When they tore down the Granada movie theater, a large chunk of me crumbled with it.
As the wreckers began dismantling the magnificent old movie palace on Chicago’s Far North Side, other moviegoers must have felt the same sense of loss. For those of us who came of age in the ’50s and ’60s, it was a wrenching reminder of the idyllic world we inhabited back then.
I grew up at the Nortown Theater, two or three miles west of the Granada. It was the theater we could walk to, and nearly every Saturday afternoon we made our way to the Nortown to sit beneath its dark-sky ceiling filled with scores of glittering stars, our eyes glued to the larger-than-life stars who glittered on the screen.
Saturday afternoons at the Nortown expanded my otherwise limited horizons. I learned about the Wild West from John Wayne, criminal pursuits from Bogart and Mitchum, romance from Taylor, Monroe, and Bacall, song and dance from Garland, Kelly, and Astaire. But when our parents finally consented to our taking the Devon Avenue bus alone, a whole new world opened up: the world of the Granada Theater.
Life became more complicated on the screen of the Granada. At one remarkable double-feature in 1956, I encountered both the happiness and the sorrow of a woman’s search for love. Katharine Hepburn’s spunky heroine, in love with a very-married Rossano Brazzi in “Summertime,” and Jennifer Jones’s strong woman doctor, in love with war journalist William Holden in “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing,” bravely returned to their careers when their doomed love affairs ended. An early portent of women’s liberation? Judging from the masses of wet Kleenex we produced, I doubt it.
“The Man Who Knew Too Much” introduced me to the heart-pounding suspense stirred up by Hitchcock. I watched “Anastasia” aware of the firestorm Ingrid Bergman’s scandalous love affair had ignited in Hollywood. And a powerful statement about the criminal justice system, “12 Angry Men,” forced me to think about the possibility of injustice in America and whether I might someday do something about it.
As I grew older, the Granada became a place to go on dates. Teenaged boys in that era liked taking dates to movies, where their eager sweaty hands would reach out in the dark in hopes of touching something soft, warm, and female. They had limited success, at least with me. My date and I once watched a shockingly bad movie with Tab Hunter and Natalie Wood, “The Burning Hills.” It was so awful that we laughed too hard to do anything else.
In the ’60s, I rarely patronized the Granada. I left Chicago for college and grad school, and when I returned, I lived in another part of the city. On my last visit, just before leaving Chicago once again in 1970, the theater seemed rundown and much dirtier than I remembered. Was the Granada on the skids?
Five years later, I returned to Chicago with a husband and a baby. Living in a suburb north of the Granada, we passed it now and then, but my busy new life left no time to seek out old haunts. Then one day it suddenly closed. No warning, no notice announced in the newspapers, allowed its former patrons one last chance to see it. The doors were locked, and entry barred.
Repeated efforts to save the Granada failed, and the wrecking ball finally arrived. As I drove by the theater on my way to teach a law-school class, I saw the wall behind the screen fall to pieces and the two-story terra cotta columns crash to the floor. The balcony seats were exposed to view, then destroyed. At the end, a sodden ugly mass of tangled beams and columns, entwined with an array of aging construction materials, became a hideous pile awaiting disposal.
An era had ended. TV, VCRs, and the proliferation of movie theaters in the suburbs all played their part. Most of the opulent movie palaces that once thrived in American cities had become dinosaurs. And so, in 1990, the Granada died.
But like the best of the movies that appeared on its screen for more than 50 wonderful years, the memories it created have never died.
An earlier version of this piece appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times.