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The Music Box Theatre in Lakeview on June 7, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Ecoglobalsociety

LAKEVIEW—The Music Box Theater will close for four weeks this summer to revitalize its main auditorium.

The venerated movie house, erected in 1929 at 3733 N. Southport, announced on Monday plans to celebrate its 95th anniversary with an ambitious renovation of its 740-seat main auditorium.

The project, dubbed “Music Box: Revive at 95,” will see the venue’s primary auditorium close from August 12 to September 5 for much-awaited repairs, maintenance and facility upgrades.

For general manager Ryan Oestreich, the renovations have been a long time coming; he pitched plans for the building’s revitalization all the way back in 2015, a mere six months into the job. “I had talked to the owner and said, ‘This building’s amazing; it means so much to people. Can I put together a ten-year revitalization plan?’”

And he did, with improvements to the theater in the ensuing years including renovating bathrooms, improving the air conditioning and replacing the marquee, all out of an annual operating fund earmarked for the work.

But when COVID hit in 2020, renovation plans had to be put on pause. Now, Oestreich said he feels the Music Box has bounced back from the pandemic well enough to catch up on these fixes.

The upcoming closure is the first time since 1982 that the large theater has been shut down for renovations for any length of time; the smaller second theater and garden movie screenings will stay open as normal. For these upcoming four weeks, Oestreich plans ambitious fixes to the main auditorium, from refurbishing the original proscenium arch to refinishing the carpeting and improving the auditorium lighting for both aesthetic and safety/accessibility reasons.

The most impactful change, arguably, will be replacing the auditorium seating with brand-new seats — notably, with cupholders, a feature that the venue has long lacked.

“I’ve mopped up so many spills that, for me, it was cupholders or nothing,” Oestreich joked. Still, he stresses that the seats, like the rest of the renovations, will be updated without overly modernizing the venue's vintage movie house aesthetics: “When we have to modernize, we do it minimally.”

The renovations also include initiatives toward increasing accessibility for deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons, such as a T-coil hearing loop that will amplify the movie's sound directly into compatible hearing aids or other hearing assistant devices (headphones can also be provided).

The Music Box Theater is undergoing a major renovation this summer. Credit: Brandon Olafsson/Flickr

It’s an ambitious undertaking, one that Oestreich said will cost around an estimated $750,000. So the Music Box is also offering incentives to the public to help subsidize a portion of the cost.

Fans of the theater who want to donate can contribute to the revitalization in an amount that suits them. Gifts of $100 or more will receive select Music Box merchandise (including the chance to pore over decades of vintage movie posters and take one home). Patrons can also sponsor a seat ($750 a seat; $1400 for two) featuring a permanently engraved plaque marking their contribution.

As for what will happen to the old seats? Oestreich says they’re working with Evanston nonprofit Rebuilding Exchange to resell the seats and their attendant parts to interested parties. They may also go up for individual sale.

For Oestreich, the end result of all these renovations is not just to prepare the Music Box for its centennial in 2029, but to ensure that the building remains the premiere destination for Chicago’s vibrant filmgoing community.

“I care so much about this building, and I want it to be here in this beautiful shape and form and atmosphere well beyond me.”

You can learn more about the Revive at 95 initiative, including how to contribute, by visiting the Music Box website.


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