Coming soon: the last neighborhood foreign-language picture show? | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Coming soon: the last neighborhood foreign-language picture show? 

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The blue-and-yellow Cine Olympia (nee Commodore) stands on Irving Park Road just west of Sacramento. A poster advertises Superman II, the last film (circa 1982) that played here.

Further west, at Austin, the Patio theater lies vacant. The marquee announces "Closed for renovation," which the manager of another theater describes as a euphemism for "We couldn't make it."

A neat, whitewashed building occupies otherwise prosperous-looking Marion Street in Oak Park. A few years ago it housed the Lamar theater.

Every day thousands of Pilsen residents stop at the fast-food restaurants and telephone company office near 18th and Loomis. They walk past the graffiti-marred -- and empty -- Teatro Villa.

All four of these theaters have one thing in common: they all, until a few years ago, showed foreign-language films on a regular basis. The Olympia had Greek movies in addition to second-run fare. The Patio showed Polish movies; the Lamar, Indian (it briefly was called the Sri Lamar); and the Villa, Spanish-language films.

Only a few years ago, Chicago boasted a lively foreign-language theater scene. A 1969 Daily News article claimed that the city had one Polish-, one German-, two Greek-, and a number of Spanish-language theaters. A Sun-Times article from 1978 also mentioned Arabic, Indian, and Japanese films shown at local theaters on a regular basis.

Today, Chicago's Poles, Greeks, Arabs, and Indians are out of luck if they want to see regularly scheduled films in their native languages. Aficionados of Japanese- and Spanish-language cinema may soon encounter a similar fate.

Why have foreign-language movie centers declined to the point of extinction? Richard Pena, manager of the Film Center of the School of the Art Institute, gives two reasons: videotape and age. "Home video has come into its own. And those most likely to prefer foreign-language films generally are part of an older, dying generation."

Nowhere have the effects of the videocassette revolution been felt more rapidly than in the Indian cinema. "When I moved to Chicago in 1980, there were three theaters that showed Indian films on an occasional basis. Now there are none," said Pena.

Those Indian-language theaters disappeared almost overnight, according to Vijay Bansal, manager of Star Video Rental, an Indian-language rental store on Devon Avenue. "Videos came here from India starting about 1984," he said. "Shortly afterwards, the theaters closed."

Bansal was not startled by the theaters' quick demise. "It costs four or five dollars a person for a show, plus refreshments. I rent out films for a dollar a day, and people can watch them at their convenience," he said.

"The movie theaters couldn't compete with us at getting new pictures," he added. "A month or less after the film shows in Bombay or Calcutta, the video arrives here."

Language is another factor. "Just about every state in India has its own language. There are 23 states that claim their own language. Hindi is the national language, and it is spoken in every state. The films that were shown in the theaters were mostly in Hindi.

"But Indian people here have pride in their own language. It's certainly a factor in the popularity of home videos. Someone coming out of our store can get titles not only in Hindi, but also Gujarati, Malayalam, Telugu, and Punjabi."

Foreign-language movies are available in Chicago. On the art-film level, such cinema thrives at the Chicago Film Festival, Facets Multimedia, and the Art Institute. Spanish-language films are among the most frequently screened of the foreign fare.

Yet there is little connection between the art-film circuit and the neighborhood foreign-language houses. Take Spanish films, for example. Those involved with higher-brow movies concede that the Hispanic professional or yuppie who watches Argentine New Wave is not the recent immigrant who goes to the local movie house to watch El Santo contra las Momias de Guanajuato.

"Class differences seem to have a major impact on movie tastes in the Hispanic community," noted Facets manager Jim Madigan. "The working class goes for comedies or action thrillers, sex farces or shoot-'em-ups. There are fewer Mexican-made films that could be judged as art-type films. A couple of years ago we screened The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, a western based on a true incident. That film had big publicity, and we drew pretty well with it. But such cases are the exception and not the rule."

Spanish-language cinema has suffered a precipitous decline in recent years. The 1969 Daily News article claimed 12 Spanish-language theaters, including two on the west side. The 1978 Sun-Times article mentioned 11 Spanish theaters, including two in Uptown, two in South Chicago, and one in Back of the Yards.

Now there are only three: the Atlantic on 26th Street, the Marshall Square on Cermak, and the Mexico on Milwaukee Avenue.

A set of unusual circumstances caused the decline of the remaining Spanish-language houses. Willie Miranda, owner of the Villa, Atlantic, Marshall Square, and Mexico, closed them in late 1985 because attendance did not keep up with salary demands of the projectionists' union. Miranda negotiated a settlement with the union and reopened the latter three last December.

The closings failed to produce an outcry from the Hispanic community. If anything, some community residents had the opposite reaction. "They were embarrassing," according to a Pilsen resident active in the city's artistic community. "No money was put into maintenance, the bathrooms were filthy, and the movies they picked to show were an inferior product."

While the theaters were dark, a number of events transpired -- none of them advantageous to Miranda.

First was the growth of Spanish-language television, most notably all-Spanish WSNS (Channel 44). Both Channel 44 and a cable channel (Galavision) telecast Spanish-language movies.

"People became used to not going to the movies," said Wayne Casa, WSNS's vice president and general manager. "They became more accustomed to staying home and watching films on Channel 44."

Hollywood studios have also done their part in luring Hispanics from the Spanish-language theaters, Casa said. "By incorporating Hispanic actors and actresses into meaningful roles, they are mainstreaming the actors -- and as a result, the audience -- into the American market."

And home video has taken its toll. "Some 46 percent of Hispanics in the Chicago area have a VCR now. That's close to the national market," said Casa.

"I think the videos have had a great effect on the moviegoing population. It's not just the Spanish-speaking population, but people as a whole," added Dan Padilla, manager of Little Village's Video Rodeo. "When the Atlantic theater reopened, we saw no effect on our business."

Miranda cited another problem -- the recently passed Simpson-Rodino immigration law, which, he claims, keeps undocumented workers off the streets and out of theaters.

"We had a lot of undocumented workers before," he said. "But because of the law they are afraid. Everybody's talking about how they may have to leave the country and go back to Mexico. They're tightening up on their spending."

The result of the above factors is plummeting attendance, "down 40 percent from the day we reopened in November," Miranda said. Those losses, however, have been offset by live concerts at the theaters, such as one last weekend with singer Rocio Durcal at the Mexico.

"Live attractions may pay the bills and get people back to the Teatro Mexico . . . but it still gets away from the original purpose of showing films," said Casa. "The overhead won't get lower. I don't see how they'll pay bills just by showing movies."

Miranda responds that live performances, not the movies, are his main concern. "We've been promoting concerts and dances for 25 years," he said. "If some of our patrons want to go to the movies, we'll be glad to keep them there. But I think we're going to fade out of the movie business eventually."

In some respects, Chicago's Polish community is similar to the Hispanic one. It is large, self-replenishing, and full of young men with a little spending money and time on their hands -- in short, the ideal moviegoing audience.

Yet Polish cinema has failed to take hold in Chicago, according to Ellen Wierzewski, assistant director of the Copernicus Foundation. "The Milford stopped showing Polish movies about two years ago. Then John Wojewodka, who distributed Polish films for years, opened the Patio. But now that's closed too.

"The older immigrants are not interested in movies at all," said Wierzewski. Jim Madigan of Facets disagrees. "When we do Polish films, it's an older audience which shows," he said. "But when they see films of the late 1970s, the openness and frankness shocks them. Nudity and cynicism are not what they came to see."

Unlike Hispanics and Indians, Poles were not lured away from the movie houses by videos. The Polish government is responsible for the lack of a Polish-language video market, claims Wierzewski.

"It's a state-owned market. There is no free market for video," she said. "It's also a matter of censorship. If you can get a video out of Poland, it's smuggling."

Polish cinema may not be dead in Chicago. Wierzewski said the Copernicus Foundation will begin showing Polish-language movies at the end of May.

"We still don't know the titles," she said, "but most of them are adaptations of Polish literature and classics. Those are the kind that have the largest audiences. Most of the newer immigrants are well-educated people. These are the ones we are trying to attract."

Japanese-language films have been screened in Chicago for nearly 20 years at Francis Parker High School. Businessman Omar Kaihatsu started the local Japanese cinema in 1968. Dr. Edwin Miller and his wife, Hana To Yoko, now operate the film program.

Miller and Yoko now offer double features on the third Saturday and Sunday of each month. Usually one feature is a samurai film, the other on a more contemporary topic.

"We get about 10 percent students, 5 percent kids, 20 or 25 percent seniors, and the rest adults. About 75 percent of those are Japanese," said Miller.

"The younger customers are Japanese studying in Chicago, as opposed to Japanese Americans. The latter want to Americanize as quickly as possible," he adds. "The ones who do show up are into the martial arts. They watch the samurai movies, not the love stories."

Miller claims that his audiences at Parker consist of cinema buffs rather than people interested in socializing. "A few older people say hello to each other. But mostly, our customers pop in and pop out. We'd like it the other way," he said.

"Japanese-language cinema in the rest of the country is closing up. There used to be three Japanese theaters in Los Angeles. Now they have only one. There's only one theater in Hawaii and one in San Francisco," Miller said. He fears Japanese cinema may be in its last days here.

"It isn't an expanding field," he said. "We're not making enough to break even. We'll cut down on expenses by going to one day a month next fall. We've considered making an appeal to Japanese business for help. We'll continue in September and run it for the first half of the year, then see what happens."

One foreign-language theater that claims success is Lincoln Square's Davis Theatre, which shows German-language films the first and third Saturdays of each month. "Our largest room has 500 seats and we sell out," said the Davis's manager, Peter St. Charles.

Vintage operettas, not Herzog and Fassbinder, are the standard fare at the Davis. "Most of the crowd are senior citizens. They love the old movies," St. Charles said. "But we also get many students and families."

One reason for the Davis's success is the sense of community engendered by the films. "It's almost like a social gathering. We serve free coffee. People get together and fraternize. Many are former local residents who make a day of it by shopping on Lincoln Avenue, watching the films, and having dinner."

Yet he acknowledges the gradual decline in German-language programming. "This was a very heavy German area. At one time, the Davis showed strictly German films," St. Charles said. "Then the market got to the point where they couldn't show them every day. They were once a week, now twice a month."

Conceding the prosperity of the Davis films, Richard Pena expressed his concern for the future. "It's a factor of aging," he said. "Let's face it. There just aren't that many German speakers moving into Chicago."

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

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