Music Box Theatre Chicago
The front of the theater. (Photo/Jake Jozefowicz)

How The Music Box Became a Chicago Theater Community Staple

By Nick Toppel and Jake Jozefowicz

Posted: Saturday, July 28, 2018

Young families pushing strollers down Southport Avenue in Lakeview – an area known as “Stroller Alley” – often pass by a the theater best known visually by its magnificent marquee out front which simply reads, “MUSIC BOX.”

It’s hard to miss it at night when it’s lit up in a bright red glow, and has been a staple in the North Side neighborhood for many years. In a city full of many magnificent arts — music, dance, sculpture and acting —  The Music Box stands out in Chicago’s fleet of historic theaters and auditoriums built in the late 1800s and early 1900s that still stand and operate today.

Located just a few blocks north and west of Wrigley Field, and built nearly a century ago, The Music Box is widely considered one of the city's most historic places.

When asked about what she thought regarding Music Box and its classic look, local theater goer Sarah McGivney said, “What I enjoy most about Music Box is that it is a time capsule. These places need to be enjoyed by everyone because we are too involved in the digital age.”

Built in 1929, the theater was one of the first of its kind: a small capacity theater that was only able to show films (not live shows). The theater became known for its elaborate architecture and art. The theater ceiling has a “night sky” feel to it, with a dark blue paint and twinkling stars-almost makes the guest feel like they’re watching outside.

The theater went on to become essential in growing the popularity of feature films among people for many years. In 1983, The Music Box began to show foreign and cult films, which have become a well-known feature of the theater.

Ryan Oestreich, the general manager of The Music Box, said it “has been known to do these things since 1982 and has grown its level of interactive and engaged programming that makes it very unique in comparison to other megaplexes that most people are used to going.”

The Music Box labels itself “Chicago’s year-round film festival” which has stuck around since 1983. “We do classic matinees, midnight programming, events where directors come in and talk about their films,” Oestreich said. The theater originally had one main auditorium for films, however a second one was built in the early 1990s.

The Music Box, while showing movies in the modern digital format, also is known to show classic movies in 35MM print.

“Back in 2012 we decided we finally had to switch to a DCP Projector but we keep our analog projector because those classic films, while available on DCP, still had 35MM prints so because we like to show those classic films we would show them on 35MM,” Oestreich said.

Something that makes Music Box unique compared to other theatres is its support of independent films and filmmakers.

“Part of the fabric of art house is to show movies you can’t see…we are very happy to work with a filmmaker that has their own movie or work with a film festival that needs a venue,” Oestreich said.

Matthew Gomez, who is involved with the project “Sellouts,” filmed a pilot for the show in The Music Box and also used the theater to premiere it for a live audience. The project was filmed in April 2017 and premiered on Sept. 3.

Regarding the experience and search for a premiere for their project, Gomez explained the process: “We had filmed a grueling overnight shoot inside and outside of The Music Box for our pilot. When we were discussing premieres—it only felt right to come back to Music Box.”

When asked what music box provided for them as independent filmmakers, Gomez said, “Music Box was super accommodating. Never did we feel as if we were using ‘their space.’ It was extremely open and they were more than happy to have us film.”

Another aspect of the theater that has been popular for many years are the showings of “midnight movies.” Oestreich added, “Back in 1982 when we were reborn as what we currently are we started doing midnights, it’s in our fabric, it’s a tradition. If we were to change it we feel we would be changing who we are.”

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” has been shown at the theatre since the midnight movies began, with another cult favorite, “The Room” becoming a regular screening in recent years.

“The Room and Rocky definitely have their own built-in crowds that come every month. A portion of the crowds that come every month are regulars but others are regulars then the other ones are mixed in with coming infrequently or first timers,” Oestreich said.

As for the theater's future, Oestreich said: “My job is to protect it and keep it going for as long as I can and maintain what the audience knows that we are and always surprise you and stay on top of where cinema is going.”

Return to The Red Line Project

Feedback: Contact the reporter via Twitter or leave a comment below.