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Sylvan Shock Theater

 

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The Woods Theater was one of several run-down Varieties joints in the old Chicago Loop, great junk barges in stone whose razing epitomized the Late Reagan Mesozoic c. 1989. Each one of these old palaces had a different Gilded Age motif: The Oriental was brightest and echoed Khayyam and the Grand Turk’s chessman; the United Artists sounded socialist (this is the city of Haymarket and May Day, after all); the Adelphi was pagan Attic; the Commodore inferred an upper class leisure (it was far more Royal). Make your own myths for the pedestrian-named Portage, Nortown and Milford. And lament the Tivoli, the Granada, the peerless New Regal on 79th and the still-standing still-empty Uptown.

The vigorous gaudiness of these places mocked the Old World’s past in a decayed mystique that did for inner city kids what Boys’ Own and summers in Egypt did for bourgeois scions. The Exotic can be local, too – dream, baby, dream and sometimes of dragons. The Woods was neon Holbein, dark as wine inside… abode of Mater Lachrymarum, dim light of Orca et Tentacles.

The word ‘Woods’ recalls Red Riding Hood, loup-garou, and Black Forest gloom, but it was actually named after its builder-patron in 1908. By the 1970s and ‘80s, the place really had gotten more and more Grünewald: the floors were fast and sticky, the façade a hotel for pigeons, and a continuous run of the cheapest films made for a flickering archive of hick Grand Guignol and Gialli all’italiana in dub.

These flicks were working-class dark rides for people escaping blazing midsummer to the tune of a half-running cool $1. Night train people, Irish vineyard types, people out of work or dodging the city’s major institutions – the lock up, high school, or day-labor line. Representatives of the barrio fraternities converged in the downtown grindhouses, clashing and riding colors, bringing girls, bringing knives and girls and teaching the rules of the game. In the back rows, a gin palace aristocracy improvised brilliantly over works such as The Crippled Masters for weeks on end. Each repeat showing was a unique performance part Road Runner and part Albert Ayler and never to be missed. After all, participatory theater was what the Woods had always been about – it was a vaudeville house as late as 1930.

The old theaters were a good place for an education if you wanted to be an All-rounder. Smith, Hegel and Marx appeared at the bottom of a triple bill, questioning every saturated print. Allow me to clarify: The question of ground-rent and private property was addressed in a film like Death House, which is obvious from the title; Legend of the Wolf Woman examined feminist issues, as well as the pop Social Darwinism of hacks like Ardrey and Morris; The Awakening considered imperialism and the revolt of the masses (this was a gentrified mummy epic, obviously produced to conceal surplus value). And Dracula’s Last Rites was a rumination on the Balkans and Victorian literature – though the internet tells us it was shot in New Jersey, the point is that there is a simulated everywhere.

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You can get all this crap on home video these days, yet the essence of such marginal epos is a financial necessity closer to Victory Auto Wreckers than “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols”. More materially, Mafiosi must have lurked behind properties such as The Black Gestapo and the inscrutable Penitentiary III. This is a cinema of instantaneous disappearance which is hardly a cinema at all. It is far more a front or fence – a zone where the orphan product is projected over and over until it finally falls apart, whether anyone is watching or not.

These movies may possess a kind of poetry, yet they cannot be considered apart from their various cross-purposes. After all, who remembers his own suicide? The subject is absent. Today, cheapies like Alien Contamination return under duress for the gutter-art expert, but the late-born fetishists of our digital void completely miss the object – which was the place. Niche-marketed rather than experienced as a maddening distraction, tripe cinema washes up on the banks of Amazon laundered by short-sell fad and remastered prissiness. Once these pictures held the masses hostage by time, the Projectionists’ Union, and price controls – Pero ya no más. The aura of burnt-out celluloid, attacked by the drunks of the aisles, infected by muffled dialogue and mixed-up reels, cannot be reproduced in the anesthetized home-setting. There is nothing to burn. Every frame is robbed of any real presence, fossilized into a train wreck viewed from the safety of your own ironic inertia rather than glimpsed fleetingly in a forest of nunchucks and strangers.

But there were many ways these films could be truly life-changing: pregnancies accompanied the creaking of Don’t Look in the Basement; the potential of real snuff following a week of Snuff at the old State-Lake never waned; there were real rats for Willard at the Woods and the clap was the sixth deadly venom. But Death and its rubberized double both die in the home anti-social, shambling unnoticed past the panic room and the craft brew kegger. The second disappearance of these films is their last revival – fatality of the fetish’s fetish, the flying guillotine’s betrayal by subtitle.

Of course, we are not really talking about the cinema at all. The Woods was closed in order to break the assemblies of the poor downtown: blacks from the South Side, poor whites from Uptown, Little Village Mexicans, Puerto Ricans from Humboldt Park, and all of the above from Lathrop. The Commons haunt real estate developers and paranoid, klannish cops like the airy rapist of The Entity. The deco charm of the old neighborhood movie palace – and also the crash of 2008 – allowed a small number to survive by chance, only to become craft boutiques flogging 798 kinds of soap or psychoanalysis for Pekinese. Most have been utterly erased, leaving nothing to show they were ever here. Yet Bruce Lee had made many revolutionaries by the time the Woods and her sisters were demolished – so the final contribution of this most underground of all colleges still remains to be seen.

The polyester capitalists who had kept the theaters open for decades were eventually devoured by more ruthless competitors and changes in the international black market. Three or four moguls banded together to buy up the theaters in order to build the uniform chains that have turned the Chicago Loop into a macchiato-stained sequel to Logan’s Run. City sightlines lie like sniper’s crosses; montage has been rejected in favor of the continual surveillance pan. Whatever force is present is blind.

I watched the Woods being bulldozed, along with the striking brutalist Greyhound station with its avernal barroom and its boulevard of shoe-shine musicians making ends meet this side of free jazz. My heart shrunk to a bitter, ashen snake at the sound of the Caterpillars, working quick as if it were the Black Hills or Jenin. “Its echo returned, then, as though the trees themselves were crowding nearer, huddled together, closing over… pitying.” Many of us had gained our true education in these picture houses, learned world, flesh and devil… and about light/dark, how people talk and laugh and fight, shaolin tempers and cunning obsession, and above all – the terrain of class war. Old McVickers’ spook keeps his cup of ketchup soup in an eyeful of salt, heavy as undead water – tsup, tsup, sdrop.

The fluorescent school classroom is the enemy of shadow. The Woods was a scryer’s mirror to those shadows, the secret 37th chamber of Li Po under the sign of the Dancing Rat. Better to learn while young in dark places full of voices. Better to wait and think and find out how best to act.

Por mi compañero Ted Van Alst, who graduated State-Lake.

Old Chicago movie palace photos Chicago here, by the estimable Bruce Sharp.

 

 

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Martin Billheimer lives in Chicago.

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