A Love Letter to My Favorite Movie Theater: The Glenwood Theater in Glenwood, IL

Anyone who calls themselves a movie lover has a favorite movie theater. One that they have fond memories of.

As much as I talk about my love of the video store in my column THE VIDEO STORE DAYS, I have to recognize the other ways films made their way into my life. This time I am going to talk about my favorite movie theater and the tragedy that befell it.

During my cinematic upbringing, my parents took me to a lot of films. We would go to our local theater (The Glenwood Theater) and even to the drive-in where my father would wait until all the cars were out of the parking lot and let me “drive” the car for a few minutes. I look back on these times with a smile and happiness. 

The Glenwood Theater was located across a very busy street from the subdivision I lived in. It was known as a “dollar show” as they would play films for as little as a dollar. You see, there were three major cycles for films that play in the theater. Not all films followed these cycles but many did. 

The first cycle was the Arthouse Circuit. A film would play in select theaters, usually in New York and L.A., where they would play for a few weeks. If the film garnered good word of mouth, they would move on to the second cycle. If they did not, then they would play out whatever contracted days they had and then disappear from the theatrical cycles. You would have your small foreign films and films that wanted to snag an Oscar nomination or two before seeing if the film will play well wide. 

The second cycle was the Mainstream Circuit. This is the cycle where arthouse films would move if they played well in the Arthouse Circuit and where movies would open “wide”. A wide film played in at least a few hundred screens. Your blockbusters and big studio films would open “wide”, usually on seven hundred to fifteen hundred screens. These were the films that everyone wanted to see. Now, not every film played at every theater like they do today. We had four major first run theaters, as they were called, and two theaters would get one of the big films opening on a given weekend while the other theaters got the other big release. I remember having to go to the Lincoln Mall Theater a few towns over to see
JASON GOES TO HELL as that was the closest theater playing it. This meant, if you wanted to see all the major releases the weekend they open, you might have to go to two or three different theaters. First run theaters cost the most, with matinees (any time before 5pm)  costing $4 or $5 while the prime time times (any time after 5pm) cost $6 or $7. Films here would play for a few weeks to a few months.

The third cycle was the Dollar Show Circuit. After a film played out its time at the first run theaters, they would go to smaller, second run theaters. This is where The Glenwood Theater would come into play. It would get the films about six months after they opened and the cost of everything, from the ticket to the concessions, would be discounted. When you went to see a film at The Glenwood, it would cost you about $5 for the ticket and concessions. This made a night at the movies a lot more feasible for many if they just waited a few months. Not every film played on the Dollar Show Circuit. I would say about 50% would get to the leg of the theatrical journey. I remember going to see LEPRECHAUN 2 (bless my father for taking me to see the film. RIP)in a first run theater because I knew it wouldn’t make it to the Dollar Show theaters around me as they usually got the big stuff. There would be a smaller film, like TALES FROM THE HOOD, that made it to the Dollar Show theaters but that was rare. 

Many people had to figure out what cycle they wanted to see a film in. If it was something you wanted to see, then you would probably see it first run. If it wasn’t something you needed to see, then you would wait for second run. Once a film left the Dollar Show cycle, or sometimes while the film was still in the Dollar Show cycle, it would debut on home video.

The Glenwood Theater was always busy, especially on the weekends. I remember walking from my house to the theater and the parking lot would be full and people would be waiting in line outside the theater to see whatever film would be playing. The Glenwood Theater had a huge screen (supposedly the biggest screen in Illinois until they broke the theater up into four separate, smaller theaters and turned it into a first run multiplex. 

Anyway, the screen was huge and to make the big screen worth the size, there were 1,000 seats. I remember walking into the theater and being in awe. It always looked and felt like an old-timey theater because it was. It was built in the 60s and my grandfather was one of the people who worked on the theater. My mother had film on the building process including trucks bringing in the giant beams that would make up the theater’s roof. I have loved watching these films as they remind me of what Glenwood used to look like and it is nothing like the way it looks now and that is not a good thing. I hate the way Glenwood looks now, The plaza where the overflow parking for the theater as well as my favorite childhood video store, R&R Video was located is gone and they haven’t even done anything with the land so it looks like a burnt out post-apocalyptic landscape. Too bad it wasn’t bigger. 

I loved going to The Glenwood Theater. From around 1993 to 1998, I went every week. It didn’t matter what the film playing that week was. I went. I would buy my ticket and then choose my concessions. I would walk down to the theater and enter. I would walk into the theater and just be in awe at the big screen and all the seating. I had seen that theater sell out many times with people and it was always cool being in the theater with a full crowd. 

Every Monday during this time I would walk up to The Glenwood Theater. I would pass through The Glenwood Plaza including R&R Video and the Glenwood Bowl. I would watch whatever film was showing that night and then, on my way back home, I would stop at the Glenwood Bowl where my mother would spend Monday nights as she was in a bowling league. I would wait for her to finish bowling and then we would drive home together. My mother isn’t around anymore so I just have those memories to look back on and I love them all. 

In 1999, The Glenwood Theater had been sold to new owners and they wanted to change the theater. They stopped showing Dollar Show films and started showing first run films. The first film they started showing first run was STAR WARS EPISODE ONE: THE PHANTOM MENACE. I was kind of nice that the Glenwood was showing a new film, but it really hurt their business model. You see, Lucasfilm made theaters guarantee that they would show the film for three months. If the theater broke that promise, Lucasfilm and Fox would blacklist the theater, meaning that theater would never be able to show Lucasfilm or Fox films ever again. Because the Glenwood Theater only had one screen, the theater only played one film the entire summer and that hurt the Glenwood a lot. They missed out on the second Austin Powers film, Disney’s TARZAN, BIG DADDY, AMERICAN PIE, RUNAWAY BRIDE, and THE SIXTH SENSE. Sure the theater made a lot of money from STAR WARS, but they also lost out on a ton more. By the end of the first month, the theater was never more than half full, if that. 

At the end of the three months and seeing all the money they lost out on, the owners decided to divide the theater into four smaller theaters. This took the glorious and gigantic screen inside a wonderful, old feeling theater and cheapened it. The four theaters never looked right. They always felt like they were temporary and not what the screens were supposed to be. I saw a few films in those screens and it always felt wrong. You could hear the films showing on the other screens through the walls and I never felt like I was watching a film in the theater. It always felt like a screening room. They also cut the seat count down from 1,000 to about 400. Had they left the theater as one screen and showed two films a night, they could have made some serious cash. 

In 2008, The Glenwood Theater closed. I guess they just weren’t making money anymore. The last film that was shown there was BEDTIME STORIES. The theater stayed empty until it was mercifully destroyed in 2012. I went up to the theater one last time when they were knocking it down. It was a sad thing watching this house of magic come crumbling down. I will always remember The Glenwood and all the memories I have of the time I spent there as a kid. Thank you, The Glenwood, for all the good times.

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