Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Holiday Film Fun at The Tivoli

One of my favorite traditions of the holiday season is currently underway at the Tivoli Theater in Downers Grove, IL, the town I currently reside in, having moved there in 2003. One of the reasons I moved to Downers Grove was to be close to the Tivoli Theater.

It’s likely odd to most people that I would choose to live in a community because of a movie theater (though likely not odd to regular readers of this blog.) But it wasn’t too much of a move, seeing as I was re-locating one town over from neighboring Westmont, where I lived for 13 years. So I’ve been going to the Tivoli regularly for almost 20 years. I hope I can say that for (at least) another 20 years.

Each year in December the Tivoli runs the five-day Holiday Film Festival. In the past the festival consisted of classic cinema, such as “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938), “Top Hat” (1935), “Shane” (1953) and other cinematic gems. The last couple of years however, the festival has focused on seasonal favorites. The selections vary from year to save for annual returns visit of “White Christmas” (1954) and “Christmas Vacation” (1989) which are sellouts year after year. But the other three days are given to different Christmas movies.

This week I enjoyed the great privilege of seeing projected on the big screen “Holiday Inn” (1942) and the sublime “Remember the Night.” (1940). “The Lemon Drop Kid” (1951), which introduced the song “Silver Bells”, was shown on Tuesday evening, the same time it was showing on TCM.

(If it wasn’t for “Christmas Vacation”, the Tivoli could have billed this week as a Paramount Christmas Celebration!)

I’ve written about the Tivoli before, and thought I would repeat what I wrote for latecomers to this blog.

The Tivoli is one of the jewels of the Chicago area. Lovingly restored by the fine folks at Classic Cinemas, a Chicago-area theater chain, the Tivoli is one of the longest-running continually operating movie theaters in the Chicago area.

Designed by the Chicago architecture firm of Van Gunten and Van Gunten, the Tivoli was one of the first theaters in the country to be constructed with sound equipment in mind. Early newspaper ads trumpeted its Vitaphone equipment and local newspapers called it “the wonder theater of suburban Chicago.”

It opened its doors for the first time on Christmas Day in 1928. The first attraction was Howard Hawks’ “Fazil” (1928) starring Charles Farrell, Greta Nyssen, John Boles and Mae Busch. More than 4,000 people turned up on Christmas to attend that first show, a neat trick since the theater only sat 1,390. It’s been running ever since.

A local restaurant has posted on its wall newspaper coverage of the restaurant’s 1955 opening. On the same page is an ad for the Tivoli that week, a double feature of “Not as a Stranger” and “One Desire.” That’s a long double feature but you know what? I would have been as happy as a clam at that double feature.

In addition to showing second-run movies with a sound system and screen size that puts most first-run theaters to shame, the Tivoli also presents live stage shows and concerts. A local dance troupe presents “The Nutcracker” ballet every December. Anderson’s Bookstore, a local independent book store, also hosts author appearances there, including Julie Andrews, a frequent visitor. Kevin Bacon and his band performed at the Tivoli a few years ago.

The theater’s interior is beautiful French Renaissance and remarkably little has changed over the years. Oh, there has been repainting and touch-ups. There’s a new marquee and a new candy counter. They made the spaces between the rows wider, necessitating removing some of the seats. (Current seating now stands 1,012 seats, a few hundred less than there was originally).

But the rest is still the same. Stepping into that beautiful auditorium is like being transported into a genuine movie palace, and when vintage films are shown there the results are breathtaking.

I always feel the time travel tingle when crisp, beautiful black and white images are shown there. I love the fact that a working 1920s-era movie palace is within walking distance of my house.

Recently updated to using digital projection, I believe the Tivoli screens its classic films using DVDs and Blu Rays. It’s beyond thrilling to see these films in this magnificent auditorium.

“Holiday Inn” was a particularly wonderful evening. We got there about 6:30 for a 7:00 start time and the holiday sing-along was already in progress. With a live organist providing musical accompaniment, slides are shown with the lyrics projected on the screen and everyone is invited to sing along with a live singer. (No bouncing ball, alas). This particular crowd was pretty reticent at first, but as the 7:00 start time approached, more people joined in.

The audience was obviously comprised of “Holiday Inn” lovers and I’m glad to say every age group and generations of families were in attendance. I didn’t see one electronic device be turned on the entire film. By the time movie started the auditorium was about three fourths filled and hearty applause greeted the film’s opening titles. Almost every number got applause, with the loudest reserved for Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas” and Fred Astaire’s Fourth of July firecracker dance. There was loud and sustained applause and cheers at the end titles and over the cast list. It was a great experience.

I’ve always felt that “Remember the Night” would be as much a beloved favorite as the other great holiday movies if only more people knew about it. Television screenings were spotty over the years, and despite a VHS release and its recent appearance on DVD, its previous unavailability means it’s not known by too many people. I hope that changes soon. I feel the same way about “The Shop Around the Corner” (1940), the OTHER great Jimmy Stewart Christmas movie that is beyond sublime. If only more people knew about it….

“Remember the Night” was written by Preston Sturges, so you know it’s something special. I’m deliberately skipping over some key plot points, but in a nutshell the movie concerns District Attorney Fred MacMurray who doesn’t want to see shoplifting suspect Barbara Stanwyck spend the Christmas holidays in jail when her case is held over until the New Year. He brings her home to Indiana to spend the holidays with his family on their farm in Indiana. Despite knowing her status, his family accepts her and Fred and Barbara slowly find themselves falling in love with each other.

I loved how the movie mixes equal parts comedy, drama and romance and heartache. Easier said than done, and few movies can switch gears with this much aplomb. If it was easy, everyone could do it. But it isn’t easy, yet it looks effortless here.

Some contemporaries of mine feel like everything that came out of Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s was formula. But there’s a scene in “Remember the Night” that strikes me as something very special, and quite modern. It’s a love scene between the two at Niagara Falls.

They discuss their hopes for a future together (knowing he has to put her behind bars once they return to New York), and the sequence is beautifully written and performed by the two actors. Director Mitchell Leisen puts their faces in darkness, so you can’t see their expressions. Instead we have to listen especially hard to the dialogue and voice inflections. The lack of light brings us into the scene with a shocking degree of intimacy. I was entranced by this scene, as I was the entire movie.

The audience seemed receptive to the movie, and there was rapt attention throughout. I noticed only one person turn on an electronic device at the beginning but it remained off the remainder of the movie. (People who turn on electronic devices in a movie theater should not be allowed to breed.)

The applause was very generous at the end and my friend who went with me who is hardly an old movie fan just loved it.

The Holiday Film Festival is still going on and I can’t wait to see what they offer next year. They have yet to show “Going My Way” (1944) or “The Shop Around the Corner” (1940). I hope to see those on the big screen one day. (They showed “The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) a few years ago, but not the first Father O’Malley movie.)

Oh, and I didn’t mention the other great thing about the Tivoli. Unlimited refills on any size popcorn and soda.


Dees Stribling said...

One of these days, I'm going to take the girls to the Tivoli, to show then what movie-going could and should be like. But I checked Sunday's afternoon schedule and it's... Happy Feet Two. So not this time, though I understand the Tivoli's need to show popular movies. Still, the movie has to be as special as the theater when I take them.

Kevin Deany said...

Dees: I'll keep my eyes open and when the Tivoli is playing something special, I'll give you a call. I would like the girls to experience the Tivoli as well.

Dawn said...

Kevin, I really enjoyed reading about your wonderful evening at the Tivoli.

I hope you do not mind if I spotlighted your awesome post on N and CF.

Anonymous said...

The Tivoli looks fantastic and you're affection for it shines through in this post.
When I first moved to the town where I live in the U.K. it had a movie theatre like The Tivoli called The Palace.
Sadly it was converted to a nightclub seven or eight years ago and I always feel a tinge of regret whenever I pass it.
Hopefully The Tivoli will be around for people to enjoy for many years to come.

The Lady Eve said...

Kevin - Would love to have seen "Holiday Inn" and "Remember the Night" on the big screen at the Tivoli - two of my favorite holiday films at what looks and sounds like a movie palace par excellence. I completely agree with you, by the way, on "Remember the Night" and "The Shop Around the Corner" - both are gems that transcend their seasonal settings (though they both stand as very fine holiday films, too). Thank you for sharing your night at the Tivoli and for its history. A very interesting and enjoyable post...

Kevin Deany said...

Thank you to everyone for writing. Dawn, I appreciate the link and it's quite the honor to be mentioned on your site.

Paul, my old hometown theater, in Dolton, Illinois, where I spent many a childhood hour, was also transformed into a nightclub. It started out as a nickelodeon and was a movie theater for decades until it closed to become a nightclub. It wasn't as nice as the Tivoli, but I have a thing for old theaters like this.

I enjoy going to the Tivoli so much, that I've been known to go see a movie there even though I'm not particularly interested in seeing it.

Lady Eve, glad you liked the piece. It really is something to see these old favorites with a loud and rowdy (in the best sense) audience. It's a most enjoyable time.

Caftan Woman said...

Thanks for sharing the wonderful experience of seeing those movies in such a wonderful theatre. (Really? Popcorn refills?)

Fan that I am, I don't think I've ever seen Bing on the big screen. Someday that must be rectified.

Merry Christmas!