Seeing a great film can be a spiritual experience in itself, but if you’re lucky enough to see it in a classic movie palace, it becomes a sacred event. My cathedral of cinema will always be The Music Box Theatre on Southport Avenue in Chicago.
This nearly hundred-year-old building is the perfect antidote not only to Netflix, but to all the characterless stucco “plexes” that make up the majority of today’s moviegoing options. Sure they have 54 screens, stadium seating, and surround sound, but they also manage to suck 99% of the charm out of seeing a flick!
The Music Box, on the other hand, is one of a handful of great movie houses left over from the golden age of cinema, when whole neighborhoods and even towns would meet at the theater to watch the latest epic, or romance, or thriller. Built in 1929 when “talkies” were still experimental, it was one of the first theatres in the world built only for showing films, instead of both films and staged pieces.
The architectural concept is an “Italian open-air palazzo,” which is so weird and great. You walk into the lobby and there are these old-fashioned, almost medieval-looking lanterns hanging from terracotta walls, and overhead is a blue domed ceiling meant to look like the sky. That theme continues into the gigantic main theatre, which is still my #1 favorite place in the world to watch a movie. The huge screen is cloaked in velvet curtains before the show starts (no endless commercials playing between screenings), and you just sit in your seat and gaze around you at the “courtyard” setting with its palace walls. Overhead is still the “sky,” but unlike the lobby, it’s a dark shade of indigo, with “stars” (tiny electric bulbs that really twinkle).
If you happen to find yourself alone in the theatre after the last screening of he night, don’t be surprised to hear footsteps pacing along aisle four. That would be Whitey, the Music Box’s resident ghost, who was its first manager from 1929 to 1977, when he was alive. He died in the lobby and is said to haunt the building, making sure neighborhood kids don’t sneak in from the alley behind the theatre to watch movies for free.
As for what screens at the Music Box, it’s mostly art house and foreign films, but there are a handful of premieres and special events every year too, where filmmakers host Q-and-A’s before and after the screenings. Hollywood classics also play year-round, so there’s often the opportunity to see one of your favorites underneath those twinkling stars.
Take it from me, it’s a one-of-a-kind cinematic thrill.