Movie House of Worship: Chicago’s Central Park Theatre, the First Air-Conditioned Cinema in the…

By  · Published on June 2nd, 2013

Movie House of Worship: Chicago’s Central Park Theatre, the First Air-Conditioned Cinema in the World

“Movie Houses of Worship” is a regular feature spotlighting our favorite movie theaters around the world, those that are like temples of cinema catering to the most religious-like film geeks. This week, we highlight one theater that is actually a church. If you’d like to suggest or submit a place you regularly worship at the altar of cinema, please email our weekend editor.

Central Park Theatre

Location: 3535 W. Roosevelt Road, Chicago, IL

Opened: October 27, 1917 (reopened as a church in 1971)

No. of screens: 1

Current first-run titles: none

The purpose of our Movie Houses of Worship column is to showcase our and your favorite cinemas, the places we worship movies. But in this edition I’m spotlighting an actual house of religious worship. For more than 40 years, Chicago’s Central Park Theatre has been a church rather than a place exhibiting films. Specifically it has been the home of the House of Prayer, Church of God in Christ. Until earlier this year, when it closed because of 105 building code violations.

Why am I devoting this post to a place that no longer has anything to do with movies? Will I start giving attention to the super churches that take over abandoned multiplex buildings, as well? Probably not. The thing is that the Central Park Theatre does have something to do with movies. It always will. It was the first movie palace for the city and of united legendary cinema partners Balaban & Katz. It’s a historical landmark, though not officially. Although it is on the National Register of Historic Places, this doesn’t keep it from being demolished, it only deems it worthy of preservation.

I also received an email from someone deeming it worthy of the post. Chicago Tribute reporter John Owens shared an article he’d written recently about the closure of the building and how it’s in danger of being torn down given the immense cost of getting it back into legal shape. In his email he calls the place “arguably the most historically significant movie palace still standing. It was the template for all future Rapp and Rapp theatres, and was the first air-conditioned theatre in the world.”

Rapp and Rapp were the architects, this their first collaboration of many with Balaban & Katz. Thanks in part to the air conditioning (new to buildings in general, not just cinemas, at at the time most cinemas in the area closed during the summer) along with the smart location and community sense of the two cinema innovators, it was hugely successful and certainly a stepping stone in their fortune and future in the movie business (One of the Balaban side, Barney, went on to head Paramount Pictures for almost 30 years). When it first opened, for only 10-cents you could watch all kinds of entertainment from 9:30am through midnight.

In addition to showing films with live accompaniment, the Central Park Theatre also had other programs. The theater was one of the first designed to accomodate “presentation shows,” a mix of movie, slide and stage shows. Separately or together, as in when a chorus of singers would perform during a silent picture. One notable part of its history points to its jazz nights, as it was during one of these events in 1921 that Benny Goodman made his professional debut playing clarinet on stage here.

Another interesting tidbit about the air conditioning introduction: the reason it happened in Chicago first and why Balaban & Katz were the geniuses behind the idea is because the city was a big slaughterhouse mecca, and so it was the home to many large refrigeration units. Also Barney Balaban had previously worked for a cold storage company. That’s some fun trivia as we enter the summer months and is worth thinking about while we continue to go to the movies to escape the heat.

Does all this trivia and history mean the building is worth saving? I think so, and I’ve never even been there. I sure would love to see it return as a movie theater, though. Owens’ article does note that an option for its future is as an arts and performance venue. Maybe it can be that and a cinema and a church. And a museum. Somebody get the Kickstarter started on this cause…

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.