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Music Box Theatre opens the vaults to mark its 90th anniversary

Chicago’s long-running citadel of cinema will celebrate with the works of Andrew Davis, Robert Zemeckis, Dolly Parton and more.

The Music Box Theatre in 1983.
Provided photo

In 1929, “talkies” were all the rage, and the Music Box Theatre, the first Chicago movie house designed specifically for sound films, opened its doors on Aug. 22 of that year. Over the decades, save for a hiatus from 1977 to 1983, the Music Box has remained in continuous operation — a feat unmatched by any other Chicago cinema of its era.

To celebrate its 90th anniversary, the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport, is presenting a weeklong celebration of special screenings and events beginning Aug. 22. The tribute showcases the theater’s eclectic programming mix of first-run, indie, art house, foreign, silent, repertory and midnight movies and special events.

While other local repertory houses, such as the Century, Clark, Patio and Village, have disappeared, the Music Box has managed to succeed and thrive. “What we offer is an experience that people can’t replicate in other places,” said general manager Ryan Oestreich. Also in the age of digital projection, the Music Box staff believes in showing celluloid film as much as possible. “We really care about the presentation, showing films in older formats. We’re just one of 15 or so cinemas that can show 70mm. And in Chicago, only a handful can show 35mm.”

Since 2003, the Music Box has been independently owned and operated by the Southport Music Box Corp. “We’re a neighborhood movie palace,” said Oestrich, who noted that the theater was built as part of an apartment/retail complex, which generates revenue. Since 1929, the complex has been sold just a few times, and “each owner bought it as a whole,” he said. The current owner, William Schopf, “bought the Music Box [in 1986] because he loves movies.”

Many film luminaries sing the theater’s praises. Actor Michael Shannon lauds the theater as “films for film’s sake. It has no other agenda. It’s pure.” And director Werner Herzog calls it “a landmark of the soul,” and added that it was Roger Ebert’s favorite cinema. “In my opinion, he hasn’t gone away. He’s still here.”

The lineup:

7 p.m. Aug. 22, Cinema in 1929: When the Music Box first lit up its marquee on Aug. 22, 1929, it beckoned patrons with the musical “Mother’s Boy,” starring Morton Downey. So why “Innocents of Paris” with Maurice Chevalier? “We searched for months, but could not find a print of ‘Mother’s Boy,’ ” Oestreich said. “Then we learned the Library of Congress has a print, but it’s nitrate” — referring to the highly combustible format phased out in the early ’50s (and which now requires a special projection booth). “We can’t show that; we can do everything but nitrate.”

Maurice Chevalier and Sylvia Beecher in “Innocents of Paris.”
Paramount Pictures

7 p.m. Aug. 23, Made in Chicago: “The Fugitive” (1993) with director Andrew Davis in person. The feature-film version of the ’60s hit TV series was helmed “by a born and raised Chicagoan, who grew up just blocks from the Music Box, and who shot it in Chicago,” Oestreich said. “Celebrating local talent … it’s what we do.”

Aug. 24, a silent documentary and a Dolly Parton marathon: First up at 2:30 p.m. is the rarely screened “World City in Its Teens: A Report on Chicago” (1931), with live organ accompaniment by Dennis Scott, the theater’s house organist. “World City” is an example of the city symphony genre, popular in the ’20s and ’30s, which tried to capture a metropolis’ spirit on celluloid. “One of our programmers found the ‘World City,’ and in the scope of celebrating our 90th anniversary, we thought it would be perfect,” Oestreich said. “This little film needed the right place and time to show it.”

Then beginning at 9 p.m., the Music Box rolls out what it’s calling “A Dolly Parton 9 to 5-er,” referring of course to the Tennessee songbird’s best-known film, the comedy “9 to 5” (1980). The eight-hour tribute continues with the musical “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” (1982), “Rhinestone” (1984) and “Straight Talk” (1992), with the latter co-starring James Woods as a Chicago Sun-Times reporter.

Lily Tomlin (from left), Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda in “9 to 5.”
20th Century Fox

Aug. 25, Family Fun and Indie Horror: The Music Box plays to its programming strengths — sing-alongs and shockers — with another double bill. A sing-along version of the supercalifragilisticexpialidocious “Mary Poppins” (1964) starts at noon, followed by “Society” (1989) with director Brian Yuzna in person at 7 p.m. “Fans have requested ‘Society’ for years,” said Oestreich of the cult favorite, described as a “body-horror-filled critique of upper-crust society.”

Aug. 27, Music Box Films Double Feature: In 2007, management launched a distribution arm, Music Box Films, which has gone to release more than 140 titles. It will screen two of its biggest successes: at 7 p.m., Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida” (2013), winner of the 2015 Oscar for best foreign film, and at 8:45 p.m., “The Deep Blue Sea” (2011), director Terence Davis’ adaption of Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play about a British wife (Rachel Weisz) embroiled in a doomed affair.

Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston in “Deep Blue Sea.”
Music Box Films

Aug. 28, Audience Choice Double Feature: From 1983 to 1988, the Music Box specialized in double bills, and so the theater’s staff compiled a list of them, then asked patrons to vote online for their favorite. The winning combo: “The Terminator” (1984) at 7 p.m. and “Robocop” (1987) at 9:15 p.m.

Michael J. Fox (left) and Christopher Lloyd in “Back to the Future II.”
Universal City Studios

7 p.m. Aug. 29, Celebrating 70mm with “Back to the Future II” (1989). The Music Box, known for its 70mm film festivals and special 70mm screenings, is one of the few U.S. cinemas capable of the format. “We tried to find a title we haven’t shown before, since we’ve played 50 to 70 in the past,” Oestreich said. “We liked the idea of the Cubs winning the World Series” — Robert Zemeckis’ time-travel sequel has the Lovable Losers capturing Major League Baseball’s 2015 championship (which of course happened a year later). “Plus, it’s a tip of the hat to our neighbors at Wrigley Field.”

The theater has created a microsite with details about the festival as well as historic photos and memorabilia. Go to https://musicboxtheatre.com/music-box-theatre-turns-90