Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Celluloid Ramblings: More Music Box

by JB
The outpouring of love on social media last week for the Music Box Theater’s 90th anniversary sends me spiraling back down the rabbit hole, unable to think about anything except this great movie theater.

The Music Box Theater (the happiest place on Earth) recently added an archive of thirty years’ worth of printed film schedules to their website’s 90th Anniversary Celebration section. Now I can pore over these late, beloved newsprint keepsakes and weigh my memories against the objective truth (SEE: last week’s Music Box musings. HINT: My memories lost.)
Because the Music Box favored “carnival-style” tickets long past the time that chain theaters switched to more specific, computer-printed tickets, even if you save your movie ticket stubs (and who DOESN’T?) it was much harder to keep track of what you had seen at the Music Box. This wonderful schedule archive allows me to both 1) waste hours of precious time on the Internet machine and 2) attach specific dates to my hazy recollections. So here are more Music Box memories, now jogged free in my boozy brain. Make no mistake, I am not recounting these anecdotes to make people somehow love the Music Box Theater more—I’m assuming you all already love it the most—I am telling these stories so that you will be green with envy over my incredible, lucky life.

My son Jake’s first visit to the Music Box was on January 2, 1994. We took him to see a Looney Tunes marathon; it was also his first trip downtown where he was tall enough in his car seat to really see out the window. At the time, he was obsessed with motorcycles and fire escapes, and the trip afforded him the opportunity to see dozens of both in numbers far exceeding those of our suburban hometown. He cried out from the backseat whenever he saw one. “Fire escape!” “Muggacycle!” (He was adorable.) “Muggacycle!” “Fire Escape!” “Fire Escape!” “Fire Escape!” “Muggacycle!”

Once at the theater, his four-year-old’s sense of time was evident in that he thought the show was over after each separate cartoon. “Time to go home!” he gleefully shouted in the darkened theater after the first seven-minute short. “Yes, Jake, we drove two hours round trip to see a seven minute long cartoon.” He had a great time.

Thirteen years later, I took Jake and some of his high school friends to the Music Box over winter break to see Infernal Affairs, the Chinese film that was the inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. He and his friends were blown away by the film and also blown away by the theater, having been part of a generation in which movie theaters were bland boxes shoe-horned into shopping malls, with screens the size of a greeting card envelope.
In 2007, my wife and I enjoyed Control, the Joy Division biopic, and The Future is Unwritten, the Joe Strummer documentary, with my son in the Music Box’s smaller screening room. Both films are excellent, and I wouldn’t have seen them if not for Jake’s desire to go. A few years later, I met him at the Music Box for a midnight screening of Cannibal Holocaust, one of the most controversial horror films ever made (due to its inclusion of real footage of animals being tortured and murdered.) Jake brought a date. Surprisingly, they are no longer together.

Early in my teaching career, I drove a small handful of students to the Music Box right after school to catch the latest restoration of Citizen Kane. None of them had ever seen the film before, and after the screening they were so blown away that they could barely speak. (This was the 1980s; it was easier then to impress young people.) Later that semester, the same group returned without me to see a midnight screening of the original House of Wax in 3-D! To show you just how long ago this was, I took students to a midnight movie in the city… and no one thought it was in the least bit unusual.

As evidenced by its recent string of sold-out shows for Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, the Music Box is the last theater standing that can still show 70mm prints, a fact they nicely exploit every year by holding a delightful 70mm Film Festival. I still do not fully appreciate how many of these screenings I have been lucky enough to attend: Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce, 2001, The Wild Bunch, Jacques Tati’s Playtime, Lawrence of Arabia, and a screening of personal favorite It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which was the first time I had ever seen that film with an audience. People laughed so loud and long, you couldn’t hear some of the dialogue.
I am thankful for the innumerable silent film screenings, weekend classic matinees, countless Music Box Massacre marathons and Sci-Fi Spectaculars, the annual Noir City festival, a special July 4th midnight show of Chuck Norris in Invasion U.S.A. (the inside marquee for that one simply read “MURICA”) and a free TCM screening of Hitchcock’s The Birds, featuring a live appearance by Ben Mankiewicz and Tippi Hedren. Because that screening was free and no advance tickets were sold, dozens of film buffs arrived hours early and proceeded to wait in line out on Southport Avenue. The three dozen of us bonded quickly in line, discussing favorite films, and even sending people to nearby stores for group treats. I volunteered to go down the street for ice cream bars if someone would save my place in line. We sent several people to Cullen’s Bar & Grill next door to try and get adult libations in to-go cups, but apparently in Chicago, that’s illegal. Still, we gave it the good old college try! The list of contacts on my phone still contains a number for “Linda InTheLineAtTheMusicBox.” I wonder what would happen if I called that number today?

Linda, if you’re reading this, I will never forget that very special afternoon we once shared together… standing in line.

Reviewing that amazing archive, I noted that my first-ever screenings of Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculine/Feminine and Contempt, the original Japanese Godzilla, Stuart Gordon’s Stuck, Michael Schorr’s Schultze Gets the Blues, Guy Maddin’s amazing My Winnipeg, Dario Argento’s bilious Mother of Tears, the director’s cut of Blade Runner, Robert Siegel’s amazing Big Fan with Patton Oswalt, Errol Morris’s astounding The Fog of War, the long-overdue restoration of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse, Michael Winterbottem’s The Killer Inside Me, both restorations of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, James Gunn’s hilarious Super, David Wain’s They Came Together (a film where New York is really like another character), Kiss Me Kate in 3-D, all the classic Universal Horror Films on the big screen for the first time in my life, Ryan Fleck’s searing Half Nelson, Derek Cianfrance’s endlessly sad Blue Valentine, countless weekend classics and midnight movies, and every single annual Spike and Mike’s Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation were all at the Music Box Theater.
More recently, “drive-in movie critic” Joe Bob Briggs appeared at Cinepocalypse last spring, delivering his delightful lecture, “How Rednecks Saved Hollywood.” Seeing Joe Bob live after his new show on Shudder had become something of a Friday night tradition in my house was one of my movie highlights of this year.

Thank you, Music Box.
If you haven’t been to the Music Box in awhile, make plans to go. If you have never visited the Music Box Theater, then who are you and why are you reading this column? If you don’t live in the Chicago area, make stopping by the Music Box one of your priorities the next time you visit. The Music Box, as you may have ascertained from the above nostalgia binge, never disappoints.

In the comments below, I’d love to read some of YOUR favorite memories from the Music Box—or the special rep theater in your life. We are lucky, lucky, lucky to have them.


  1. I recall first going to the Music Box in the early 90s (the college years) primarily because that was the only place where I could find the Spike & Mike Animation Festival! It's been a sweet spot for my viewing endeavors ever since. (Pssst...the next time JB visits the MB, he should let DJF know)

  2. That is a varied list of films, J.B. Do you know anything about who does the programming at the Music Box?

    The first exploitation festival I attended at the Hollywood Theater in Dormont, PA, stands out. I saw Grizzly, Master of the Flying Guillotine, the bizarre Wolf Devil Woman, and Pieces. Best of all, they were first watches. That screening of Pieces, with a full theater responding to the craziness of the film, remains a highlight of my filmgoing life. I did not see that conclusion coming.

    Taking a date to Cannibal Holocaust would be an interesting story to hear.

  3. First Screening: February 2014, midnight showing of RESERVOIR DOGS

    Most Recent Screening: Last month, ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD

    Favorite Screening: August 2014, packed house for IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD. Like you said, laughter drowned out so much dialogue.