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The New 400 is closing soon, the end for the oldest movie theater in Chicago – Chicago Tribune

Anthony Fox is tired of movies.

He’s not tired of the staff at his theater, or even the theater itself — The New 400 Theater on Sheridan Road, a Rogers Park mainstay for more than a century. It bills itself as the longest continually operated movie house in the city. But once Fox lists it for sale later this month, the future will look iffy. Most likely, it’ll be doomed. Best case scenario right now: It’ll be on life support until late summer, then Fox will lease the space and sell the building. It’ll become the latest theater in the Chicago area — alongside the Pickwick in Park Ridge, Cinemark in Evanston, several Regals and the Harper in Hyde Park (which Fox also operated) — to either fall to the pandemic or plunge into the existential purgatory still roiling the theater business.

With no relief in sight.

Three years after the pandemic closed movie theaters and kickstarted the streaming revolution, the story of The New 400 is now as commonplace as another Marvel film. But it’s also a helpful case study of why your local theater is struggling — it’s a pocket history of small neighborhood movie houses.

First, consider Fox himself.

He grew up in Glencoe. He lives in Evanston. He’s a real estate guy. He’s not, he offers quickly, much of a movie guy. He screws up his face into a whatayagonnado shrug. The office of ADF Capital, his business, is in the second-floor corner flat of the 400 building, above space he leases to Starbucks, Bank of America and a Thai restaurant. He’s selling most of the block, not just the 400. He’s probably going to ask $6 million.

When he bought the property 16 years ago, he did so with an assumption he would develop it into something new, “but I didn’t see many good options.” He kept the New 400 in place. He watches James Bond movies now and again, but he was never a movie fan. He knew little about the industry. “My parents didn’t let me watch much TV — or even let me go to movies.” He attended New Trier and became a Deadhead for a while. “It’s a miracle that my parents would even let me go to the University of Colorado.”

New 400 Theater owner Anthony Fox in the Rogers Park cinema on March 31, 2023.

Since he’s owned the theater, he says he’s put about $1 million into restorations. He installed carpets and repainted walls and added a bar; when the conversion from 35 mm projection to digital became inevitable, like many theater owners, he received a large grant from a Hollywood studio consortium, which paid for 90% of the switch. When the new carpets couldn’t be easily cleaned, he “got smart and redid the floors with black tiles with brown in them — so now we have the color of Coca-Cola and dirt.”

He’s self-deprecating, a touch mordant.

On a recent afternoon at The New 400, general manager Aaron Lawson, eating his lunch out of a Styrofoam container, said between bites: “Tony, I need to talk to you about theater four. It’s down, and the cheapest way — if we want to get it back up, of course — will cost about $525. We do it that way, and there’s a 15- to 30-day turnaround.”

“That’s pretty cheap,” Fox said.

“You’re down with $525?” Lawson asked.

“Yeah, let’s do it.”

“OK, otherwise, another option is $7,000 and —”

“No, no, first option.”

Since the pandemic started, many theaters have rebounded some, but overall, globally, the business is down 50% since 2019. Fox said that last year The New 400 did 60% of its pre-COVID business. William Schopf, owner of the Music Box in Lakeview, said his own theater “is one of the few doing quite well” — so well, the Music Box is considering adding a screen and expanding into new locations. He toured The New 400 recently, and through he hasn’t “looked at the numbers yet,” he found it charming, in a cool neighborhood, but in need of “a complete makeover.” He said, “We’re getting contacted often about buying theaters. At least three in Chicago spring to mind. People still want to go out to movies. It’s still cheaper than a concert or opera. Question is, where will the audience watch them?” In 2007, he diversified and created Music Box Films, a successful distributor of independent and international movies. Several hits have helped, including the Polish drama “Ida,” which won the 2015 Oscar for best international feature, and the acclaimed Swedish adaptation of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”

He doubts The New 400 is doomed, but adds:

“I feel for (Fox). Because it is hard for a real estate guy to run this kind of business, never mind a 100-year-old theater needing lots of things.” A new sound system, for one.

Indeed, Fox had to redo an air-conditioning system that, for decades, was infamous among neighbors and Loyola University students (who make up much of its audiences) as a sauna in August and a walk-in freezer in February. Also, since he bought the theater, the minimum wage went up. (He has about a dozen employees.) The traditional 90 days between a theatrical run and video release vanished. The movies that have taken off since the pandemic — “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Avatar: The Way of Water” — suggest the future is expensive state-of-the-art presentation. But Fox doesn’t have a state-of-the-art cineplex, so tickets for The New 400′s four screens stayed cheap: $8.50 is the top price, almost $3 less than the $11.75 national average. And since the pandemic, the sliding scale that constituted what percentage of ticket sales went to a studio and what percentage went to a theater slid again, in favor of studios.

Customers line up at the snack bar at The New 400 Theater in Rogers Park.

From his office, Fox watched the traffic on Sheridan for a moment, then turned back.

“Look,” he said, “say you give us $8.50 for a movie ticket. Out of that, 65% now goes to the studio. Before the pandemic, it was closer to 50. There’s also 12% entertainment tax. Also sales tax, liquor tax — tax after tax. So you have already given about 77% of ticket profits. That’s before you have even paid employees. So, no, none of this makes sense any longer. Fortunately for me, I am a real estate developer, a real estate broker, a lawyer. I can afford to lose money for a short time. I can afford to lose some money this year, too. But I would really like to start losing less. The customer base just isn’t there anymore. When people first heard we might close, it was a full house. Like old times. The following weekend was a bit slower. And the weekend after that, back to empty houses. We have four theaters, and I think we don’t even need three of them anymore. I don’t have the right energy for this anymore. If someone with the right energy made it work, all power to them! But if this business isn’t happening, you can’t keep going forever.”

For a long time, The New 400 was one of those theaters that despite looking tattered and less flashy than other vintage movie theaters, did feel likely to hang on forever. Dona Vitale, who is on the board of directors for the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society, has lived in the area since 1968. She talks about The New 400 as one of those wallpaper places in every Chicago neighborhood. You forget it’s there.

“From a historical point of view, it’s only ever been a movie theater, which alone says something. It’s hung on, it’s never been anything else. It survived the switch from silents to talkies, then the decline of moviegoing itself during the rise of TV, then the decline of Rogers Park itself. I watched the Oscars, and they kept talking about how the movies are back! But I wonder if the truth is really: The movies are hanging on. But this theater is such an anchor in this neighborhood; it’s so sad if it couldn’t survive the pandemic.”

Actually, it survived one: the 1918 pandemic.

The New 400 Theater in Rogers Park, the oldest continually operating movie theater in the city.

The New 400 was never the grandest theater in Chicago, or even in Rogers Park. It’s 8,000 square feet and seats 700. Those numbers haven’t changed much since the theater opened in 1912. It has a terra cotta facade and a courtyard set off from the street by wrought iron fencing. It’s nobody’s idea of a glorious movie palace. It was a casual workaday local house, the sort that was usually found in the small print when newspapers were still crowded with movie advertising and daily showtime schedules. It started as a silent theater, offering an in-house orchestra and flicks like “The Seven Deadly Sins” series and “Experimental Marriage” starring Harrison Ford (the earlier, 1.0 silent version). It was first the Regent, then became The 400 in 1930 — that name, The 400, was a flattering nod to now-dated slang for the hoity-toity, a reflection of a community that was a solidly wealthy, upper-middle class enclave of Chicago.

In fact, when the theater first opened, Rogers Park, formerly a suburb, had been a part of Chicago for only 19 years. But with its proximity to the North Shore (which still had several dry communities), entertainment venues proliferated across the neighborhood. For movies alone, you could choose the Morse, the Adelphi, the Granada, the Norshore, the Devon. The Howard alone sat 1,700. Some closed in the 1950s; most were gone by 1980. The Granada sat abandoned for years near Loyola.

Only The 400 went on and on.

Besides being The 400 and the Regent, it was also the Village North and the Visionary. Among its first owners was F.A. Duffield, a newspaperman who drifted into the theater business after the Chicago Tribune bought out his employer, the Chicago Record-Herald. It offered lumpy love seats for decades. It went widescreen in the ‘50s, and still had only one theater until 1990. It showed Woody Allen in the 1970s and studio epics in the 1950s and foreign-language films in the 1960s. It became a focal point for neighborhood charity events, raising money for nearby Gale Elementary, cancer research, local lifeguards. It was known for its quirks: Jim Burrows, who owned The 400 through the ‘70s and ‘80s (as well as the long-gone 3 Penny Cinema on Lincoln Avenue), made it a second-run house, but often refused to show action flicks, fearing rowdy crowds. He complained often that his prints arrived after being shown elsewhere for weeks, ensuring The 400 had many jittery, washed-out screenings. The next owner, Ron Rooding, had a lot of success with weekly screenings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” but found audiences so disruptive, he would not allow the traditional live performance part.

When Fox took over the theater, he found himself with a frayed, battered property. Screens were torn. Used syringes littered its floors. “Just totally senseless violence was done in that theater,” he said. He fixed it up and gave it another new name — The New 400 Theater. Business stayed hot and cold, like any movie theater. But Lawson, the general manager, said an ongoing joke among the staff was that The 400 has been almost closing for many years. Except now, it’s real. “Everyone seems to think if they just come out again, maybe we’ll stay,” he said. “But I’ve lost a certain amount of hope.”

Daniel Lawson staffs the snack bar at The New 400 Theater in Rogers Park.

Before we chisel the epitaph, understand: This is not a 100% done deal, Fox said. Besides Music Box execs, owners from the Davis in Lincoln Square and the Pickwick have taken a peek; even The Harper in Hyde Park already has a new tenant, Aksarben Cinemas of Nebraska. Fox would prefer to have a theater in The 400, but he’s doubtful the economics of the neighborhood movie theater business work anymore. At least, not in the long term. He’s listening to alternatives for the space: a day care, a school, a restaurant, apartments. One proposal was a B-movie theater, whatever that looks like.

Vitale says the Historical Society is not afraid for the building itself; indeed, Maria Hadden, 49th Ward Alderwoman, said The New 400 sits in a lakefront protection zone, which means the low-slung property itself is not going to be replaced. “We have been actively seeking new owners,” she said. “We want to keep Chicago’s longest running theater going. But if someone buys it to do something else, there are layers of approval necessary to change the footprint. I do think it’s realistic the right operator could keep it going.”

Local residents have organized screenings.

Save-The-400 groups have organized online.

As Vitale said, you look at the busy location, you look at Loyola University (only a block away) — a theater should work here. It’s convenient, cheap, loved. Neighborhood theaters like The New 400 once showed the kind of feel-good dramas that relied on plots like this: Hey everyone! If we rally around the struggling rec center/orphanage/failing family farm, we could save it from these real estate developers!

Lawson, the general manager, is not sticking around for the last reel; he’s leaving Chicago. “Look, Rogers Park has been very sweet to us and their appreciation of this place is not taken for granted, I promise. But sometimes maybe you just don’t get to save the old rec center. I wouldn’t expect it. Some things do end.”

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