warner Brothers, and David O. Selznick. The LaSalle holds 298 people, and at his peak Marks had drawn crowds of 200 for obscure noir offerings. Attendance for the Dieterle films hovered around 55, and one of the few screenings last fall that lacked the director's magic touch--a Halloween double bill of the Bela Lugosi relic White Zombie (1932) and Jacques Tourneur's I Walked With a Zombie (1943)--turned out to be the best attended of all.

"After doing Dieterle I wanted to get back to something a little bit more commercial," says Hoffman, and his new schedule taps into one of the most reliable genres in the repertory market. "Son of Noir" begins this weekend with Humphrey Bogart as Mad Dog Earle in High Sierra (1941), and it's padded with familiar titles like Murder, My Sweet (1944), Mildred Pierce (1945), Nightmare Alley (1947), and White Heat (1949). "I did try to work in some obscure stuff," Hoffman points out, "like Edgar Ulmer's Bluebeard or John Brahm's Hangover Square--lesser-known stuff that doesn't get a lot of play." The series also offers a chance to see wide-screen projections of Anthony Mann's Desperate (1947), Fritz Lang's Clash by Night (1952), and Thieves' Highway (1949), a key film by Jules Dassin (Rififi).

Hoffman spends every Saturday night at the theater, coming in at six to clean the ancient 16-millimeter projectors ("the oldest machines in Chicago," he says), taking tickets for the 8 PM show, and screening the film. The print quality can vary from sublime to hellish. "If we can start getting good crowds, break 100 consistently, maybe we'll get a 35-millimeter projector," he says.

He still has one more title by Dieterle to get off his chest: Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones in Portrait of Jennie (1948), rescheduled from last year because the print didn't arrive in time. Though Hoffman hopes to recharge his audience with the new series, he doesn't regret focusing on his neglected hero. "Directors like F.W. Murnau, they've got more playing. But no one's ever heard of William Dieterle. I would see his name on so many great films--why not just profile this guy? If people come, great; if not, at least have the satisfaction of knowing you got this guy's name out there."

Hoffman books his films about six months in advance, and though the next series is still shaping up, he wants to break it into segments, to better integrate the more challenging fare with the classics. Inspired by a screening of Murnau's Sunrise (1926) at the Silent Film Society's summer festival, he plans to present a month of D.W. Griffith films, ten weeks of Hollywood stuff from the 30s, another month of silent masterpieces, and two months devoted to movie comedy teams. "I just want something that reflects our cinema heritage," he explains. "This is like something for everyone."

The theater is located on the second floor of the LaSalle Bank at 4901 W. Irving Park, accessible via the back parking lot. Lavergne Avenue, which intersects Irving Park west of the bank, leads south to the lot, and parking is free. Admission is $5, $3 for seniors and students. Call 312-904-9442.

--J.R. Jones

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.

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