Monday, May 07, 2007

Apparently it Doesn't Take a Village, After All

I've recently caught up with the fact that the Village Theatre at Clark and North closed up shop in March.

According to the listing on the invaluable Cinema Treasures website, it was built in 1916 as the Germania, taking its name from the venerable 1888 Germania Club right next door, at a time when German immigrants were still decisive in the city and its culture. (Here's a 1908 Daily News photo of an alcove at the club decorated to celebrate the Emperor's birthday - Tom Tancredo would have had a field day.)

With the advent of the World War I, of course, the nation's view of German immigrants and nationals took a dire turn, including locking up Boston Symphony conductor Karl Muck, and the Germania Theatre was renamed the Parkside. It was renamed again as the Gold Coast, advertised in 1931, according to Cinema Treasures poster Brian W., as "One of Chicago's Most Beautiful and Coziest Talking Picture Palaces, with" Edith Rockefeller McCormick claimed as a regular patron. After another renovation, it became the Globe in 1962, and finally, the Village in 1967.

While its original interior has been effectively destroyed through multiple renovations, ending in the inevitable multiplexing into four auditoriums in the 1990's, the exterior retains its distinctive polychrome terra cotta ornament.

Perhaps most striking is a series of six bewigged French-classical heads topping off the pilasters, just below the roof line. Complete with small, irregular teeth, they're creepy enough to begin with. But when you add a taut iron chain emerging from the gaping mouth you can't help but wonder if the original model wasn't the Marquis de Sade.

In a city of grand movie palaces, the Village was considered a small, second-run house. As those palaces all fell by the wayside, however, and the survivors began being carved up into multiple shoeboxes, the Village became one of larger surviving auditoriums, and a great place to see films, especially at its bargain price of 75 cents. When it, too, finally was subdivided, it became an increasingly poor alternative to watching a DVD in your own home. The original auditorium, however, had a simple, straightforward elegance.

The above photograph, by the way, comes from Mekong Network, a website whose primary mission is being a rich storehouse of information on Southeast Asian nations, but a side interest of the author is illustrated on the Lost Palaces page, an extraordinary photographic documentation of the demise of a large number of Chicago's movie theatres, including both palaces like the Uptown, Sheridan and Belmont, and smaller, less exalted neighborhood houses such as the Adelphi, Devon and Commodore.

To me, the most remarkable images come from the senselessly destroyed Granada, an extraordinarily beautiful theatre that survived into 1990, only to be destroyed by a combine of political clout and a powerful, tax-exempt university, replaced with a repulsive, characterless condo complex. Here are three heartbreaking photos from the MN site showing this astonishing, irreplacable building in its death throes.

Back to the Village, it's an Orange rated building, meaning it has features that might qualify it for designation as an officially protected landmark, but that seldom is allowed to stand in the way if a developer comes forward with a big-bucks proposal for the site, possibly including the adjacent 24-hour corner restaurant formerly known as Mitchell's. The only - and probably deceptive - cause for optimism is the sign above the marquee, which currently reads not "For Sale", but "For Rent."

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