The Chicago Theatre, a Rapp and Rapp beauty, was the flagship of the Balaban & Katz chain, from the time of its opening through the Jazz Age and into the 1950’s. The facade, glazed in off-white terra cotta, echoes the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, while the interior is based on impressions of Versailles. It started life with stage shows (a 50-piece orchestra) and organ accompaniments on a (mighty, of course) 4 manual 29-rank Wurlitzer that, with an added console, allowed for tandem concerts of a husband-and-wife team, Crawford and Anderson. This theater has never seen truly dark times, thanks to several handings-off that mark its career, ending as a movie house with Pitt Theaters who saw it safely into the keeping of a preservation committee in 1985. A year later, spruced up, it opened with Frank Sinatra and a brand-new marquee.The original marquee (whose lines you’ll recognize in some of the older posters for Chicago, the musical) is currently in the Smithsonian, possibly the only theater marquee so honored. What can you expect of a marquee recognized as an official emblem of its city?
I’ve never been to the Chicago, but what makes me want to go is its resemblance to the St. George, also roughly 3,000 seats at its inception, with faux gilded boxes containing statuary to the left and right of the stage, and a generally “stacked” feel, that is, a steep descent from the top of the balcony to the lip of the mezzanine. Ours is Spanish Baroque and the Chicago is French, but hey, a palace is a palace. If I really was starting my road trip this week and I moved fast enough, I could catch Billy Joel there in concert on the 23rd, then head out.
West. The American compass has no other direction.
If you ever plan to motor west
Travel my way
Take the highway that's the best
Get your kicks on Route 66.
I’ll make my way down to the Route 66 Marker, but wait. According to historic66.com, the marker at the corner of Adams Street is a bit apocryphal.
“The start of Route 66 has moved a few times...” so we’ll mosey on over to Franklin and Lake Shore Drive -- something having to do with a change in street directions — then on to our first stop, a Drive-in Theater in Springfield, Illinois. I know, I know, according to the song, my next stop ought to be St. Louis, but the songwriter, Bobby Troupe left out a lot of interesting towns and highway diversions. He was on his way to Hollywood to make it big, no time for sight-seeing. But I’ve got plenty of virtual time, and I can’t resist the Route 66 Drive-In, just two hundred twenty miles south and west of Chicago.
Open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, it’s $7.50 a head, which gets you a double feature and, since it’s been twinned, you can mix and match Chinese restaurant style: one movie from the A screen and one from the B. My reluctant choices would be the Christopher Robin movie and the Solo: Star Wars thing; but it doesn’t really matter what you’re watching at a drive-in. It’s about your windshield becoming a movie screen. The theater had an early first life as Green Meadows, commencing with a single screen in 1974, not exactly the high point of drive-in theater culture. It closed in ’82 and stayed that way for a while until a local family which operates a theme park, Knight's Action Park and Caribbean Water Adventure, took it over and re-named it for the old highway, remains of which are nearby. With its iconic 66 sign, the drive-in is a favorite of international tourists who come to Chicago, rent cars and do the 66 pilgrimage. Ah, the power of song lyrics!
It winds from Chicago to LA
More than two thousand miles all the way
Get your kicks on Route 66
Now you go through St. Louis...
There’s been a lot of theater heart-break in St. Louis. The list of “closed and demolished” made me wonder if I should just drive on through, but then, to counterbalance, there’s the Tivoli and the Fox. (The Sun is worth a drive-by, just for that rays-of-the-sun marquee; it’s a performing arts center these days.) Let’s see what’s goin’ at the Fox. If only it were 2008; I could catch the local-boy-wonder, Stan Kann, at the mighty Wurlitzer. He started off playing that instrument, then had a long stint on TV (77 appearances on the Tonight Show, etc.) and in the movies, returning for his last decade to play at the Fabulous Fox, again. The ATOS inducted him into their hall of fame, then named him Organist of the Year in 2003. This bit is intriguing: According to Mary Strauss, “Stan Kann was a one-man show, regaling audiences with his natural comedic personality, his exploits with his vacuum cleaners and his virtuosity on the mighty Wurlitzer organ.” What’s with the vacuum cleaners? BTW, I looked up Mary Strauss, to find out why she’s quoted on the subject of Stan Kann, and found in her what every saved theater must have, a champion. When the Fox was endangered, in the terrible 80’s, she’s the one who turned it around.
The Fabulous Fox, as it styles itself now, is “Siamese/Byzantine” style, whatever that is. Only in a movie palace! Like its four other sister Fox theaters in Brooklyn, Atlanta, San Francisco and Detroit, the St. Louis Fox was the design creation of C. Howard Crane, peer of John Eberson and Thomas Lamb. The St. Louis Fox opened its doors in 1929, with 5060 seats, at a cost of five million dollars — around 71 million in today’s bucks. After hard times, it was rescued by Mary Strauss and friends in the early eighties, and restored for a mere two million, in under two years. That’s important in the annals of movie palace survival — no time for vagrancy or leakage to set in; and plenty of time to host home-town rocker Chuck Berry on his 60th birthday.in 1986.
Too late for me by several decades to catch Chuck, but Bill Maher will be at the Fox before August is out. If I were going, it’d be for the place. You know what Marcus Loew said about what tickets are really sold for.
That’s all for now, I’m pulling off the road. I’ll be at the Grand Center Inn. It only got three stars, but it’s within walking distance of the Fox. Next week, on to Joplin, Missouri...