Ninety years ago, on Aug. 22, 1929, the Music Box Theatre opened its doors.
The silent film era was ending, and the theater premiered a so-called talkie musical called “Mother’s Boy.” By the 1970s, they might have screened a kids’ movie for the matinee and an X-rated feature in the evening.
That has changed, but much else has remained the same.
Buck LePard, operations manager: The Music Box opened in 1929. At the time it was first dedicated “talkie” house in Chicago, so all dialogue, all musical films. At the time it was one of the smaller theaters, with only 700 seats. There were a lot of theaters downtown that were 3,000 or 2,000 seats.
Brandis Friedman: It was called an “atmospheric” theater, one in which the auditorium created the illusion of being outdoors in a garden of decorative details.
Bill Schopf, owner, Music Box Theatre: It’s grown to be one of a kind. It probably wasn’t one of a kind when it was built, or at least soon after when they were building other talkies back in the late ‘20s, early ‘30s.
As all of the other grand old movie palaces have either been torn down or cut up into little theaters or somehow modified, this is the only one around I can think of that’s been restored, and restored to have all the modern equipment.
Friedman: Their projection room can handle 70mm film or Betacam and laser discs.
Julian Antos, technical director: It’s a real challenge because we have to be able to show basically everything from the beginning of cinema to the present day, so we’re dealing with about 100 years of different technologies.
Friedman: And they can screen the silent films that predate the theater with accompanying music.
Through their sister company Music Box Films, they branched into distribution.
Music Box Films released the Polish film “Ida” in the United States. It won the award for best foreign language film at the 2015 Academy Awards.
Programming at the Music Box Theatre is all over the map.
LePard: We play a little bit of everything, we play classic films, foreign films, indie films, documentaries. On any given day you can see something from like a sing-a-long in the morning to a crazy horror film at midnight.
Friedman: The owner has a philosophical approach to what audiences want.
Schopf: I have a background as a lawyer, trying lawsuits. I think the best way to try a lawsuit is to find the truth and to incorporate that truth into a story that’s truthful and appealing and persuasive, both intellectually and emotionally. And I find film to be the same thing. I think that’s what audiences are looking for.
Friedman: Maintaining an old theater has its challenges.
Schopf: It’s a big responsibility and it’s a continuing responsibility, but I’m used to it. It’s like anybody that’s 90 years old, they’re gonna have maintenance problems, they’re gonna have health bills. We have the same thing here.
Friedman: He believes it’s worth the effort.
Schopf: It’s something that I’m proud of. And I think it’s a good thing for Chicago.
The Music Box Theatre is located in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood on the North Side at 3733 N. Southport Ave. Find out more about the theater’s 90th anniversary programming here.