Banking on a golden Hollywood era

Jon Lefkovitz

A raging animated bull rushes toward the camera– several yelps escape from various audience members. The hero catches the bull by the tail and swings it offscreen– the audience roars with laughter. “THE END” springs onto the screen and a wave of applause fills the auditorium.

One wouldn’t even expect this level of audience involvement on the opening night of “Star Wars,” but it’s here in full glory during the screening of a 1933 Popeye cartoon at the LaSalle Theatre– one of Chicago’s hidden gems.

The LaSalle Theatre is a film art house that exists in its own time, its own dimension. Located in a residential area of Western Chicago, it is a cross between a cozy, mom-and-pop owned suburban movie theater and a spacious, old-time movie palace.

Nostalgic senior citizens that attend LaSalle’s showings are transported to the glorious past, and younger audience members get a taste of what it was like to watch films in the Classical Hollywood era.

Featuring a modestly-priced variety of concessions, 298 seats, a sizable screen and a suitable sound system, the LaSalle shows one 16mm film and a short every Saturday night.

Chuck Schaden created the theater in 1972 as The Memory Club in the basement of the Talman Bank.

The building has become the LaSalle, but the bank now helps the theater with financial backing.

Matthew C. Hoffman is the LaSalle’s theater director, who single-handedly creates all of the film series and is the facility’s only projectionist.

Hoffman, a graduate student at Columbia College, has a vast knowledge of older Hollywood films.

He has run the LaSalle for three years, while also working at the Park Ridge Public Library as the assistant circulation services manager, and believes it’s time well spent.

“LaSalle is the city’s only continuously running revival house– an alternative to alternative cinema that specializes in classic Hollywood [films], many of which are not available anywhere else,” Hoffman said.

While the Music Box shows mainly current titles and the Gene Siskel Film Center shows a wider range of international films, Hoffman said his audience appreciates the classics. “They don’t make ’em like that anymore,” he said a patron recently told him.

Some would be quick to judge and deem this limited programming, but it has not reduced the audience.

Although the theater got about 60 to 70 customers a week before Hoffman took over, it now attracts more than 100 viewers each week, three quarters of which are seniors.

LaSalle owes part of its success to repeat costumers and Hoffman knows many of the regulars on a first name basis.

“Like John, who gives me film books to read; or Gene, who gives me old-time radio broadcasts; or old Phil, always asking if I’m ever going to show any Bing Crosby,” he said.

The courtesy of these patrons creates one of the most endearing aspects of the LaSalle Theatre. Even if one of the old prints breaks down, requiring Hoffman to re-thread the projector, they remain understanding.

“Amazingly, they never ask for their money back,” he said.

The upcoming LaSalle schedule reveals a more adventurous range of films than previous seasons. While one series titled “Cinema Obscura” continues the theatre’s tradition of showing lesser-known classics, the second series, “Atomic Cinema” features films about the atom bomb.

While there are a tremendous amount of things about the LaSalle to satisfy both audience members and Hoffman alike, there is still room for improvement. Hoffman says he’d like to see more young people attending the shows.

“I’ve been getting a lot of film students from Columbia, but I’d like to get people interested over there at Northwestern, too.” nyou