Music Box Theatre (Chicago)

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The Music Box Theatre at 3733 N. Southport Ave., Chicago, Illinois, opened on August 22, 1929, a time when the movie palaces in downtown Chicago each had seating capacities of around 3,000 people. The Music Box, which sat 800, was considered an elaborate little brother to those theatres. Theatre Architecture magazine noted in 1929 that the theatre "represents the smaller, though charming and well equipped, sound picture theatre which is rapidly taking the place of the 'deluxe' palace." The opening film was Mother’s Boy starring Morton Downey (father of talk show host Morton Downey, Jr.), Beryl Mercer and a young Brian Donlevy (in his 5th film)

The Building[edit]

The theatre was built for a cost of $110,000. The entire building, which also included nine storefronts and 32 apartments, cost $260,000. Louis A. Simon, a local architect, who was better known for his Depression era WPA Post Offices and homes for the nouveau riche, designed the building. The building was erected by The Southport Avenue Businessmen’s Association and operated by Lasker and Sons, who operated several smaller neighborhood houses in Chicago.


The design of the Music Box was indicative of the growth of the motion picture. The grand movie palaces that preceded it were multiple use facilities with stage and film presentation capabilities. The Music Box had no stage and, therefore, could only be a film presentation house. When the theatre was built, sound films were a new technology, and the plans included both an orchestra pit and organ chambers if sound films failed and silent film accompaniment was needed. The first known silent film presentation at the Music Box theatre was "Wings" in 1983 using the operators home theatre organ and accompanied by Barbara Sellers, the daughter of Preston and Edna Sellers who were Chicago Silent Film and radio theatre organ personalities of the 1920s - 1940s. The first Theatre organ - an Allen three manual electronic - was installed in the previously empty organ chambers, in 1984. The organ is now used for intermission music on weekends and for silent film accompaniment.

Architectural Style[edit]

As Chicago Tribune architectural critic Paul Gapp wrote (Arts and Books, July 31, 1983), "The architectural style is an eclectic mélange of Italian, Spanish and Pardon-My-Fantasy put together with passion." The actual style is called atmospheric. The dark blue, cove-lit ceiling with “twinkling stars” and moving cloud formations suggests a night sky. The plaster ornamentation of the sidewalls, round towers, faux-marble loggia and ogee arched organ chambers are, by Hollywood standards, reminiscent of the walls surrounding an Italian courtyard. The overall effect is to make the patron feel that they are watching a film in an open-air palazzo.

Restoration and Rebirth[edit]

Between 1977 and 1983, the Music Box was used sporadically for Spanish language films, pornographic films and lastly, Arabic language films. In 1983, the Music Box Theatre Corporation restored and reopened the theater with a format of double feature revival and repertory films. The August 1983 opening double bill was In Old Chicago with Alice Faye and Tyrone Power and Wabash Avenue starring Betty Grable and Victor Mature. Eventually, foreign films were reinstated, and independent and cult films were added to the roster. The Music Box Theater has introduced Chicago to directors such as John Sayles and Pedro Almodóvar, Richard Linklater, Aki Kaurismaki, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Errol Morris and Zhang Yimou. Film retrospectives have been screened on the works of Chaplin, Garbo, von Stroheim, Satyajit Ray, Hitchcock, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Warner Brothers pre-code movies and Betty Boop. By 1993, The Music Box had matured into its current film presentation format of Specialty Films showing first-run features weekly, repertory and independent features every Saturday & Sunday matinée and Midnight cult films on Friday & Saturday nights.[1] The Music Box Theatre now presents a yearly average of 300 films, making it Chicago's year-round film festival.

Film presentation capabilities at The Music Box are 16mm film, 35mm film (1:33-1, 1:66-1, 1:85-1 and Cinemascope film ratios), 70mm film, two-projector 3-D and digital projection. The sound systems are Laser optical, DTS, Dolby, Dolby Digital.

In 1991, in an article for Entertainment Weekly, Chicago Tribune Film Critic Gene Siskel called the Music Box his favorite Movie Theatre and "a significant Chicago cultural attraction, a showcase for progressive filmmaking at a time when American movie theaters are as homogenized as the films they exhibit".

In 1991, management decided to add a second screen. Rather than split the main theater in two, a small theater was built in an existing storefront adjacent to the lobby. The ambiance of the theatre was designed to echo the architecture of the main auditorium. The design featured a garden trellis under a 'star-lit' 13-foot high ceiling. Theatre 2 was remodeled in 2013 to accommodate new digital projection and audio systems, as well as a larger screen. The trellis construction was removed to improve sight-lines. Theatre acoustics were improved and replacement seats were installed.

The Theatre Ghost[edit]

Old theaters often have their own ghost myths and The Music Box is no exception. “Whitey”, as was his neighborhood nickname, was the manager of The Music Box from opening night 1929 to November 24, 1977. His wife was the cashier and they raised their family two blocks away from the theater. According to one of Whitey’s daughters and his daughter-in-law, he spent most of his time at the theater. Young people who grew up in the neighborhood tell tales of working for Whitey, being tossed out by Whitey and accidentally-on-purpose skinning their knee to get a free piece of candy from Whitey. Parents speak of the embarrassment of having their child’s instamatic photo in the cashier’s station “rogues gallery” of children not allowed back in the theater for any of a myriad of offenses. On Thanksgiving eve, 1977, Whitey returned to close the theater. He fell asleep on the couch in the lobby and never woke up. The couch still remains in the lobby to this day. Patrons prone to superstitious beliefs sometimes attribute events at the theatre to his ghost.

Current operations[edit]

For decades, the Music Box Theatre has been the premiere venue in Chicago for independent and foreign films. It currently has the largest movie theater space operated full-time in the city. The Music Box Theatre is independently owned and operated by the Southport Music Box Corporation. SMBC, through its Music Box Films division, also distributes foreign and independent films in the theatrical, DVD and television markets throughout the United States.

Special/Annual Events[edit]

The Music Box holds many annual events, some decades-old traditions and some just getting started. Since 1983 the Music Box has been showing White Christmas and It's A Wonderful Life for the week leading up to Christmas. Santa greets audience members and leads them all in a Christmas Sing-a-Long before the movies begin and takes photos with the children in the lobby after. Two newer traditions adopted by The Music Box are the showing of The Poseidon Adventure on New Year's Eve and a 24-hour horror movie film festival in October known as "The Music Box of Horrors," formerly "The Music Box Massacre".

Another special event the theatre is known for is showing midnight movies every week. Offerings have included 1970s San Francisco-made 3-D X-rated films (very bad) and the ever popular Toxic Avenger films from Troma Releasing. The movies are mostly cult films, the most popular being The Rocky Horror Picture Show which The Music Box has been screening for 22 years accompanied by actors from the local Chicago theatre troupe Midnight Madness. The Midnight Madness cast also participates in the showings of Clue, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and The Little Shop of Horrors.

Notable premieres[edit]

While The Music Box has been home to the premieres of many smaller films, it has also been home to some big budget premieres as well. In 1940 the premiere of Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator was too controversial for the first-run exhibitors in Chicago at the time, so the film opened at the Music Box and the Ramova Theatre at Halsted and 35th streets on the South Side. Jack Okie made a personal appearance at the Music Box and Mr. Chaplin appeared at the 1500 seat Ramova. John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer had its National premiere at the Music Box in 1990. The Academy Award winning Indochine starring Catherine Deneuve premiered in 1992. Both Lily Tomlin (co-producer) and Vito Russo (writer) made personal appearances to introduce their film The Celluloid Closet in 1997. In 2006 it was the site of the premiere for the Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn film The Break-Up, as well as more recently showing the premieres for the Patton Oswalt films Big Fan (2009) and Where The Wild Things Are (2009).


  • Theatre Architecture Magazine, 1929, UCLA B’hend-Kaufman archives
  • Cinema Treasures, Ross Meinick and Andreas Fuchs, MBI Press 2004 [1],
  • Chicago: City of Neighborhoods by Dominic Pacyga and Ellen Skerrett, Loyola University Press 1986
  • Great American Movie Theaters, David Naylor, Preservation Press 1986
  • Entertainment Weekly, June 28, 1991 issue #72-3 [2]
  • Chicago Tribune, Music Box Theatre by Paul Gapp, August.1983
  • Theatre Historical Society of America,