Memories of the Highland Park Theater | Bleader

Monday, February 24, 2014

Memories of the Highland Park Theater

Posted By on 02.24.14 at 03:07 PM

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Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson in Saraband
  • Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson in Saraband
Visiting the Pickwick Theatre last month—and poking my head into its five auditoriums of different shapes and sizes—brought back fond memories of going to the Highland Park Theater as a kid. I grew up about 45 minutes west of Highland Park, but my parents made a point of driving there every few months to see a film. They were smitten with the layout of the building, which had opened in 1925 as a vaudeville theater called the Alcyon. The main auditorium still had a balcony, and though it was no longer in use, it granted a certain majesty to the seating area that was unlike anything we found in theaters closer to home (that the theater was located in Highland Park's downtown provided me with another layer of fascination, as the decentralized suburban sprawl where we lived had nothing of the sort).

I was just as happy in the three smaller auditoriums, which were added when the Alcyon was transformed into a full-time cinema in the 1960s. One of the smaller theaters was above the main screening room, and the other two were tucked away behind it. To reach those, you had to walk down a long, narrow corridor, which created the feeling you were going to watch movies in secret, away from the rest of the world. The upstairs auditorium, though less of a hike from the entrance, created this feeling too—sitting in that slender room after climbing a narrow staircase was a bit like hiding out in an attic.

As a teenager I started to value the theater for another reason. The Highland Park regularly programmed foreign and independent films that otherwise didn't get beyond the Chicago city limits, and so I started going with kids I met at high school who were also interested in seeing new things. If I hadn't heard of a movie that was playing at the Highland Park, that meant I had to go see it. I stuck to this plan for almost a year, until the theater screened Mike Figgis's Time Code and I began to question their judgment.

The theater closed in May 2012. Last August the city of Highland Park, which had purchased the building in 2009, reviewed proposals from potential collaborators to reopen the theater or construct a new building on the site. The most promising offer came from a group called the Alcyon Foundation, which aimed to convert the theater into a mixed-media performance space. Three weeks ago, however, the Tribune reported that the group couldn't raise the necessary funds to proceed with their proposal, and now the city plans to sell the building with no restrictions.

I was saddened by the news, but not as much as when I learned that the theater had been shuttered. I hadn't seen a movie there since 2005, and I kept procrastinating because I wrongly assumed it would be there forever. As consolation, I remind myself that my last visit had an air of finality to it. At least I can pretend I got to say goodbye.

It was late summer, and I had recently started living in Chicago on my own. I had missed Saraband, Ingmar Bergman's final film, when it played in the city, but thankfully the Highland Park picked it up for a second run. I made a date to go with my mom on a Sunday afternoon. I took the Metra Union Pacific North Line from the Ravenswood stop, and she drove to meet me. The Highland Park was likely showing Saraband in its biggest auditorium out of respect for Bergman's cultural significance, because even on a Sunday afternoon (prime time in the world of middlebrow art house audiences) the room was practically empty. This felt like an appropriate environment for Bergman's decidedly bitter farewell to filmmaking. The room, with its associations of local moviegoing history as well as the beginnings of my own cinephilia, was now practically bare. Being there with my mom (as I had been dozens, if not hundreds, of times as a child) didn't add much of a nostalgia factor—Saraband has a way of making everybody feel old. And yet I still left the theater feeling somewhat nostalgic, remembering how the foreign films I saw there as an adolescent made me feel older (or more sophisticated, anyway) and how my first experiences of the place cemented the idea that going to the movies meant discovering something unfamiliar each time.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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