From 1890 to 1910, America was rapidly transforming into a predominantly urban industrial society, just as motion pictures were becoming established as the dominant form of mass entertainment in the country. Avondale experienced its greatest growth spurt around this time, while by the early 1910s, converted storefronts known as nickelodeons began showing short silent films often with phonograph or organ accompaniment. Due to the low cost of these films (the name nickelodeon literally comes from “nickel” as in 5 cents, plus “odeon” as the Greek word for theater), these screenings drew large crowds amongst immigrants and the working class. Unlike saloons, whose business greatly suffered due to this trend, women and children were also significantly in attendance.
Several such storefront theaters were known to exist in Avondale in the 1910s- the Diversey (3018 W. Diversey), the Enterprise (2829 N. Milwaukee), the Drake (2905 N. Milwaukee), the Linden (3018 W. Belmont), the May (3159 N. Elston) and the Elston (3167 N. Elston). These screens, likely mirroring national trends, were unsanitary and cramped with fold-out chairs, but the same audiences would return again and again to watch different films each week. By mid-decade, these small screens were already victims of their own success, as larger theaters were needed to accommodate the crowds. In Avondale these same storefronts which once operated as nickelodeons were adopted for other uses. Interestingly, all six of these buildings still stand today.
The Diversey (also Weber)
3018 W. Diversey
This theatre was initially named after the building’s owner, W.J. Weber, who opened it in 1912. Soon after it was renamed to Diversey, and was known to run films until at least 1915. By 1919 it was operating as an auto body shop.
The Drake, a 300 seat theater once operating at 2905 N. Milwaukee, is not to be confused with the much larger Drake which existed at 3548 W. Montrose. It was known to operate as a nickelodeon from 1912-1919. Still standing today, the building has housed a variety of businesses and organizations over time, including a variety store, the Polish American Council’s service center and Chicago Salvage (pictured here).
The Elston (also The Fox) and
3167 N. Elston and 3159 N. Elston
The Elston initially opened in the 1910s as a small 300-seat theatre at 3167 N. Elston.
Just down the street from the Elston, the May (3159N. Elston) was known to be showing films from at least 1916 to 1917 before the building was occupied for decades by the Ravenswood Foundry.
By the 1930s, the Elston was renamed the Fox and later expanded to include the center building shown here, with space for 800 seats. The theater closed in 1949 but the building has been used for manufacturing and storage ever since.
2829 N. Milwaukee
The Enterprise was a small nickelodeon built in 1912 and known to be operating until at least 1914. The building has had an eclectic history since then, being used as a hardware store, Paris Drapery, a Greek restaurant, and now a taqueria featuring live mariachi on Sunday nights.
The Linden, not to be confused with the larger Linden on 63rd street, was a small silent movie house in the early 1910s. The name Linden likely derives from the historic name of the surrounding subdivision, named “Unter Den Linden” after a famous district in Berlin. The building currently houses one of over 400 locations of Honey Baked Ham, which has established a successful business model while baking one ham at a time and using a patented machine to cut ham in a continuous spiral.
It may be that the same types of people who once visited the Linden Theater now rent movies on Netflix to watch at home over the internet. Meanwhile, Honey Baked Ham has endured for a three-decade run at this location. Perhaps this is because no one has yet invented a way to transmit ham over the internet. And for that, at least, we should be thankful.