Thursday, September 16, 2010

Remembering the Dolton Theater

Growing up, my main movie going theater was the second-run Dolton Theater in Dolton, IL, a working class suburb in Chicago’s south suburbs, and just south of the city’s limits. For better or worse (but mostly better), the Dolton helped shape my movie tastes, thanks to an amazing variety of movies they screened. It was a neighborhood theater in the best sense, a place where one would run into neighbors, friends, classmates and people you would recognize from the grocery store and church.

“Glee” star Jane Lynch is a Dolton native and has spoken with affection of the many hours she spent at the Dolton Theater. Since she’s only two years older than me, I wonder if we ever attended the same shows together?

Opened in 1913 as a nickelodeon with 300 seats, the Dolton was expanded to almost 500 seats in the 1940s. It would have been nice to consider its centennial celebration in a few years, but alas, the Dolton closed its doors as a movie theater in 1999 and is now a night club.

Distribution patterns were so much more different then. The Dolton would bring back old favorites that were a hit, or book an older movie as the supporting feature on a twin bill. It might be weeks, months, or even a year before a movie would lazily make its way to the Dolton.

The Dolton Theater wasn’t fancy or ornate, but was a magical place for many, and still holds a special place of affection for its former customers.

Outside the theater along the wall were spaces for three or four posters showing what was coming in the weeks ahead. These images were mouth watering (enticing poster art is a lost art form today) and often a highlight of going to the Dolton was seeing what new posters were up.

One of my readers, Scott, fondly shared his views with me once in the comments section of this blog:

I spent many a night (and matinee) in Dolton Theater, in the early-mid 70s. I fondly remember the old watered down automatic pop machines that spouted 80% water first, then a dollop of syrup…the little washroom to the left at the entrance, with 1920s fixtures…the little concession stand with the ever-running old popcorn machine…the sticky floors…the stage in front of the screen, where they actually performed vaudeville in the 1920s…the terra cotta tile façade, and the little ticket window in front, with a usually crabby old lady ticket taker….the time that the Dolton Theater jumped the shark and went discount (dollar shows)….and on and on…thought you’d get a kick out of those, Kev!

Apart from home and school, I think I spent more time at the Dolton than any other place. I think I was born a movie buff; always have been in some strange, supernatural way.

Very Early Memories

I guess a time frame is called for. I was born in 1962, and from what my parents tell me, we went to the Dolton a lot, even when I was mere tot. I know parents shouldn’t bring a child under five or six to the show, but they said I was always very well behaved, and never fussed or was antsy. They told me we went to a Beatles double feature of “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) and “Help” (1965), but I don’t remember. The only time they can remember me being antsy was during “The Train” (1965), a WWII flick with Burt Lancaster. We had been to the museum earlier that day and I was tired and cranky, and we left before the movie was over. Other than that, they don’t remember me making a fuss. I must have been born with the movie buff gene.

Another plus was seeing movies in color. Odd, but true. We didn’t get a color TV until 1978 or so when I was a sophomore in high school, so going to the movies meant seeing them in color. (It’s also why I have no aversion to black and white movies or TV shows, it’s what I grew up watching).

Like most people in our neighborhood, we did not have air conditioning at home, so the Dolton Theater offered a cool oasis on hot summer days and nights.

The first kiddie matinee I can vividly remember seeing was a double feature of “Tarzan and the Great River” (1967) and “Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968). It was memorable because pretty much every kid on our block went. Considering there were almost 50 pre- and grade-school on our block meant a lot of kids. But it was a happy occurrence when someone made the suggestion to go and almost all the kids joined in. A veritable armada of cars dropped off us 40+ kids for a memorable afternoon. Our group took up several rows of seats. Two of the older girls who were in the fifth grade agreed to chaperone us. It must have been the quietest day ever on our block, and Heaven for the parents. We tried to do it later, but it just never seemed to work except for that one time.

Kiddie matinees were a staple at the Dolton, where they showed a wide variety of flicks for us, from Disney live-action flicks and cartoons to Jerry Lewis movies and everything in between. I even remember seeing “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963) at a matinee. Toho offerings included “Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster” (1971) and “Destroy All Monsters.” (1969).

I can remember an afternoon with all the neighborhood kids seeing “Patton” (1970). After the movie we all tried to recreate Patton’s opening speech before the flag. It was a hoot (though I’m sure we had no comprehension of what we were saying).

In 1971, I saw my first John Wayne movie, “Big Jake” and it was life changing. It played on a double feature with a European-produced pirate flick called “The Light at the Edge of the World” (1971) with Kirk Douglas and Yul Brynner. Since that was based on a novel by Jules Verne, I had to see it. (The Family Classics Sunday afternoon movie show on WGN-TV made Verne very familiar to me). I didn’t care about the western at all, and wanted to see the Verne flick, which turned out to be incredibly gory and unpleasant. But I loved “Big Jake”, and it made me a John Wayne and western fan to this day. It’s still probably my favorite John Wayne movie.

I saw that with a friend of mine on a hot summer evening. Later that year another friend and I saw a double feature of “The Omega Man” with Charlton Heston and “Man in the Wilderness” with Richard Harris. We got dropped off at the show and got picked up when it was over.

Today, if a parent dropped off a pair of unaccompanied nine-year-olds at the theater they would probably be arrested for child abuse. But the parents never gave it a second thought. Different times I guess, and the neighborhood movie theater was considered a safe place.

The Duke at the Dolton

Since “Big Jake” made such a huge impression on me I always had to go see the Duke’s latest films there. I remember seeing “The Cowboys” (1972) on a double bill with a WWI flick called “Zeppelin” (1971) with Michael York and Elke Sommer.

The cop flick “McQ” (1974) played with “Paper Moon” (1974). My brother and I didn’t care about the latter, but went for the Duke.

I’ve written in the past about his other cop movie “Brannigan” (1975) playing with Peckinpah’s “The Killer Elite” (1975). I remember a packed Saturday night crowd watching “Rooster Cogburn” (1975) with a George Peppard cop flick called “Newman’s Law” (1975), a film I’ve never seen since on TV and I don’t know if it was ever released to video. I saw a classmate of mine at the show and asked her in school the following Monday how she liked the show. She thought the Wayne flick was only OK, but her and her family really liked “Newman’s Law.” I knew I wouldn’t be marrying her.

Horror and Sci-Fi Heaven

I saw most of the “Planet of the Apes” movies there. Unfortunately, I didn’t see the original there. My dad was going to take me to see “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” (1970) but we were in a car accident the week before and were without a car. Very annoying. He made it up by taking me the following week to see the astronauts-in-crisis flick “Marooned” (1969), which was OK, but wasn’t the same as talking apes.

“Escape from the Planet of the Apes” (1971) played as a single feature. “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” (1972) played with “Ben” (1972), the “Willard” (1971) sequel, and I think half of my school was there that Saturday afternoon.

The final film, “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” (1973) played with a western called “Culpepper Cattle Company” (1972), a really gritty western that was pretty violent for its time. I remember it being pretty good though, and pleasantly surprised. Scanning the newspaper ads, I noticed a lot of the neighborhood theaters in the Chicago area paired “Battle” with a Lee Van Cleef western called “Captain Apache” (1971), which sounded much more appealing than “Culpepper Cattle Company.” I thought the Dolton got the short end of the stick. But we wound up liking Culpepper, and I wouldn’t mind re-visiting it on DVD one day.

Speaking of “Willard” I know I saw that at the Dolton, but I can’t remember what it paired with. It could have been the British horror anthology “The House that Dripped Blood” (1971) or the Filipino “Twilight People” (1971). Yep, the Dolton even played Filipino horror flicks.

I fondly remember seeing “Tales from the Crypt” (1971) paired with Vincent Price in “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” (1971). Was this the greatest double feature I saw as a kid? It could have been.

Despite my love for horror movies, and the Dolton played a lot of them, I never saw a Hammer movie there, to my regret.

After subjecting the family to a viewing of the great “Count Yorga, Vampire” (1970) on a family vacation day, the mater and pater were genuinely appalled at what showed up in this PG-rated flick, so I was forbidden to see its sequel, “The Return of Count Yorga” (1971) and its co-feature, “The Dunwich Horror” (1969) when it played at the Dolton. The kid across the street went, and I remember grilling him forever about both films.

The one double feature which was brought back to the Dolton on a regular basis was “Soylent Green” (1973) and “Westworld” (1973). Unfortunately I never saw them there. That particular double feature was a perpetual sell-out and I never could get in to see them. I think when the Dolton’s booker didn’t like what he was being offered, he would bring those two back because he knew he was assured a full week of customers.
Occasionally my dad would take turns taking my brother and me to the show. My dad and brother saw a good double feature of “Kelly’s Heroes” (1970) and “Skyjacked.” (1972). Me, I dragged dad to see the animal terror flicks “Frogs” (1972) (surprisingly good, though I can remember my dad muttering, “What is Ray Milland doing in this?”) and “Stanley” (1972). “Stanley” is….think a low budget “Willard” with rattlesnakes.

The Empire Pictures double bill of “Ghoulies” (1985) and “The Dungeonmaster” (1984) wasn’t very good, but reminded me of the days when I was a kid happily lapping up the latest offerings from American International Pictures.

Not Everything Was Horror

A particularly enjoyable double feature was a Spaghetti western/comedy pairing of “They Call Me Trinity” (1970) and “Trinity is Still My Name” (1971). I haven’t seen them since, but have very fond memories of both. A later Spaghetti western with Trinity star Terence Hill and Henry Fonda was “My Name is Nobody” (1973). I wish I can remember what that was paired with but I can’t. Great film, though.

I have never heard laughter in a movie theater like I heard when “The Pink Panther Strikes Again” (1976) and “The Revenge of the Pink Panther” (1978) played to a capacity crowd one happy Saturday night. Almost 500 people laughing in unison at the top of their lungs is an experience I will never forget.

The Dolton also played the occasional revival, so I was fortunate to see on the big screen, for the first time, “Gone with the Wind” (1939) and “The Ten Commandments” (1956). I even remember a double feature of “Hercules” (1959) and “Hercules Unchained” (1960) on a Saturday afternoon and why those were brought back I can’t remember.

Not everything showed at the Dolton was a double feature. When management knew a good feature would play on its own it did. The classic disaster movies of the era, like “Airport” (1970), “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972), “Earthquake” (1974), “Airport 1975” (1974) and “The Towering Inferno” (1974) all played to maximum crowds.

In the 1980s, new management stayed with the single feature format, but would have a double feature attraction once a month. It didn’t matter if the movies went together, he played what he could get at the time. That’s why one of the oddest double features I ever saw was in 1985: “Agnes of God” and “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins.” Like pickles and milk, but I enjoyed both and I think the audience did too.

Dolton audiences were genuinely very well behaved, but there was something in the air the night in 1981 when I saw “Absence of Malice” and “Arthur.” The crowd was really unruly and making all kinds of disturbance. I left in disgust about 20 minutes into “Arthur.” That was probably the most unpleasant time I ever had there.

Occasionally the Dolton would play an art house type film. I remember them showing Bergman’s “Cries and Whispers” (1972) and even thinking then how odd it was for the Dolton to be showing a subtitled Swedish movie. Maybe the management did to cleanse their palate of all the horror and action movies they showed?

For a time in the ‘70s, the Dolton showed X-rated movies. Management got a lot of flack for that, but he said he needed to show those because he had full houses for those and paid for the regular movies. I didn’t believe him because the Dolton was always crowded.

Car Chases Galore

The Dolton also seemingly played every Burt Reynolds and Peter Fonda car chase and action flicks ever made. I think “Smokey and the Bandit” (1977) played for weeks there.

One of my fondest movie going memories is “Race with the Devil” (1975) with Peter Fonda and Warren Oates having their RV vacation interrupted when they witness a human sacrifice at a Satanic ceremony. The TV ads were mouth watering, and every kid at school was chomping to see this. Sure enough, that Saturday afternoon I think every kid in the neighborhood was there. We had a great time. The film’s studio, Twentieth Century Fox, paired it with the cerebral thriller “The Nickel Ride” and two more different films I can’t imagine. But we waited until it was over so we could finally see what we came for. We weren’t disappointed.

First-Run Treats

Despite being a second-run theater, the Dolton would occasionally play a first-run movie, in those instances when the distributor could not book first-run theater play dates and were forced to debut at the neighborhood movie theaters. The Kirk Douglas western “Posse” (1975) played at the Dolton in its opening week. Of course I went.

A particularly enjoyable first-run double feature was “At the Earth’s Core” (1976) and “The Food of the Gods” (1976). I was particularly excited about the former, because it was a real treat to see the new Peter Cushing movie at the Dolton. I can remember going on Friday night with some friends, and even though we found the special effects in both very tacky, we didn’t mind and the audience had a great time.

“Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” (1979) also played first-run at the Dolton and I can remember the opening credit sequence filled with all a variety of scantily clad space beauties. When the film showed on TV, it was with (unfortunately) a new credit sequence.

The Dolton Theater was not as ornate or garish as the great movie palaces in Chicago, but for those of us fortunate to have experienced it, it was a little slice of Heaven.


Rick29 said...

Kevin, your article about the Dolton is my all-time favorite at the Movie Corner. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your movie experiences. But it was also fun to learn what movies you saw as a youth, as my sister and I were avid movie-goers during the same time period (uh...though I'm a wee older than you). I also saw the TRINITY movies on a double-feature. My friend Herb and I enjoyed them so much that we went to see Terrence Hill and Bud Spencer in their contemporary comedy ALL THE WAY, BOYS (which wasn't nearly as fun as their Westerns). I did get to see THE DUNWICH HORROR, though I was terribly bummed with the climax. Sandra Dee is laying an outdoor slab, apparently covered only with a thin sheet, during a wind storm--and not once did that sheet move at all! The first horror film I never got to see a theatre was DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS. I lobbied hard, pouted, and and posted the newspaper ad over my bed--all to no avail. By the way, the photo of the Dolton is terrific, too. What a delightful read that brought back a ton of memories.

Kevin Deany said...

Thanks, Rick. Glad you enjoyed it. I don't know, but the movie going experience seemed a little more alive then (as most things do when you're a kid). But knowing this was your one chance to see something until it turned up on TV,and that might be several years away. Of course, pay TV and home entertainment were far in the future.

I know exactly what you mean about "The Dunwich Horror" climax, and I can understand your frustration about not seeing "Dracula, Prince of Darkness."

Being a John Wayne fan, I can remember asking the Dolton's manager when he was going to show "The Train Robbers." He said he didn't book it, as it wasn't making good money and didn't think it would draw. He said he had the posters for it in the back, but wouldn't book it. I was going to ask him if I could have those posters, but I chickened out. Same thing happened with "Cahill, U.S. Marshall." That's why I can remember how happy I was when he booked "McQ." Never saw "The Train Robbers" or "Cahill" until years later on TV.

quizshowbob said...

That was a great blog. I can totally relate. It's so strange that I almost included a "Frogs" reference in a blog that I did earlier today.

Rick29 said...

Kevin, that's funny because I remember seeing both THE TRAIN ROBBERS and CAHILL at the theatre with my sister. In those days, we would watch most anything. Some of those movies seem to have disappeared like DADDY'S GONE A-HUNTING and THE TEACHER (with Angel Tompkins). quizshowbob, I recall seeing FROGS with my best friend Herb and leaving the theatre disappointed. The poster was awesome--with a frog swallowing a human hand. But nothing like that happens in the movie!

Kevin Deany said...

Bob, thanks so much for your kind words. Rick, a friend of mine had seen "Frogs" before me and said the poster's image, while great, did not occur in the movie, so I went in prepared.

Anonymous said...

Great blog. Brought back many memories of the Dolton. Rode the bus from SoHo for a dime. Got into the theater, bought concessions, for under $1. Saw The Ghost & Mr. Chicken. Think it was paired with 13 Ghosts. Saw many, many movies there.

Kevin Deany said...

Thank you for commenting. I'm glad you liked the blog. "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" and "13 Ghosts" on a double feature? Man, that's one show I would have been very happy to see.

Bob said...

Kevin thank you for this article, sorry it took me so long to find it! My family moved to Dolton in '57, and coincidentally right across the street from the Lynch family. Wish I'd know Jane was going to be so famous, might have been nicer to her! I am a little older than you but spent a lot of my Saturday afternoon at the Dolton Show seeing what's probably considered campy movies like Jack the Giant Killer, Babes in Toyland, Munsters Go Home but also Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte (still a favorite now but gave me nightmares for a few days of headless guys coming for me!) and Devil at Four O'Clock with Spencer Tracy. Also saw Ghost & Mr. Chicken, a classic! I remember the candy and popcorn counter and those snow cones with the thick syrup.