New 400 Theater is piece of Rogers Park history
By Amanda Bonafiglia
At the entrance of the New 400 Theater, movie-goers pass through an homage to historic movie marquees, an entrance adorned with a cache of light bulbs outlined by film frames. Pushing open the gold-trimmed, oak double doors you are transported back to a time when people would dress up for a night out at the movies.
The first-run theater has been a fixture on Sheridan Road in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago since its opening in 1912. It has continued to thrive as the neighborhood evolves and Loyola University Chicago becomes a bigger presence.
“We are continuously putting in the effort to stay connected with the residents who have been living in Rogers Park for decades and the new comers, such as Loyola students,” said Hilary Strohchein, a manager at the New 400 Theater. “We stay involved with any kind of events happening in the neighborhood and give our support to local businesses in any way we can.”
A bulletin board, offset in a nook of the theater’s entrance, is covered with brightly colored posters and signs advertising open-mic nights at local cafes and trash clean-up days around the neighborhood.
The theater also attracts attention by building relationships and agreements with other businesses around Rogers Park to benefit their patrons while growing a client base.
“We have a deal with local restaurants that if a customer brings their receipt from a particular restaurant they will get a free popcorn, and if they bring their ticket-stub to the restaurant they will get 15 percent off their order,” Strohschein said.
Residents also can stay involved by obtaining a neighborhood card from the theater and scavenging around the neighborhood collecting stamps by sitting down for dinner at a local restaurants or buying an antique at a corner shop. After collecting several stamps, residents receive a free movie ticket.
When Tony Fox bought the theater in 2009, he wanted to reinvent the theater’s history, starting with changing the name.
The New 400 Theater was originally a one-screen venue named Regent Theater. In 1930 the theater saw its first name change to 400 Theater. The owners at the time wanted to pay homage to the 400 wealthiest and most fashionable people in high society while aligning them with pop culture.
The theater has continued to change over time, not only in name, but in meeting the needs of a changing Rogers Park population. Fox has taken the main theater and divided it into four screens to meet the growing demand for movie choices.
The local theater may lack the seating capacity of larger chain theaters, but the lines still form, wrapping around Columbia Avenue when a new movie comes out. Often, those lines are filled with students of all ages, dressed in costume, recently as vampires and Katniss Everdeen for cult movies such as “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games.”
“This past summer with ‘The Avengers’ and ‘Superman’ movies we sold out nearly every show,” Strohschein said. “Our theater may be small, but we always have the newest movies and great deals that the students and the community appreciate.”
“If you want to go see a big action hit, like a new ‘Transformers’ movie or something, I’d go to Evanston. But if you’re just looking for an easy go-to date night or you’re bored and want to do something fun like see a comedy or something, its great.” said Eric Hurley, 23, a Loyola alumnus.
After the purchase Fox wanted to bring the theater into the 21st century. Realizing that the facility was being referred to as the “Ghettoplex” by Loyola students, Fox knew he had to eliminate the butter-stained floors that were stickier than bubble gum, cracked ceilings and creaking dirty chairs.
“I have been there when the ceiling was leaking on the audience which was gross,” said Rianne Coale, 21, a student at Loyola University.
In 2009, Fox decided to tear up the run-down carpet, roll on a fresh coat of paint and make extensive repairs to the theater’s seating. A year ago the theater installed new digital projectors and an up-to-date sound system.
The revival of forgotten, rundown theaters to capture the interest of local clients has become an art form in the neighborhoods of Chicago. The Davis Theater received much-needed attention and reopened in 2001 after almost being converted into condominiums. In 2010, the Logan Theatre in Logan Square underwent a $1.5 million renovation to increase, add a lounge area and rehab the building, according to Crain’s Chicago Business.
However, the history remains for the New 400 Theater in the cream-colored building with terracotta shingles and whimsical carvings, welcoming you with a wide-open, iron-gate and brick walkway.
“My first year or two at Loyola, the movie theater was a joke that you heard around campus — it didn’t have the best reputation,” said Lindsey Wolpa, 23, a Loyola alumna. “It was old and, dirty; there were always problems with the film and sound. No one ever wanted to go there. That changed once they remodeled it. They did a great job of renovating while keeping the original exterior design. It’s a much better place to enjoy a movie now.”
Attempting to lure the older patrons, the theater also changed from a BYOB facility to having a fully stocked bar in the lobby. Even with these extensive changes, they have been able to keep their ticket prices competitively low with $6 matinees and $8.50 general admission. The theater also offers discounts for students, seniors and military, attracting the local students and seniors on a tight budget.
“It might not be as fancy or high-tech as other chain theaters in the city, like Century or AMC,” Wolpa said. “But it has the neighborhood charm that is characteristic of Rogers Park family-owned restaurants and shops, which is one of the reasons I think people love going there.”