Growing up in Back of the Yards had many advantages. One of them was the Peoples Theater at 1620 W. 47th Street where we went almost every weekend to see movies. I was really impressed by the theater because it seemed so classy to me. There were marble floors, marble walls, and even the restroom looked elegant with its marble floor and walls. The incongruous thing about the restroom was the fact that the rolls of toilet paper were securely bolted in place. Otherwise, people would either steal the whole roll of toilet paper or dump it into the toilet. I could never understand why anyone would dump a perfectly good roll of toilet paper into the toilet, but other public restrooms in the neighborhood that didn’t take such precautions actually had rolls of toilet paper in their toilets. However, in my circle of young friends, there was an unwritten rule that you never used the sit-down toilets of a public restroom. Never! Never ever! Under no circumstances. You were supposed to hold your number two in and run home to the comfort of your own bathroom, hopefully in the nick of time. In the auditorium of the theater, there were a lot of terra-cotta decorations. I used to stare at them while waiting for the movie to start. I was always fascinated by the ceiling way over my head. There was a giant oval recess that was always lighted. I would imagine different things while looking at it. But what I usually saw was the underside of a giant turtle. I imagined that it was in a huge overhead aquarium and I was always afraid that it break open from the weight of the giant turtle and that we would all drown under the huge waterfall. As you may have already divined, I now tell this story because no such disaster ever befell upon me!
For Christmas, Holy Cross School would have a special day for us to go to Peoples Theater to see a Christmas movie. We would get out of school for this special field trip a whole two blocks away from the school. We loved any event that allowed us to miss class!
During the week in the summer, my mother would take my younger brothers and me to Peoples Theater while my father was working. She used to like watching those romantic movies, which I found so boring when I was little. I believe we saw Gone with the Wind, Dr. Zhivago, and From Here to Eternity. Whenever the couple would kiss, I thought the movie was over and I would pull my mother’s arm so we could go home. My mother only took us to the show when she wanted to see a movie. My father would take us even if it was movie just for kids. Of course, he would sleep through the entire movie because he worked midnights at Curtiss Candy, a candy factory underneath the old S-curve at Lake Shore Drive and the Chicago River that manufactured Butterfinger and Baby Ruth candy bars. The only time he really wanted to see a movie was when they showed Cecille B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments. Of course, he fell asleep through those movies, too. We usually only went to the matinée show on Saturday because the tickets were only fifty cents.
When I was a little older, I started going to the movies with just my brothers and no parents. I was in charge of taking care of them. When my brothers were older, we all went to the theater separately with our own friends. I went a lot with Adam Mendez or Patrick McDonnell. One day, Patrick invited me to go with him during the week. I told him I couldn’t go because I couldn’t afford the full price of the ticket. He told me that he had free passes for the theater. His father had told him where to get them. There was an insurance sales office near the theater that gave free passes to customers. Patrick, who was wise beyond his years, showed me where to go to get the free tickets. He made small talk with one of the insurance agents who asked how Patrick’s father was and gave us two free passes to Peoples Theater. After that we went to show once a week during the week when the tickets cost full price and sometimes we were able to sneak in to see some adult movies. However, they caught us when we tried to see Bonnie and Clyde with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway and they made us leave. One day when we went to the insurance office, the manager told us that they were closing down, so he gave Patrick the whole packet of movie passes. If we liked a movie a lot, we would see it at least twice, oftentimes, more. When Patrick moved away, I inherited the packet of passes from him. Then, I used to go Peoples Theater with my brothers and my friend Adam. I remember that Adam and I really loved the movie The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly so much that we saw it everyday for two weeks. And we never got tired of it. I saw many of my favorite movies there: The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Born Losers (a biker movie), Flipper, and others that I can’t recall now.
When I was older, my mother sent me to see Irma Serrano at the Peoples Theater. My mother went to Mexico when Irma Serrano came to Chicago. She told me to tell Irma I was Carmen Rodriguez’s son. When I did, Irma invited me backstage and I took pictures of her. I never did learn how my mother got to know Irma Serrano
Alas! Peoples Theater is no more! There is a Walgreen’s on the site now. But I will always remember Peoples Theater for all it’s terra-cotta decorations and marble walls and floors, even in the restroom! It was kind of like going to church every week.