The New 400 Theater is one of many theaters offering private rentals to keep business going while still adhering to COVID-19 safety guidelines.
The New 400 Theater is one of many theaters offering private rentals to keep business going while still adhering to COVID-19 safety guidelines. Credit: courtesy the New 400 Theater

The New 400 Theater is “the oldest and longest surviving movie theater showing movies in Chicago,” according to Scott Holz, general manager. Opening first in 1908, it was a fixture of the Rogers Park neighborhood with a name that spoke to the optimism of the era. “The New 400 meant what the Fortune 500 means now,” says Holz. “It meant money, it meant the elite.” The theater was shut down for a year due to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. To date, the theater has survived two world wars, many periods of economic downturn, several owners, and now, two global pandemics. In a word, the New 400 is resilient. It survives.

I first noticed this resilience when I received a newsletter last December from Maria Hadden, the Alderwoman of the 49th Ward where the theater is located. The newsletter announced that the New 400 Theater would be transforming into the Rogers Park COVID Center to offer COVID-19 tests to the neighborhood. It read: “We want to commend Tony Fox, owner of the New 400 for finding a unique way to make use of his space while the movie theater is unable to operate AND bringing an added community benefit to 49th Ward residents. Thank you, Tony!” I was intrigued. When I walked past the theater on my daily walks, new signs for the testing center were pasted in the windows.

It turns out the COVID testing clinic was only one of many reinventions the theater employed to stay afloat during the pandemic. “A word that’s being overused right now is pivot,” says Holz, “but it really has been [that] every single day we’ve had to pivot.” From popping popcorn for a local food pantry to running a makeshift bar in the small patio space outside of the theater to serving as the starting point for neighborhood BLM marches in the summer, the New 400 has been light on its feet through the ebbs and flows of the last year. After a fairly successful fall season of renting the theater to small groups, the second state-wide stay-at-home order was invoked, forcing the theater to go back to the drawing board. By December, the theater had reimagined itself yet again as the Rogers Park COVID Center.

“The COVID testing clinic was set up by the owner [of the theater] and his friend Dr. Baker because they thought there was a need for that in the neighborhood,” explains Holz. Dr. Mark Baker says his friend saw a “need in the community,” which led to the pursuit of a CLIA laboratory certification. Though such certification would normally take longer, due to the needs presented by the pandemic, Baker explains that the certification was “a CLIA-waived certification, which is slightly different,” only authorizing the administration of certain COVID tests. Soon, the Rogers Park COVID Center was up and running, offering antigen and antibody tests to neighborhood residents.

But after a month or so, both Baker and Holz say that demand for testing dropped off precipitously. Holz explains, “It was never intended to be something that would last forever. It was only ever out there as demand would hold up.” As positivity rates dropped in January and optimism began to spread thanks to news of the vaccine, Holz tells me that the number of people seeking COVID tests “had cut into a fraction of what we had started with.” On February 5, the Rogers Park COVID Center closed after a month and a half of operation.

Since then, the New 400 has undergone a few renovations with an eye toward a hopeful future. Holz laughs as he mentions that the New 400 has a bit of a divey atmosphere to it, an atmosphere he says he doesn’t want to lose but would like to lessen by “about 50 percent,” citing things like a new coat of paint, a sanitizing defogging machine (“I feel like Ghostbusters”), and carpet replacement as some of the new features of the theater. For now, the New 400 is back to offering private rentals for small groups, an experience Holz describes as being very fulfilling. “We can offer some kind of normal,” he remarks. Though it isn’t yet clear when theaters will be able to reopen to the public, the New 400 will no doubt continue to shift with the demands of the moment, “operating small and operating nimble.”

“We’re looking forward to seeing you again,” Holz says, when I ask if he has anything he’d like to tell the neighborhood, “and in the meantime, we’re doing all sorts of things better.”   v