The Music Box Theatre
As someone with a soft spot for classic musicals like Guys and Dolls , The Rocky Horror Picture Show and foreign language films (especially French cinema), I had the Music Box Theatre on Southport Avenue in Lakeview on my list of things to do in Chicago for a long time. So imagine my elation when I finally stepped through its 92-year-old doors prepared (with Goobers in hand) for a day of movie-watching bliss.
Most movie buffs already have this historic theater on their radars, but if you’re new to the city, or if you’re like me and just haven’t gotten around to it yet, I encourage you to check out the schedule and head to the Music Box for the next independent or foreign film that piques your interest. With a general admission rate of $9.25 ($8.25 for early movies) and with over 300 films shown each year, the Music Box is well worth the experience of sitting in one of the most beautiful theatres in Chicago.
The Music Box Theatre first opened its doors to the public in 1929. The building, which included the adjacent storefronts and apartments, was designed by Chicago architect Louis A. Simon and was originally owned by Lasker and Sons. The theatre, one of the first in Chicago to be fully equipped to show “talkies,” originally sat 800, making it much smaller in comparison to other movie houses of the time. The architectural style is called “atmospheric,” referencing the nighttime-sky ceiling in the main auditorium, but the architecture also features some Italian and Spanish elements.
After its heyday in the early twentieth century, the Music Box, under various owners, changed its film repertoire (with one owner Spanish-language, with the next pornography) a few times between 1977 and 1983. In 1983, when the current management, Southport Music Box Corporation, took over, the screenings again changed to include the following, which are still the theatre’s repertoire to this day: double features, cult films, independent films, and foreign language films. Since then, the Music Box has been the destination for screenings you can’t find elsewhere in the city.
While the outside, with its sign jutting far above any surrounding buildings, several windows, and old-fashioned, dazzling marquee, is a sight to see, just wait until you enter the main auditorium. While it is one of the biggest in Chicago, it still feels cozy with velvety, creaky seats and red-carpeted aisles. Red curtains hang on either side of the screen. A tall, impressive organ, still used during productions, sits to the left of the screen. Just remember to look up to the 13-foot ceiling, and when you do, you’ll understand why the Music Box has fans coming again and again (well, that and the impressive list of films). The dark-blue ceiling and the faux-marble loggia suggest, according to the website, that you are “watching a film in an open air palazzo.”
The décor was the best part of my movie-going experience. Stuffed with candy and popcorn and relaxing before the start of each movie, I gazed up at the blue, cove-lit ceiling, imagining I could actually see the night sky, feeling both like I was a part of history and like I was far in the future (maybe in a galaxy far, far away).
If you’re sitting near Aisle Four during your movie and you notice a glimmering white figure haunting the way—don’t fret. That’s just “Whitey,” the Music Box’s resident ghost, who has been haunting the theater since his death in 1977. In life, “Whitey” was the first and long-time manager of the Music Box, and in death, he carries on his managerial duties, only occasionally dropping a curtain or two onto the organ pipes.
For my fellow musical fans, the Music Box is Chicago’s destination for sing-along viewing parties, including annual sing-along events featuring The Sound of Music, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (costumes encouraged), and Christmas movies and caroling.
Upon leaving the theater, before heading home to watch the latest episode of Glee or snuggling up with a 1950s Italian film on Netflix, take a look at the Music Box’s marquee. The thin, pink lettering is understated yet brilliant in the Chicago night sky, flickering in the dark, reminding passersby and cinema-lovers alike of this historic building, what it stands for, and its lasting legacy in Chicago.
Location: 3733 N Southport Ave
The Music Box Theatre is easily accessible by car, public transit, and bike.
L: the Red Line (Addison stop) or Brown Line (Southport)
Bus: #9, 22, 80, 152
Driving: Street Parking and (Thursday–Saturday only) Valet Parking are available