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The Royal was still in operation as late as 1956, and perhaps longer.
Help save my falling arches, the old Biltmore seems to cry out in the summer of 1989, as perhaps my favorite movie theater of all time entered it’s terminal phase.
This arch was one of the Biltmore’s defining features, and with most of the delicate terracotta work resting in pieces atop the marquee, it’s little wonder that preservationists were unable to find the capital for restoration.
Seeing those stabilizing chains draped over the front of the facade reminds me of walking past this theater with my father when I was about six years old, and asking him what that tower on the roof was for, as I pointed to the steel sign anchor in this picture.
As student at Tuley High in the early 1930’s, my dad could recall the large vertical sign that was suspended from the building’s roof in those days, and apparently
removed sometime before or during World War II.
Sometime in the mid-1960’s, while visiting the old main library at Michigan and Randolph, I saw a beautiful photograph of the Biltmore taken during the 1930’s. It was a shot likely commissioned by Balaban & Katz that showed the theater in all it’s nightime glory, with the huge vertical neon and marquee illuminating the arch to full effect.
The photo was part of a collection on display at the library that showed photos of other landmark movie theaters in and around Chicago. Perhaps it was on loan from B&K, or in the library’s permanent collection. In any case, I hope those same photos still exist and will soon wind up being shown either here or elsewhere on the internet.
Division Street was an exciting place to be in the 1950’s when I was a kid growing up nearby and, for a nine-year-old, there was no more exciting spot on Division than the Biltmore. This was especially true during the brutally-hot summer of 1955, in the aftermath of the Richard Carpenter-Patrolman Clarence Kerr shootout in the theater.
I can remember my mother coming home late one night from Wednesday evening church services in the Loop, explaining that the Division-Van Buren bus she was on had been re-routed at Damen, and that an enormous crowd and many police cars had blocked Division Street between Damen and Hoyne in front of the Biltmore.
As we sat on our front porch a block away from the theater, we could hear the crowd noise and occasional sirens, until two cops in a patrol car stopped in front and asked my parents if they had seen anyone running through the neighborhood, before suggesting that we go back inside for our own safety.
The next day seemed quiet except for the sound of a police helicopter overhead. That evening, as I watched CBS news on Channel 2 with my mother, I felt proud to see Douglas Edwards lead off with a story on the shootout and manhunt.
At some point in his report, Edwards intoned the words “…in a run-down movie theater, in the slums just west of Chicago’s Loop.” Although I knew this wasn’t exactly a compliment, I was too young to take offense to the casual insult. Instead, it was a thrill for me to see the Biltmore on national TV.
That night, Carpenter was found hiding-out with hostages in a flat on Crystal Street, and I can remember the sound of tear gas rounds being fired to force him out, along with the noise of a crowd ready to tear the cop-killer apart as he was hustled to a waiting police van.
A couple of weeks later, Jack Webb in “Pete Kelly’s Blues” was the appropriate first-run feature at the Biltmore. As we entered the lobby, I was looking for stray bullet holes until I glanced down at the carpet just outside the show, and saw what appeared to be bloodstains.
Fortunately, Patrolman Kerr recovered from his wounds. Carpenter, of course, paid with his life several years laterr executed for the murder of a Chicago detective that took place earlier in that unforgettable summer of 1955.
earlier in that unforgettable summer of ‘55.
Almost exactly three years before August 31, 1953, when the Oakley would be destroyed in an explosion and fire, all seems quiet on Chicago Avenue as a streetcar heads west past the theater.
The double feature partially visible on the marquee is headlined by “Curtain Call at Cactus Creek,” with an all-star cast including Donald O'Connor, Gale Storm, Walter Brennan, Vincent Price, Eve Arden, and Chick Chandler.
Gale Storm, of course, would go on to star on TV in “My Little Margie,” and do her best Smiley Lewis impersonation in ‘55 with her hit version of “I Hear You Knockin’” at the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll. Eve Arden also would find success on TV as “Our Miss Brooks.”
The backup on today’s twinbill is “The Iroquois Trail,” with George Montgomery, Brenda Marshall, and Reginald Denny.
Hate to get technical but, for the record, the Crown stood empty until the spring of 1963, when it was demolished. Two movies I especially remember seeing here are “Bad Day at Black Rock” in ‘55, and “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” in 1957, right before my family left the old neighborhood for the suburbs.
An earlier post mentioned Palmgren’s Grill across Ashland, which had two spectacular neons to complement the bright lights of the Crown on what was otherwise a nondescript one-story corner taxpayer that is still standing. The sign for the grill itself included neon palm trees, while a rooftop sign for Miller High Life, with the Girl in the Moon on top, was especially impressive, until Miller temporarily retired the girl and removed her image sometime in the early ‘50’s.
Another one-story lunchroom and soda fountain was located on the west side of Ashland, adjacent to the Crown, with a string of billboards on its roof. The billboard closest to the intersection of Division and Ashland typically was dedicated to whatever movie was playing at the Crown.
Along with huge posters for first-run films, I remember that same corner billboard also used to promote championship fights that were shown at the Crown on closed-circuit TV. I vividly recall a display advertising the telecast of the Marciano-Archie Moore heavyweight championship fight in the fall of 1955.
Watched many movies at the Strand from 1950-57, including the Esther Williams version of Pagan Love Song in 1952, where I got to see my brother on film in an uncredited bit part. Sometime in the mid-50’s, the Strand began to stage amateur talent shows on Saturday afternoons, and I saw quite of few of them.
Most movies shown here were second or third run, but I can recall my mom taking me to some first-run Disney classics in the early 50’s, and the whole family watching High Society on New Year’s Eve in ‘56, not long after the film was released.
Some fourth-run classics that I saw here in the mid-50’s were Kiss Me Deadly, and a 1955 Christmas night double bill of Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and A Guy Named Joe. My family moved away from the west side in ‘57, but I came back to visit occasionally, and I believe movies were still being shown here until 1959.
The Strand stood empty for a couple of years after that, before being converted into a muebleria. I don’t know when it was demolished, but I’ll post a photo I took in 1987 of the tile floor outside the front entrance with the word “Strand” visible as a result of my scraping away some of the dirt that covered it.
Even when it was lit up, the Strand was a spare, dark, and in some ways grim environment, but it served to introduce me to the movies, and I have only good thoughts about the place.
I’ll never forget the aftermath of a “Dish Night Giveaway” Riot at the Strand when I was four or five years old – just looking through the front doors of the locked theater at what must have been hundreds of pieces of smashed tableware. This was one tough neighborhood!
The Oakley Theater was destroyed by a gas line explosion and fire in the early morning hours of August 31, 1953, as Chicago experienced one of the worst heat waves on record. Debris from the explosion rained down on the block bounded by Chicago Avenue, Oakley Blvd., Western Ave. and Rice Street. Because this occurred around 2 a.m., the only casualty was a shoemaker sleeping in the back of his shop on Chicago Avenue, who was killed when part of the Oakley fell through his roof.
When the sun rose on the 31st, only the theater facade and marquee were recognizable, with the front of the marquee resting in the gutter along Chicago Avenue for several days. The lot stood vacant until early 1957, when a new National supermarket was opened at 2320 W. Chicago. This store lasted until the mid-1970’s, when it was demolished and replaced by a Burger King which is still in operation.
I don’t know what theater building the Ukrainian Institute converted, but it definitely wasn’t the old Oakley.