Documentary filmmaker April Wright spoke with Solzy at the Movies ahead of a limited run of Going Attractions screenings in Chicago.
Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace is coming back to Chicago after playing a night at the Music Box Theatre in November. What led you to make the documentary?
April Wright: My first documentary was about drive-in movies so this one is a natural follow up, looking at the history of cinema through these magnificent venues. For decades we all saw movies at theaters like this or at the drive-in, multiplexes started in the 70s which was a big shift, so was home video, and today there’s streaming. The idea of how we see movies is changing.
How special was it to play the documentary at the historic Music Box Theatre?
April Wright: I lived in Chicago downtown in the Printers Row area, so I got to see a lot of the magnificent theaters that are no longer there. The Music Box is one of the theaters I would frequently see movies in, and thank goodness it’s survived! It was always fun to see a movie there because even if the movie got boring you could look up and watch the clouds float across the ceiling. So it was great to return with the film. And we shot one of the interviews inside the Music Box.
Do you have any particular favorite memories of watching a film at a movie palace?
April Wright: I remember as a kid my mom taking us to see Jaws and Rocky at my neighborhood movie palace, The Dunes, in Zion, Illinois. It’s not there anymore. My brother and sister worked there for a while and I also remember seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark there at least 40 times.
One of the recurring themes I saw in watching the film in November was this continued fight to preserve the movie palaces. Does it feel like the battle is the same across the nation or do some communities have it easier?
April Wright: Yes, anytime these palaces have had threat of demolition it usually takes a person or a community to step up and fight it. And even if you save the building the community has to work to bring it to life and keep it going. Several of the big ones in Chicago—The Chicago, The Oriental which was recently renamed The Nederlander, The Palace—people know these venues because of concerts and traveling Broadway shows but probably very few realize they were originally built as movie theaters. All of the theaters where I’m playing in March are historic venues that have had a great deal of passion and financial support to keep them going all these years. It is an ongoing battle. The film is playing at the York in Elmhurst, the Woodstock, the Lake in Oak Park, the Tivoli in Downers Grove, the Athenaeum downtown, and the Wilmette.
Film critic and historian Leonard Maltin really had the money quote in the film when he said that “it’s not enough to save them—we have to keep them going somehow.” Is it safe to say that we lose so much history every time one of these theaters closes down?
April Wright: Yes, I love his quote! Once you see the film and realize how important the film industry has been to our country, these incredible buildings are part of our history. Other countries built palaces for their royalty… We built them to see movies. We spent millions of dollars on the verge of the great depression to build these incredible places. You go to Europe or other countries and they have buildings that reflect their culture that are thousands of years old. Here in the United States, someone else in the film says “nobody thinks twice when a developer comes in and wants to tear down a whole block,” and that’s why most of these fabulous places are no longer with us. So yes, I believe, and so do many other people, that saving the movie palaces we have left is culturally important.
Is there one closing that you feel hurts the most or do they all hurt equally?
April Wright: I think right now with the availability of streaming and with some of the studio policies, it is becoming more difficult for some of these independently operated theaters to thrive—especially if they are historic and have a single screen, including both indoor and outdoor theaters. A number of them have closed in the past year feeling the current pressure. I know recent closures in Chicagoland include the Liberty theater and also the Cascade Drive-in in West Chicago.
Before this documentary, you made one on the American drive-in. Is there a topic that you’re thinking of tackling next?
April Wright: I’ve already completed a documentary about Hollywood stuntwomen which is another look at the evolution of cinema from the perspective of this unique profession and the struggle women have had working in a heavily male-dominated field. I’ve also been following a traveling carnival in the northwest the last few years, and just getting started on editing that one. I have a bunch of “going attractions” follow up so I would like to do if I can get the funding, including Roller Skating Rinks, Amusement Parks, Bowling Alleys. And I’m working on one about the history of cars in movies.