Balaban and Katz Historical Foundation News
A review of , "The Chicago Movie Palaces of Balaban and Katz" by David Balaban
submitted by Karl
The story of the Balaban & Katz movie palaces is the story of modern
entertainment in Chicago, starting with the humble roots along old Maxwell
Street and expanding to a vast, citywide cinema empire. It's also the story
of Chicago's progress, as the skyscrapers rose up around the downtown
Chicago and Oriental theaters, southside theaters closed down and were
demolished, and northside theaters like the Gateway and the Uptown continue
to flirt with the wrecking ball.
The book is also something of a family scrapbook, with the first pages
documenting the people of the Balaban and Katz heritage, and chronicling
their progress from a bedsheet on a wall for a nickel a head, to the 5000
seat behemoths that became landmarks.
It's also an interesting parallel between the days of the movie palace and
today's googolplexes, devoid of character and seemingly slapped together to
maximize customer density and turnaround. Even the "blander" theaters in the
book have striking architecture and decoration, all made when movies were
considered a tremendous privelege, not a thoughtless pastime.
Also, it's interesting to note the fashion of the employees and technology
of the day- all the old movies you see nowadays where the ushers have the
fez-like hat and the sharp, crisp buttoned uniform? That's a B&K thing. Air
conditioning? B&K did it here, first. Even the old advertising in the book
(which could have been a book unto itself) sells the chairs and the
theaters, not even the films showing. The theater itself was a destination,
not just walls, a ceiling and a projector.
Ultimately, the book shows much of what we've lost or the way things were, I
would have liked to see how the places are today - either still packing them
in, like the Chicago or the Oriental; standing vacant or crumbling, like the
Uptown; or just empty lots. So goes the theater, so goes the neighborhood
perhaps. It would have been nice to get a glimpse inside the old Uptown, but
being able to see how the Congress Theater and the Riviera were before they
began catering to metal bands and punk acts is a fair tradeoff.
Chicago historians, moviegoers, theater patrons and Loop businesspeople all
would do well to read this, and to know the kind of history they walk past
on a daily basis downtown.