The final scenes of “Babes in Toyland” threaded through the projector on Dec. 18 at the Bank Of America Cinema, 4901 W. Irving Park Road. The stars of the 1934 film, classic cinema standbys Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, flickered to darkness on the screen, and the audience walked out the doors, emptying the theater. Throwing away the last remains of their popcorn, the patrons said goodbye, unsure of the future of the classic film program, which was loved by many.
Despite closing down due to financial hardship, Bank of America Cinema will have its mission carried on by the program’s youngest organizers under a new moniker: the Northwest Chicago Film Society. Through implementing local partnerships and fostering a dedicated team, the classic film program will launch at the Portage Theater, 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave., on Feb. 16.
The Bank of America Cinema opened in 1973 as part of what was then a locally-owned bank branch. Through the years, buyouts caused the theater and its program to change many hands financially. In December 2010, that Bank of America branch was bought out as previously reported in The Chronicle on Sept. 13, 2010.
Rebecca Hall and Julian Antos, two parts of the three-member team who kept the cinema afloat in its final days, worked toward the first screening of the Northwest Chicago Film Society since the Bank of America Cinema was first threatened with closure in September 2010. The organization chose to join forces with other local film groups to create a better support base for the program.
“It could have been easy [for Hall and Antos] to just walk away from it and say, ‘Oh well, it was a great 40-year run, we did our part and that’s it,’” said Dennis Wolkowicz, managing director of the Portage Theater. “But they chose to take it beyond that.”
The Northwest Chicago Film Society’s mission to bring rare 16 mm and 35 mm prints to Portage Park made the affiliation with Portage Theater seem natural, according to Hall. The Portage Theater’s programming was already aligned with what the new organization wanted to do. That, along with the close location, will help maintain its loyal audience, Hall said.
“I think that’s part of what us and the Portage were hoping for out of our partnership,” she said. “We have these audiences [who] have similar interests, some of them probably already know about both of us, but by combining resources, we can get them all in one place.”
The partnership also allows for a wider range of resources. According to Wolkowicz, the Portage Theater will be in charge of the house management on screening nights and the day-to-day operations of the theater, freeing up Hall and Antos to concentrate on running the society and handling the films chosen for showing. Portage Theater’s in-house organist will accompany two silent features in the screenings—Frank Lloyd and Josef von Sternberg’s “Children of Divorce” (1927) and Alfred E. Green’s “Ella Cinders” (1926).
The Chicago Film Archive, an organization dedicated to preserving films that represent the Midwest, also benefits from its newfound partnership with the Northwest Chicago Film Society. Anne Wells, a processing archivist at the Chicago Film Archive, first approached Hall and Antos as a Bank of America Cinema patron.
Wells reached out to partner with Hall and Antos after going through the archive’s short films. She provided them with a list of more than 300 short films at their disposal, including shorts from amateur Chicago filmmaker Margaret Connelly from the ’50s and ’60s.
“At this point, we’re really lacking in programming here at the Chicago Film Archive,” Wells said. “[The Northwest Chicago Film Society has] a built-in crowd and infrastructure. It’s a nice way to work it into a built in crowd rather than us building up from nothing, and it’s a nice way to get the films collecting dust on shelves out there to be seen.”
In the days leading up to their Feb. 16 premiere, Hall is working to promote the program, going through the process of becoming a nonprofit and finishing up all the behind-the-scenes work that needs to be done. According to Hall, time will tell if the Northwest Chicago Film Society will be as successful as Bank of America Cinema.
“That’s the thing about this part of the process, we’re pouring tons of work in but there’s no way of knowing yet how it’s going to pay off,” Hall said. “We’ll find out.”
The Northwest Chicago Film Society’s first screening will be “Written on the Wind,” on Feb. 16, at 7:30 p.m. at the Portage Theater, 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave. For a full schedule of screenings, visit NorthwestChicagoFilmSociety.org.