R.I.P: The Town Theater
I recently watched a film by the great David Mamet. Nothing in the film itself pertains to this piece, other than the title. THINGS CHANGE. There’s no rhyme or reason why they do. We can curse the heavens, blame God, philosophically ponder about fate and free will. Whatever happens will be. I have always said that NW Indiana had very little to offer, particularly Highland. This is where I spent my formative years, discovering the arts, gaining weight, surviving high school but also learning how to socialize in a whole new state than where I was born. Somehow a teacher by the name of Joyce Petrin saw potential in me, as a devout fan of movies and the arts. I played guitar but my real passion was making movies. Oh, and of course, going to the movies weekly with my friend Matt. I remember also being excited to venture out to the multiplex near River Oaks in Calumet City, sure. But there was a special place not too far from where I lived in Highland, Indiana during my high school years. Sadly it is officially no more. It was torn down this past month, and I found myself mourning as well as celebrating how much a special place in the middle of nowhere can change a life for the better.
The Town Theatre was opened July 20, 1946, and remained a single screen movie house until its closing in 2008. It was there I took my first date to a movie when I was 15 years old. We went to see MAN IN THE MOON, and I gave her a poem. Yes, our parents dropped us off but there was something rather wonderful about the experience of seeing a romantic film about teenagers while being a teenager eager to fall in love. We both cried, held hands for a bit, but never really evolved into boyfriend and girlfriend. A couple of years later, I took my first real girlfriend to see both FORREST GUMP and THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. At the time, I had no clue what both films would ultimately become, particularly the latter. Still, I realize that my taste was changing since I preferred to cry at a great drama than to laugh or scream. (Though I did plenty of that anyway as years pressed on, particularly with my friend Matt).
A small Mom & Pop theatre showing foreign and independent films, the Town Theatre was known for its intermissions where they often served free cake and coffee for every single movie no matter how short or long the running time was. Plus they had a unique kind of cherry coke that is hard to put into words. It wasn’t the traditional cherry coke that we know today, it was unlike any other cherry coke I had before. Plus the popcorn was cheap and the customer service was friendly and consistent. The decor included Knights of the Round Table, with bathrooms that for some strange reason reminded me of where The Goonies go to the bathroom while they’re roaming caves before reaching the ship. It was also around that time, I began having coffee with my cake so I guess I can blame The Town Theater for both vices: cinema and coffee. Sadly, the long-term owners had to deal with prolonged family illness, which led to its eventual closure. In September 2014, a public meeting was held to debate the future of the theater with hopes of restoration and reopening the building. In November 2017 it was announced the theater would be demolished on December 12, 2017. I strongly considered chaining myself to the door or at least being there for when the bulldozers tore it down, but that’s not the memory I prefer to leave with. I’m certain at some point, I’ll drive down Kennedy Ave., and see a vacant lot. I’m sure a chain of stores will open there, and time marches on.
After doing some research, it’s clear there was talk of people restoring or taking over the theater to keep it alive. I wasn't the only one who wanted to see it return and thrive. The idea of driving every Friday and racing past the marquee to see if it had changed, was a highlight each and every week. I miss that anticipation to where I would even help rebuild. Heck, if I had any management experience, I would consider taking on the role. But maybe, things have to change. I certainly don’t want mom and pop establishments to ever disappear, particularly one-screen theaters or drive-ins. Part of me wants to think that it should be around until the sun explodes and the Earth no longer remains. We both know that’s just not possible. There’s a movie that came out recently called A GHOST STORY that moved me far more on a second viewing, in which familiar places often meet their demise and the cycle moves forward. The past will pass, the present is there for us to embrace until we take a final breath. And then our vessels are demolished or placed underground. Things change. We change. What remains are not only the many movies I had the pleasure of discovering thanks to that little arthouse mom-and-pop theater in the middle of nowheresville, but the memories of my friends and I having a place to escape to other than McDonald's or Jedi's Garden. Before or after the movie (every title started at 8pm sharp) we would usually walk to Langel’s Pizza for that crumbly sausage pizza or become inspired to make our own movies, as cheesy and B-grade as they were. The legacy of some establishments lives on in our minds, our dreams, and through photographs. One of my favorite people that I’ve ever spent time within my life took a photo of me at the Town Theater (see below).
There will never be another future where we sit down in those seats and stare up, getting lost in story, sound and unforgettable images. But at least it happened. The Town Theater remains an important landmark in a town that didn’t offer very much during my teenage years. But in a way, I’m eternally grateful to that town since I discovered my love of film and music due to boredom plus a lack of interest in sports. The Town Theater only made the experience of going to the movies all the more memorable. Part of me would love to go back there again, but luckily, The Music Box Theater in Chicago isn’t going anywhere and if there’s any justice, it will never experience the same fate as The Town Theater. Going to the movies is still one of my top five favorite things to do, period. Thank you to The Town Theater and the many people who worked hard to keep it alive (including a real live projectionist). You gave us teenagers the kind of experience that you will never get in a multiplex at the local mall. And despite the fact this wonderful establishment had to wither away into grains of dust and debris, the gratitude and the memories will never be demolished. Oh, and I need to find out the kind of cherry coke they used, well-knowing that it may never taste that good again.
Photo taken by Amy Aurelio in the year 2000.