By: Natalie Bartel (Loyola Freshman), Maura Horton (Loyola Senior), and Aisha Ali (Loyola Junior)
Many are familiar with the classic movie theater experience. The marquee lights up with the title of a highly anticipated new film, and as the doors open, the smell of popcorn fills the air. A local theater that has provided this very experience for over a century may no longer shine so brightly.
Located at the intersection of Sheridan Road and W Columbia Ave., The New 400 is Chicago’s oldest operating movie theater. Since its opening in 1912, it has been deeply loved by the community and resilient during the tough times.
Until COVID, business went smoothly for the current owner, Tony Fox. Fox bought the theater in 2007 and continues to run it today. To get through its temporary closure during the pandemic in 2020, the theater was available for rental and was also used as a COVID testing site. The New 400 stayed open for concessions and takeout, as well.
In June 2021, the theater reopened to the public and resumed showing films. As a theater that survived the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the perpetual rise of streaming services, many assumed it was here to stay.
Recently, however, news broke that The New 400 Theater is most likely closing. The theater is not making an adequate profit due to slow business after COVID, a small staff, marketing struggles, and competition from larger theaters and streaming platforms.
With its full bar and four screens, however, the indie movie house has a lot to offer, even in the face of competition. Customers love the homey and vintage feel that bigger cinemas can’t provide.
At $8.50 for adults, the New 400 also offers the cheapest movie prices in Chicago. They have student and senior discounts, so everyone is able to enjoy a night out at a reasonable price. Although chains like AMC offer a wider movie selection, their prices are over double that of The New 400.
News of the theater’s possible closure has Rogers Park locals sharing their experiences and memories at the theater.
Long-time Rogers Park resident, Maria Johnson, said, “It’s a small neighborhood theater and the facilities are clean, so I like it. I like that they provide a senior discount. It is a great price for everyone, the fact that it will possibly close down saddens me because it’s a couple blocks from our house, and for a quick date this place would save our night.”
While some prefer a local theater in their neighborhood, others still argue that it can’t compare to chain theaters.
Caleb Smith, a Loyola sophomore, said, “ I don’t really think there is anything too special about this place; the seats are worn out and the popcorn always makes me sick after. I would rather go to a bigger theater like AMC or Regal, those are very solid theaters.”
Aaron Lawson, the general manager of the 400, is among those who love the welcoming ambiance of the theater.
“What’s funny is everybody loves Theater One because it’s the widest screen,” said Lawson. “But I love Theater Two, which is the smallest, because it just feels cozy, and the surround sound can really kick ass.”
More Than a Theater
The 400 is an important fixture in the community with many uses. Agape Chicago is a church based in Rogers Park that has been using the 400 Theater as its worship space on Sundays for seven years.
Church administrative assistant Ralph Magundayao will miss the sense of security and stability the theater provides them as a church.
“With the closing of the theater, we will be losing our home,” said Magundayao. “I am hoping that The 400 will continue to stay open or re-open at some point, providing the community not only with first-run movies, but also a space to meet, host live shows, or form community-based activities,” Magundayao said.
Efforts to save the theater have appeared in response, such as The New 400 Street Team, a website founded by Rachel Jones to gather community support. The website suggests attending the theater to boost their income, spreading word of the closing, and joining a committee to generate further solutions.
Despite the action being taken in the community, and the passion of the regulars, (owner) Tony Fox is doubtful that it will be enough.
“Unfortunately, I do not see the theater surviving,” Fox said. “There is some active community support but not nearly enough to make a business out of it. I think it will likely be a daycare center or a private school.”
Hope After The Sale
Even with recent concerns, there may still be a future for the theater if the sale isn’t prevented.
Aaron Lawson has been the General Manager of the 400 Theater for over a year since it reopened. Although Lawson and the 400 staff have known since they got their jobs that the theater would potentially close, it hasn’t stopped them from pouring their hearts and souls into the theater.
“Almost every single person here is like ‘it’s fleeting, but we love being here’,” said Lawson. “And we’d be here for as long as we could, but it always kind of felt like a business that was teetering.”
According to Lawson, there are several interested buyers who have toured the space, including the owners of other Chicago movie theaters and businesses looking to use it as a live venue space. Lawson thinks new ownership has the potential to make the theater better than ever before with more resources to spend on marketing and a larger staff.
Lawson is optimistic that the sale of the property doesn’t have to mean the end of movies in the building.
“The hope we have now is that somebody will come along that wants to run a movie theater,” said Lawson. “And the best possible scenario in my opinion would be to keep it as The New 400 and give it more of the tools that it needs to do better than before.”
Lawson’s final message, however, is one of hope. He says that the best way to help save the 400 is to keep showing up, because it shows potential buyers that the building can still be a viable movie theater. Lawson and the rest of the staff continue to be grateful for the support they have felt from the community.
“The last three weeks have been a lot busier than we’ve been in a while,” said Lawson. “And yes, it depends on what movies have been coming out, but I can tell that’s not the only reason. Everyone is wondering how we’re doing, and what they can do to help, and that is so wonderful.”
To support The New 400 Theater, visit their website.