Cinema in Avondale Part III: The Last Screens Standing

Later in the 1910s, larger theaters began cropping up in Avondale which would eventually replace the smaller nickleodeons. These included the Crescent (2915 N. Milwaukee), the Rose (2958 N. Milwaukee), the Milford (3311 N. Pulaski), and (in the 1930s) the Fox which was an expansion of the Elston nickleodeon at 3167 N. Elston. It is estimated that by the 1920s, more than half of America’s population attended movie screenings on at least a weekly basis, and all of the larger Avondale theaters survived into the late 1940s.

Nationwide box office revenues peaked in the early 1940s during the economic boom triggered by World War II and the use of cinema as a tool for nationalist propaganda. However, overall attendance began to decline in the late 1940s due to several factors including the suburbanization of America, international competition, and the ongoing legal battles between independent cinema operators and the theater chains. This trend was further exacerbated by the rise of the household television in the 1950s.

Mirroring these national trends, most of the remaining Avondale screens closed, with the Fox, the Rose, and the Crescent all closing their doors between 1949 and 1951. The Milford survived for several more decades, supported by the strength of the H & E Balaban circuit, adapting to Polish audiences in the 1960s, and functioning as a budget second-run theater in the late 1970s before finally closing its doors in 1990.

(1919 Chicago Daily Tribune)

Crescent (also Nita)
2915 N. Milwaukee

The Crescent was built in 1910 as an 800-seat silent movie house and stage theatre, featuring a 2/6 Wurlitzer. Around 1935, it was renamed the Nita and continued to show films until around 1950. Although the building caught fire in 1952, it still stands today.

(RR 2008)

The Milford in 1922 (Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0003451. Courtesy of Chicago History Museum)

3311 N. Pulaski

(1917 Chicago Daily Tribune)

In 1917, the Milford, named after the cross streets of Milwaukee and Crawford (now Pulaski), was the last movie theater to open in Avondale. Seating 1175, it was initially run on the Ascher Brothers circuit and featured silent movies, a theater organ, and an adjacent ballroom. While the Fox and the Dale closed around 1950, the Milford was picked up by the H & E Balaban circuit and survived for several more decades.

Adapting to changing neighborhood demographics and societal trends, the Milford featured Polish films in the 1960s and early 1970s. Then, during the emergence of the two-tier cinema market in the 1970s, the Milford outbid its competitors in the second run market (the Bryn Mawr and the Des Plaines) by offering admission for 60 cents (50 cents for kids) while surviving primarily on revenue from popcorn and candy sales. In the mid-1980s it tested the Spanish-language market before closing its doors for good in 1990. Just a few years later, the building caught on fire and was demolished in 1994. Today it is replaced by CVS.

The Round-Up in 1949 (Creative Commons, Kenny1950 from Cinema Treasures)

The Rose (also Round-Up and Dale)
2858-2860 N. Milwaukee

The Rose opened in 1914 as a 700-seat theater. While enjoying a successful run for its first few decades, the Rose occasionally made the news in relation to petty robberies during the Great Depression. In 1931, the theater’s janitor found a 76 year-old woman beaten unconscious over a purse containing 28 cents. On Sunday, September 18, 1934, The Rosewas one of four theaters robbed by a group of teenagers known as the Sunday Gang.

(RR 2008)

In 1936, the theater was renamed The Dale (as in AvonDALE), and continued to endure. By 1949, when the theatre was operated by the H & E Balaban circuit, it was renamed the Round-Up and played exclusively Westerns. One commenter remembers the Round-Up in 1950:

“as a kid we would go there in cowboy attire and check our capguns at the desk where they would all be hung on a pegboard with a claim check.”

In 1950, the theater was renamed back to the Dale, but closed shortly after. The lobby was then used as a storefront, while the theater was adapted for storage. Last operating as Zacatecas Mexican restaurant, the building was demolished in 2009 in true Chicago style.


Cinema in Avondale Part II: Avondale’s Forgotten Nickleodeons

Adventures of Kathlyn at The Enterprise

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.

Diversey Theater
(RR 2012)

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 Theater
The Drake
2905 N. Milwaukee

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 and The May
The original Elston opened on the far left, and the May was in the white building with red and charcoal stripes. The middle building with the high roof is the expansion of the Elston. (RR 2008)

The Elston (also The Fox) and
The May
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.

Enterprise Theater
RR 2008

The Enterprise
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 in 2012
The Linden
3018 W.Belmont

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.


The Magical Age of Moving Pictures

The Enterprise (now Taqueria El Ranchito)

By the 1920s, the iconic force of the movie house had become so powerful in the public mind that the brightly lit marquee, touting the latest movie playing in town, became a sure sign that a main street or neighborhood shopping area had “made it”

-Michael Putnam, in Silent Screens

Long before the advent of the household television and the dominance of major motion picture companies, the single screen independent movie house was as common in Avondale as in any other thriving neighborhood. At least ten movie houses, most of them offering a single screen, opened in the neighborhood in the 1910s.

While movie attendance began to decline after 1946 with the dominance of the household television, many other factors influenced the decline of independent cinema. The battle between major movie companies (Paramount, Fox, Warner Brothers, Loew’s) and trade associations of independent theatre operators played out over several decades. In 1948, independent cinema scored a major victory when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the notion that major companies held an illegal monopoly. However, the control of production and distribution and strength of advertising (largely through television) enabled the major forces in cinema to ultimately triumph. By the 1980s, the 1948 consent decrees were virtually abandoned.

Still, traces of small cinema remain in Avondale. Most of the buildings remain standing, though those that do have been completely gutted and repurposed. Following is a summary of known movie houses within the bounds of Avondale.

Cinema Address Current Function Dates in Operation
Linden 3018 Belmont Honey Baked Ham Company 1913-?
Weber/Diversey 3018 Diversey ? 1912-1913
May 3159 Elston ? 1910-?
Elston/Fox 3167 Elston warehouse, mostly gutted and used for storage 1913-?
Enterprise 2829 Milwaukee Taqueria Ranchito 1913-1914+
Avondale 2879 Milwaukee North Chicago Dental Clinic 1910-?
Drake 2905 Milwaukee was Chicago Salvage 1912-1919
Nita/Crescent 2915 Milwaukee May have been demolished (Jazz Age Chicago); may be same building as Carniceria Mejor (Cinema Treasures) 1912-1950s
Round-Up/ Dale/Rose 2858 Milwaukee Demolished a few years ago by Wilcox Company realtors 1914-1950s
Milford 3311 Pulaski Demolished, and now the location of CVS 1917-1990