Drove past the old Nortown Theater last weekend, for what may be the last time ever. Not that there’s much left to look at, since hardly a shell of the homely old dowager south of the Devon-Western intersection remains—mostly auditorium bridges and a dingy brown entryway facade. Truth to tell, though, the Nortown was never one of my favorite venues. (Not so the late Gene Siskel, who according to one eulogist “became enchanted with the movies, thanks to countless Saturday matinees he attended at the Nortown …”). A backward-looking exercise in theater churrigueresque (1931) from an era already committed to the cheap(er) Depression alternative of streamline deco, the building seemed even more forbidding and fortresslike than most of its Rapp & Rapp counterparts–the Uptown, the Chicago, the Tivoli, etc. Like a garrison outpost in the Spanish Western Sahara, I thought, though inside was another matter–an aquatic-themed “Neptune atmosphere,” a typical description runs–with mermaid pilasters and zodiac murals and stars twinkling on the ceiling, Music Box style, allegedly to mimic the constellation patterns of the April night sky.
But through most of the time I went there (for the likes of Out of Africa, Tom Mankiewicz’s Dragnet, Witchboard … not a lot of front-rank stuff), the Nortown was only a shadow of its glamorous former self. Originally part of the Balaban & Katz chain, the deteriorating house changed hands twice in the 80s–first as a northern anchor for Plitt, then for Cineplex Odeon—the 2,600-seat auditorium ultimately morphing into three, with a false ceiling cutting across the proscenium so that, viewed from the second level, it resembled a miniature set for elves.
But the real distress was yet to come. No longer viable as a theater venue, by the early 90s the Nortown had been turned into a church—”Rest for the Weary Ministries” the sign said on the front—and largely gutted for salvage. As one horrified onlooker later testified: “I went into the building … one day when it was opening for church services to have a peek and everything remaining in the lobby has been painted white, the horoscope murals were gone (the salvage employee said only one had survived …) and pretty much all ornament was gone from the auditorium. The wall which divided the main auditorium into two smaller spaces had been removed to make it one big room again. … A big dumpster was out front, and the grand marquee was down on the sidewalk waiting to be relegated to a scrap heap.”
But the church moved on, and a Pakistani community center moved in—followed by the inevitable graffiti taggers, more scavenging and vandalism (tchotchke collectors, please note: most of the Nortown salvage went to Urban Remains, an artifacts dealer specializing in architectural resale), and finally the death sentence—a demolition permit issued in early June. The site’s current owner/developer promises the familiar plague of new condo housing, plus two small screening rooms specializing in Indian-Pakistani film … about which we should probably hold our collective breath. But at least there won’t be another Dunkin’ Donuts.
UPDATE 10/2—It’s gone …