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Neighborhood movie houses are gone with the wind

Richard G. Carter | 5/10/2012, 3:32 p.m.
"Old houses are so like people, don't you think?"--Lee Marvin, "Gorky Park" (1983) With warm...
Colony Records was my place for original Black R&B

"Old houses are so like people, don't you think?"--Lee Marvin, "Gorky Park" (1983)

With warm weather coming on, I find myself recalling the days when neighborhood movie houses were within walking distance of homes in residential areas. These mostly small theaters boasted a single screen, double features and big crowds.

During my teenage years in a largely Black inner city in the Midwest, cozy neighborhood theaters were among the most popular places. For many adults, some even rivaled the ubiquitous taverns that dotted heavily populated blocks.

Each of these venues was special in its own way in my hometown. Graced with names such as the Regal, Atlas, Fern, Garfield, Roosevelt, Colonial, Franklin, Egyptian, Grand and Peerless, their friendly surroundings attracted countless Black juveniles, teenagers and grownups--as well as many whites--usually without any trouble.

Indeed, such movie houses were the perfect setting for a gathering of our version of "boys in the hood"--or a sizzling tryst or nervous first date. Better yet, they were where we learned to appreciate why Hollywood was making a big deal of telling the country that "Movies Are Better Than Ever."

Of course, one of the best things about "going to the show," as we called it, was that just about every one of these theaters was reasonably close to where we lived. No need for a teenager to use the family car. No need to drive and look for a place to park.

Where I was born and raised, the Regal--located on a popular corner in a Black area--was the standard by which all other neighborhood theaters was measured, and it was dearly beloved by movie-smitten, near-North Side youths. Furthermore, the Regal is where my mother took me for my very first movie, a re-release of 1943's "Cabin on the Sky," featuring an all-Black cast.

Affectionately dubbed "The Flick," this chummy-sized venue was known for its ear-splitting decibel levels, vociferous audiences, heckling of actors and Sunday triple feature Western shoot-'em-ups for kids. Also famed for 25-cent admission for a movie-and-a-half after 9:30 any night, it's where we swooned for Lena Horne, cried with Louise Beavers and tapped our feet to Cab Calloway "soundies."

All of this made seeing films an experience today's under-40 adults and kids cannot imagine. Plastic, multi-screen clones in sterile shopping centers can't compare with our mix of both big and small movie houses in vibrant residential neighborhoods and bustling inner-city commercial streets.

One of our most popular neighborhood houses was the smallish, steeply inclined Fern. One night a week, I'd meet one of my best buddies midway between our homes and we'd stay until the house lights came on. Other nights, he and I met on another corner to attend the bigger, balconied Atlas--about three blocks south of the Fern.

Both theaters were about six blocks from my residence. Slightly farther away, but still easy to reach on foot, was the large, opulent Garfield. I loved its huge lobby, main auditorium and two balconies--as well as the ornate walls and ceilings. I remember going there to see 1952's classic "High Noon."