Woods Theatre

54 W. Randolph Street,
Chicago, IL 60601

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DavidZornig on August 9, 2010 at 3:32 pm

Just watched the 1965 Warren Beatty film “Mickey One” on TCM.
Filmed in Chicago, it showcased the seedy side of a nightclub comedian on the run from the mob.
The underside of Woods Theatre marquee & the Woods Building had a brief appearance. Also an interior shot looking outward from the Woods Building lobby. The plywood walls from the construction of the Daley Center across the street can be seen in the background.

LouisRugani on July 29, 2010 at 8:28 am

Now Not Showing

When The Last Loop Movie Theater Closed In January, A Cultural Dinosaur Had Finally Breathed Its Last
(Chicago Tribune Magazine, July 2, 1989)

Essay by Paul Gapp, the Tribune`s architecture critic.

In Chicago and across America, downtown movie palaces were the dinosaurs of 20th Century architecture. They burst onto the urban scene in baroque splendor, multiplied, then sank into decay and died. Today, the relatively few that survive are gawked at like so many reconstructed brontosauri.

Still, the short history of their heyday does not diminish their importance as nostalgia-heavy icons and reminders of other losses. As the movie palaces declined and disappeared, so did such things as our old sense of wonder and innocence and our middle-class formality.

Chicagoans saw their first one-reel films around the turn of the century in storefronts, rented halls and even mortuaries that were pressed into temporary service by itinerant projectionists. The magic of moving pictures at first made audiences insensible to their surroundings.

Yet the flickering black-and-white images had finite allure. For more than 20 years they were silent, after all, and theater owners gradually employed piano players, organists and live stage shows to enhance the mute acting of Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Mary Pickford.

Out of this need for embellishing the silent film grew the elaborately scaled and spectacularly ornamented movie palace. True, there had been fancy opera houses and legitimate theaters long before 1900, but nothing like the architectural extravaganzas so calculatedly aimed at mass audiences. Splashy theater design was almost as important to the box office as the artistic product on the screen.

In Chicago`s Loop, sound films were still nine years distant when the State-Lake and the Woods Theaters were built in 1917. Silent screens remained the rule when the Roosevelt and the Chicago opened in 1921. The first scratchy sound was just coming into use when the Oriental, United Artists and the Palace (a part of the Bismarck Hotel) were built in 1926.

These thousands of downtown Chicago movie-house seats were practically sold out on many weekend nights in pre-World War II days, and theaters were almost as full the rest of the week. Summertime crowds often came for the air- conditioning as much as anything else, since few other buildings were cooled.

Practically everyone, including people of the most modest means, dressed up for the downtown movie excursions-men in suits and ties, women in dresses and youngsters in their Sunday best. Their decorum as well as their costume was formal by today`s standards, yet it somehow fit the luxuriousness of movie-palace surroundings. The big theater was a place of escape for the common citizen. Everyone could feel like a big shot in so sumptuous a setting, as unbelievable as that may seem to the younger of us today. And during the grim Depression of the 1930s, what better way to forget reality for a few hours?

The decline of the downtown movie houses, beginning in the 1960s, was a sordidly messy business in Chicago and practically every other big city. Kung- fu and other low-budget, low-IQ fare was the rule. In lobbies originally intended to resemble Versailles or the Paris Opera, hot dogs rotated on spits and patrons played at pinball machines or video games. The jokes about sticky floors were all true, and rats as well as plainclothes security personnel roamed the aisles.

Virtually every downtown Chicago movie palace was officially doomed to demolition by the North Loop urban-renewal plan concocted in the 1970s, but economics and real estate developers beat the city to the punch. The theaters closed before the city could tear them down, and in January of this year the last screen went dark when the Woods closed its doors. That left only the restored but financially shaky Chicago Theatre, which in any case is now a venue for stage shows, not cinema.

Today, people dressed in the surreally chic, factory-faded sport clothes of the 1980s pay upwards of $10 to sit in a tiny contemporary movie theater while devouring bulimia-size containers of popcorn and soft drinks and watching screen fare heavy on dismemberment and sexual coupling. Where architectural splendor once compensated for the silence of films, food now fills the vacuum created by the sterility of theaters. The downtown dinosaurs are dead, and those who personally remember the glory days of picture palaces are fading away as well.

DavidZornig on April 22, 2010 at 5:41 am

Thanks for posting that. In the Flicker comments section someone confirmed the name of the bar next door was “Bar RR Ranch”. That’s where Channel 7’s Joel Daly/Sundowners played regularly.

DavidZornig on April 5, 2010 at 9:19 pm

Just to the left of the Wood’s entrance is the Western Nite Club. On the sign you can barely make out The Sundowners. That was the country & western group that old ABC/Channel 7 news anchor Joel Daly was a member of. They were the standing house musical act for years. That was a neat place. In the basement as I recall.

jclaudio on November 25, 2009 at 7:15 am

I saw “Nightwing” at the Woods back in ‘79 with my date, Denise D. The place was so lit up that you could almost read a book in there while the movie was playing. I guess they’d had a problem with purse thefts and the like. Anyway, by that point the whole area, including the Woods, was already in decline.

Broan on October 17, 2009 at 9:44 pm

Look through that blog; her work is an amazing discovery.

Darrel Wood
Darrel Wood on October 17, 2009 at 9:17 pm

That photo must date from sometime between July and November 1969, when Midnight Cowboy played at the Woods.
The Daley Center, on the left, was built from 1963-1965.
But what fascinates me is the man in the foreground….what is he carrying? Being closer to the camera, he looks strangely tall, in comparison to the man on the right, who looks strangely short. Together they almost look like an old carnival act. The photographer, Vivian Maier, definitely had a unique eye to create something like that in the days before Photoshop.

KenC on September 24, 2009 at 9:35 pm

Harry Belafonte was on the Woods stage at 8:15p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 1959, for the World Premiere of “ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW”. (From the Chicago Tribune movie listings).

JRS40 on May 22, 2009 at 10:45 am

Sadly the Loop had the reputation back then of being a dangerous place where whites would never be seen at night because African-American and Hispanic gangs were taking over the streets. This is one of the reasons, mostly unfounded by the way, that these beautiful palaces failed. People stopped showing up, especially at night. It didn’t help that the Oriental down the street had been taken over as home turf by one gang – one of the reasons that theater was eventually shuttered. But the reason for the double features like this was the need to try and grab the movie loving audience for a film like COTTON CLUB and then show a schlock horror film, marital arts or whatever to appeal to the gangs. I don’t know that I necessarily subscribe totally to that theory but it does make sense in a weird way. This theater was, after all, the last of the great palaces to close.

KingBiscuits on May 15, 2009 at 9:14 pm

That’s a pretty strange double bill. A big-budget Coppola film paired with a B-grade martial arts import.

CatherineDiMartino on May 15, 2009 at 6:47 pm

Wow! What an eclectic combo on the marquee!

Life's Too Short
Life's Too Short on April 13, 2009 at 1:43 pm

About four or five years left for the Woods at this point:

View link

DavidZornig on April 12, 2009 at 6:04 am

Reactivate notification status.

KenC on February 26, 2009 at 7:39 pm

In the book “DOWNTOWN CHICAGO IN TRANSITION” by Eric Bronsky and Neal Samors, there is a great shot of the Woods theatre in 1962 on page 161. “CAPE FEAR” is playing; you can also see the Greyhound Bus Depot and the Sherman House Hotel.

Chicago229 on January 21, 2009 at 9:58 am

I have never seen the inside of this theatre. Are there any photos?

DavidZornig on October 31, 2008 at 7:59 pm

You are correct Lost Memory. Christine was a 58. My memory is obviously clearly lost. It's been 31 years since I owned mine though. My57 Plaza did indeed have only two headlights, and the parking lights/turn signals were the inner two. Larger sealed beams than on the `58.

The tailights were changed on the 58's too. Just a small lens at the bottom of the fin. Whereas my57 had full triangular lenses in the shape of the fin. Sure wish I’d kept that one.

The makers of “Christine” took some liberties with what they had available back then. Mixing Belvidere cars & parts with Fury’s. Somewhere there’s a Mopar site that points out all the differences. Door pillars, missing mirrors etc. Thanks for the clarification and extra pic!

DavidZornig on October 31, 2008 at 3:26 pm

P.P.S. In Lost Memory’s 1958 photo posted this past June of the Wood’s marquee, the front car at the curb is a 1957 or 58 Plymouth. The source car for the Steven King book and movie "Christine". Supposedly originally a 4-door in the book, but changed to a 2-door for the film. I had a57 Plymouth Plaza. This one looks from the lower trim to be either that or a Savoy.

DavidZornig on October 31, 2008 at 2:49 pm

Just did some more rereads of past Wood’s posts. In the 1963 photo Bryan Krefft posted in 2005, the one with the Bob Hope film on the marquee, the Hotel Sherman behind it at Randolph & Clark was actually called the Sherman House. But it was indeed a hotel.
My father played trombone and upright bass there inside it’s club.

Frank Sinatra and many other high profile singers & musicians played there over the years. Probably while their own films were playing the Woods and other theatres downtown.
The State of Illinois building is now on the site where the Sherman House once stood.

If only the Woods could have escaped demolition and been the source of a renovation along with the Selwyn/Michael Tood, to build out the new Goodman Theatre.
It’s ironic that there’s a push to call it all the “Theater District”, when that’s what it always was to begin with, until everything was torn down.

GFeret on October 31, 2008 at 11:25 am

The very first flick I saw there was the Beatles HELP! Even remember just what part of the film I walked-in on (w/ my friend Johnny C.) – when they were setting-up the play the song You’re Gonna Lose That Girl in the mock studio,

In 1982 at the WOODS I saw a typical exploitation triple-feature there: 10 COMMANDMENTS OF KUNG-FU, GARDEN OF THE DEAD, & GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE. Certainly the very last of the paid-admission triple-features for me (or perhaps anyone).

I wish someone could quote those 10 K-F commandments for me. They were printed on a little card that was handed-out in the theatre lobby then, and as I barely recall were hilarious.