Bank of America Cinema faces final days

By Brianna Wellen

On the outside, the Bank of America Cinema, 4901 W. Irving Park Rd., doesn’t appear cinematic at all. The exterior is designed as a typical bank, almost seeming abandoned. Through a secret entrance around the back and up a flight of stairs is the building’s gem. Greeting patrons is a “Citizen Kane” poster and a buttery smell drifting from the concession counter. Walking into the theater itself is like stepping into a bygone era. An old jazz reel flickers on the large screen, a warm-up for the crowd before the main screening.

The usual cast of patrons appears on a typical Saturday night, a group of older attendees who saw the movies when they were first released, younger couples dressed in vintage clothing and timid film students venturing to the area for the first time. Gathering in the lobby, they chat about past owners, mourn the patrons who have passed away and discuss the original New York Times reviews of films like “The Salt of the Earth,” “The Littlest Rebel” and “Louisiana Story.” For some, this routine reflects a three-decade-old habit, while others are newer additions, but each person contributes to the scene.

The films themselves complete the experience. Director Herbert Biberman’s “The Salt of the Earth,” 1954, was a black-listed film telling of the plight of Mexican-American workers in the Southwest. David Butler’s “The Littlest Rebel,” 1936, featured a slave-toting Shirley Temple dressed as a Confederate soldier. The documentary “Louisiana Story,” 1948, was director Robert Flaherty’s exploration of the life of a Cajun boy whose home is disrupted by an oil leak.

Now the Bank of America Cinema’s days of showing rare revival films are numbered, and the secret world surrounding the theater in Portage Park is threatened. After surviving more than 30 years of multiple bank buyouts, the theater will show its last film on Dec. 18.

The film house was born in 1973 when Midwest Federal Savings and Loan built the branch specifically with the hidden theater as a community space for viewing classic movies. At one time, it screened reels from private collections that weren’t shown anywhere else. Over time, the bank and its secret theater changed hands many times to companies like Tillman Bank and LaSalle Bank.

“As soon as we knew Bank of America was buying it we thought, it’s getting more national, the focus is much more zoomed-out now,” said Rebecca Hall, 23, one of three people who currently run the theater. “So even at that point we were waiting to hear what they would say to us. It’s normal for one bank to buy another bank, and when they buy that bank they don’t necessarily expect to get a weird community cinema as part of that deal.”

The bank is now closing the branch and leaving its film program without a venue. The theater’s unique screenings and loyal following make it something worth keeping alive, according to Dennis Wolkowicz, program director at the Portage Theater, 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave. A transition is now in the works, and the Portage Theater is willing to absorb the program.

“We’re collaborating with them [and] enabling them to continue should they choose to here,” Wolkowicz said. “I think they’d be a great fit, I think they do too, and hopefully it will come to fruition.”

The upcoming challenges facing the Bank of America Cinema crew–if it takes the help of the Portage Theater–are creating a budget for its programming and maintaining its audience at a new location. Currently, Bank of America covers all its operation costs, and loyal patrons often supply the films.

Through the years, Bank of America Cinema has made it its mission to show films that can’t be seen anywhere else. Even with the advent of Netflix and similar services opening up new genres of film to a broader audience, the cinema has access to rare prints on 16 mm and 35 mm reels.

“A lot of these come through private collectors throughout the city,” said Julian Antos, 18, another crew member at the theater.

According to Antos, in the ’70s there was a huge surge of the FBI confiscating old reels for unknown purposes from collectors who are now theater patrons. Names of films are sometimes omitted from programs altogether, along with the contributors’ names, to protect their collections. Still, the collectors want the films to be shown.

Without these private collections to pull from, getting the movies the theater wants to show proves difficult. A typical, non-theatrical venue trying to get films through distribution companies has a small selection to choose from. When films are chosen it’s a long and tedious process to obtain the reel. Gaining access to private collections makes the process faster and allows the cinema to screen a unique caliber of film.

“With the loss of Bank of America Cinema, [a lot] of classic films that you wouldn’t be able to see in any other way [won’t be seen by] an audience in Chicago,” said Dave Jennings, the general manager of the Music Box Theatre, which shows revival, independent and foreign films and shares the same audience as the Bank of America Cinema.

Jennings sees theaters like his own and Bank of America Cinema as outlets for movies that need to be screened. The film may be available on Netflix or Video On Demand, but according to him there are certain movies people want to see with an audience. In his eyes, even movies with a low box office should be shown if the slightest bit of interest exists in Chicago’s film scene.

Hall and Antos came from the city’s film subculture and brought their experience to their work at Bank of America Cinema. Antos started going to screenings at the theater around age 10 with his family and eventually began volunteering there. He now serves as one of the main workers in the projection room. Hall graduated from the University of Chicago’s Doc Films program and was a patron of Bank of America Cinema before eventually working there.

The crew hasn’t officially announced to its older audience members, who aren’t on top of the news on Internet blogs, that the theater will end screenings in December. It’s hoping to have an alternative program set in stone for patrons to transition to before breaking the news to those who have seen the cinema survive so many changes in the past. For many, Saturday night at the movies is the highlight of their week.

Once Bank of America’s Saturday screenings are over, Hall and Antos moonlight in other facets of the city’s film world. These outside connections could save their current program, whether the bank supports the cinema or not.

“The film and video community in Chicago is very close knit,” said Christy LeMaster, who runs the Nightingale Theater, an art house theater in Wicker Park. She also contributes to Cine-file, an online newsletter that tracks local film screenings. “We’re lucky in that capacity. People are always going out of their way to make sure all of our cinema outlets are supported, funded and [they] continue.”

Hall agrees there is a healthy grass roots film community in Chicago, but she wants the interest in movies to go beyond that subculture. Once the general public sees film and film history as something culturally important, she thinks places like the Bank of America Cinema will have no problem surviving in Chicago.

“I’m actually fairly optimistic about the future of this whole thing, and I think the challenge is going to be making a public case for it,” Hall said. “Everybody sort of knows it’s worthwhile to go see one of Shakespeare’s plays, or it’s worthwhile to go to the art museum to see the original works of art, but people aren’t quite as indoctrinated with film so we’ve got to indoctrinate them.”