Features and Columns · Movies

Movie Houses of Worship: Roger Ebert’s Favorite Movie Theaters

By  · Published on April 7th, 2013

“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 the important theaters in Roger Ebert’s life. If you’d like to suggest or submit a place you regularly worship at the altar of cinema, please email our weekend editor.

The Art Theatre

Location: 126 W. Church Street, Champaign, IL

Opened: November 12, 1913, as The Park Theatre. Reopened as The Art on October 3, 1958.

No. of screens: 1

Why Ebert worshipped here: “I learned about the art of film [here]…The atmosphere of the Art reflected the new beatnik culture of the ’50s, and to walk through the doors was like breathing the air of freedom. There wasn’t any popcorn for sale, but the coffee was free, black, and strong, and at the age of 16, sitting in the dark wired on caffeine and trying to puzzle through Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly, I felt I was on the brink of amazing discoveries about the world, life, and myself…I remember those movies at the Art so vividly. The posters outside, with their stark surrealistic images and bizarre typography. The earnest bohemians in the lobby, sipping their coffee and talking like the captions on ‘New Yorker’ cartoons. The notion that in a movie you had never heard of you could discover truths you had never dreamed.” [Entertainment Weekly, 1991] “At a time when the exhibition of art and independent films is in jeopardy, the Art Theater is an essential resource for Champaign-Urbana.” [Ebertfest, 2011]

Films Ebert recalled watching here: The first time he went was to see Citizen Kane. Other titles he lists as having seen at The Art include Shadows, David and Lisa, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, The Ladykillers, I’m All Right, Jack, School for Scoundrels, L’Avventura, La Dolce Vita and Woman of the Dunes.

The Princess Theatre

Location: 120 W. Main Street, Urbana, IL

Opened: 1870 as Busey’s Hall, an opera house. Reopened as The Princess, a movie theater, in 1915 (its Art Deco facade came in 1934). Reopened again as the Cinema Theater, a second-run house, in 1966. Currently the building houses the Cinema Gallery.

No. of screens: Currently none. When Ebert attended there was one. As the Cinema Theater it had two.

Why Ebert worshipped here: “The theater of my childhood…where every Saturday we gathered to sit through a gargantuan display of two features, five cartoons, a chapter of a serial, a newsreel, the coming attractions, and the ads for the Urbana Pure Milk Company…I remember it as the place where I first saw Hopalong Cassidy, first enjoyed Henry Fonda, first sat through an entire film wondering if an eighth-grade girl would let me hold her hand…I learned about the movies at the Princess.” [Entertainment Weekly, 1991]

Screening of note: “Eventually I grew too old for the Kiddie Matinees. I became one of the students at Thelma Mae Rose’s, learning the fox-trot and the box step. One night Miss Rose held a dance for her students, and I asked a girl from my grade at school. When we got to the doorway that led up a steep flight of stairs to her studios, I discovered to my humiliation that I had made a mistake, and the dance was not until the following week. My date and I pooled our funds and bought tickets to The Bridge on the River Kwai, which was the current feature at the Princess, and it was the best movie I had ever seen in my life. And my date let me put my arm around her, and that was even better.” [“Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert,” 2006 ‐ reprinted from a piece dated December 4, 1994]

Films Ebert recalled watching here: Lawrence of Arabia, The Long, Long Trailer, April Love and Young at Heart.

The Virginia Theatre

Location: 203 W. Park Ave., Champaign, IL

Opened: December 28, 1921

No. of screens: 1

Why Ebert worshipped here: This has been the home of Ebertfest (formerly Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival) since 1999, and this notoriety has helped in the longterm restoration of the historical movie palace [this year’s event runs this month, April 17–21]. “The preservation of theaters like this is invaluable; such buildings will never again be constructed, and most of our filmmakers will never have seen their films with such a large audience.” [Ebertfest, 2011]

Recent screening of note: “In all the moments of Ebertfest, surely one of the most magical was when we showed Singin’ in the Rain and Donald O’Connor walked onstage and said, ‘You know, I danced on this stage in vaudeville.’ Here, too, did the Marx Brothers perform, and Houdini demonstrated his amazing escapes.” [Ebertfest, 2011]

The Pickwick Theatre

Location: 5 S. Prospect Avenue, Park Ridge, IL

Opened: December 28, 1921

No. of screens: 4 (there was only 1 up until 1990)

Why Ebert worshipped here: While not a cinema he had history with as a moviegoer nor one that he frequented, the Pickwick is significant for providing the exterior setting and marquee for Siskel & Ebert’s At the Movies show (see the photo at the top of this post). Their balcony, however, was just a set at the ABC-owned studio for Chicago’s WLS-7. That set was sadly destroyed and thrown away rather than, as Ebert wished and expected, put in the Smithsonian.

Music Box Theatre

Location: 3733 N. Southport Ave. Chicago, IL

Opened: August 22, 1929

No. of screens: 2

Why Ebert worshipped here: “The Music Box is the best place in Chicago to see a movie. A palace from the Golden Age. Their organist warmed us up. Clouds on the ceiling” [Twitter, 2010] “The Music Box is the largest surviving first run movie palace in Chicago. It is deeper than it is wide, and has an arching ceiling where illusory clouds float and stars twinkle. Many shows are preceded by music on the organ…In spaces that are wider than deep, such as Sundance’s Eccles and the Lumiere at Cannes, one gets a sensation of separation; at Cannes, curiously, much of the laughter seems to center on the front right. At a narrower theater like the Music Box, you feel joined together.” [Roger Ebert’s Journal, 2010]

Screening of note: On seeing Jack Goes Boating here, Ebert wrote, “I saw my final film of Sundance 2010 here in Chicago. It was my best Sundance experience…Every one of the 750 seats was filled. These people were not festival goers, nor were they all critics, bloggers or distributors. They were movie lovers who ventured out at night in the cruel Chicago winds with the temperature standing at 14F, and paid cash for their tickets because they wanted to see [Philip Seymour] Hoffman’s new movie…In short, what I felt in my bones at the Music Box was the experience a working movie critic rarely shares, the sensation of seeing a movie in a room filled with people who are there of their own will, sympathize with movies, and respond genuinely. Although the movie won favorable reviews from the trades at Sundance (Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Screen International), my guess is that the audience reaction was better at the Music Box than at Park City.” [Roger Ebert’s Journal, 2010]

Lake Street Screening Room

Ebert’s seat at the Lake Street Screening Room after his death. Tweeted by Scott Tobias (@scott_tobias) April 5, 2013.

Location: 70 East Lake Street Chicago, IL

Opened: Early 1980s, as the Plitt Screening Room

No. of screens: 1

Why Ebert worshipped here: This is the main venue for press screenings in Chicago, and Ebert famously had his favorite seat in the back row, left aisle. “Where do I sit in the Lake Street Screening Room?…for at least 15 years I’ve always seated myself in the back row, at the end closest to the door. There’s some history here. Gene Siskel liked to sit somewhere in the center, but I began to notice he’d repositioned himself in the back row. Gene was acutely aware of his surroundings. I asked him why he’d changed. ‘I’ve noticed that the publicists have started to sit behind me,’ he explained. ‘I think they’re supposed to spy on my reactions and report back to the studios.’ I doubted this was true, but now I became aware of Siskel sitting behind me, possibly to spy on my reactions. So I moved to the back row to outwit the son of a bitch. I picked the end of the row nearest the door, so I could sneak out to the men’s room without calling undue attention to myself. Most people have bladders the size of oil drums, but I usually have to pee at least once during a movie. A few of my colleagues share this need, and I am sympathetic while watching them bend over and make a Groucho Marx run in front of the screen in the futile hope that no one will notice them.’ [Roger Ebert’s Journal, 2011]

Also check out Roger Ebert’s recent essay on Chicago’s old movie palaces from “Chicago” magazine here.

Thank you to Matt Singer, Ben Kenigsberg, Nathan Adams and Victor Morton for tips.

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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.