Remembering the Little Giant of the Loop

While Lincoln Village Theater may have been Oscar Brotman’s greatest gift to Hollywood Park, it was far from his greatest gift to Chicago. Lincoln Village Theater was just one in a multifaceted chain of Brotman-Sherman movie theaters. They had art houses (Carnegie, Cinema); drive-ins (Oasis); historic icons (Portage, Tivoli, Aragon); modern conveniences (Hillside), and, in a category of its own, the Loop Theater at 165 North State Street.

In a 1968 Chicago Tribune article, Gene Siskel dubbed Brotman’s theater “The Little Giant of the Loop” because it was, at that time, the largest grossing movie theater in Chicago, “if not the nation.” Not bad for a 606-seat house.

The only downtown theater smaller than the Loop was the Shangri-La with 482 seats. The largest was the Loop’s next-door neighbor, the Chicago, with 3,980 seats. In the color photo at top, the Lego-sized Loop marquee juts out from behind the massive Chicago one.

Siskel mentioned other impressive measures of the theater’s success. In the three years preceding Siskel’s article, the Loop screened 13 films, an average 14 –week run per film. During those years, however, two films closed in one week. And then there was Russ Meyer’s Vixen, with an astounding 60-week run.

Another indication of Brotman’s success was his influence in Hollywood. Siskel told the story behind a 1971 drama nominated for a Golden Globe. It was originally titled Sheila after the main character, but when distributor Jack Harris told Brotman about it, Brotman complained he couldn’t do anything with a movie called Sheila.  Harris asked if he had a better idea and Brotman did: Honky was a smash hit at the Loop.

The Loop’s success was in part due to publicity stunts cooked up by Brotman, the Bill Veeck of movie theater operators. To promote the opening of Flipper in 1963, Brotman flew in a dolphin named Mitzi from Florida. Mitzi swam in a tank out in front of the theater on State Street and made the front page of the Chicago Daily News.

“Who ever heard of the front page for something like that?” Brotman asked Gene Siskel. The Loop Theater gave Flipper its best run in the United States.

For the world premiere of the 1970 low-budget horror flick, Equinox, Brotman dressed an usher in an ape costume and put him out in front of the theater, too.

Another promotion that drew a bit of attention was for The Man in a Glass Booth at another Brotman-Sherman theater, the Carnegie on Rush. The 1976 film was part of a series of filmed plays called the American Film Theatre, which ran on a subscription basis only on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Brotman liked this film so much he brought it back for an extended run. He placed ads promising if Maximilian Schell didn’t receive an Oscar nomination, Brotman would refund the full price of every ticket sold. Lucky for Brotman, Schell got the best actor nomination.

Brotman is credited with introducing popcorn and candy machines to theaters, yet for all his accomplishments in the movie business, live theater was clearly this man’s true love. I wonder if he would have traded his share of the Brotman-Leonard empire for a single Broadway marquee.

Going back to 1953, he penned a musical play, “Show of Shows,” performed by the Sisterhood of Logan Square Congregation Shaare Zedek (merged with Ner Tamid Congregation in Rogers Park). He also wrote the Covenant Club’s 1955 annual holiday show, “The West Is Best.”

He was best known, however, for his recurring role as the first Mayor Daley in the Chicago Bar Association’s holiday production. In a Tribune review of the 38th annual show, Brotman was recognized as the best actor.

Brotman singlehandedly kept alive the tradition of mixing live theater with movies. In a  series at the Carnegie called Lake Shore Live, Brotman offered a weekday lunch program featuring 30-minute plays directed by the current Goodman Theatre artistic director, Robert Falls. And as I mentioned in an earlier post , Brotman booked a variety of stage acts at the Lincoln Village Theater.

In columns as well as in one of his books, Roger Ebert wrote about Brotman and quoted his famous aphorisms: “If nothing happens by the end of the first reel, nothing is going to happen,” and “Satire is what opens on Friday and closes on Saturday.”

Maybe we ought to remember the little giant better than we do.

Credits: Images of Chicago’s downtown theaters courtesy of Chuckman’s Collection, Vol. 10. Not all the theaters shown were in the Brotman-Sherman chain, but they were in operation during the same years.

Sources: Cinema Treasures; thanks to William Horberg.

Related: This post concludes a series about Oscar Brotman that started with The Man Who Put the Hollywood in Hollywood–Part One, and The Man Who Put the Hollywood in Hollywood Park–Part Two.

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7 Responses to Remembering the Little Giant of the Loop

  1. william horberg October 20, 2010 at 12:11 am #

    I saw Equinox at The Loop theatre went it came out. I don’t remember the usher in the ape costume but maybe it scared the heck out of me and I’ve blocked out the memory. Thanks for a great article Francis – love your in depth reportage. I wish you had photos of the Lincoln Village in its prime – maybe one of your readers will find some and you can post them later.

  2. Marshall Rosenthal October 20, 2010 at 6:50 am #

    Thanks for the memories, Frances.

  3. Merle Citrin Monroe October 21, 2010 at 2:42 pm #

    Frances…more connections! My cousin, Phillip Citrin (deceased), first performed as a “chorus girl” in the Chicago Bar Association “Christmas Spirits” Show in the early 1960s. At that time the cast was all-male. He soon became one of the major writers for the annual show and continued doing that work for decades. I often attended the dress rehearsal held each year for family members of the cast. I clearly remember the “Mayor Daley” character who often “stole the show”….but until you mentioned it in your blog, I did not realize that he was Hollywood Park’s own: Oscar Brotman.

  4. Frances Archer October 21, 2010 at 3:14 pm #

    He was a showman through and through. By the way, thanks for telling me about the Steve Goodman bio. I got it from the library yesterday. Fascinating.

  5. Roger Marline December 13, 2012 at 5:55 am #

    I worked as an usher and ticket taker at the Lake Shore when I was 14. Mr.Brotman came in on a very cold winter night and asked why the front doors were closed. I explained the wind and snow was blowing in and the cold. He wanted the doors open so the smell of fresh popcorn could drift out the front.So I opened the doors and moved the ticket box back 5 feet and froze the rest of my shift. I had the pleasure of working the Loop, Carnegie, Lincoln Village, Tivolli and even some ramp time at Oasis drive in.After the fall of the palaces I quit going to the movies.It was no longer an experience.

  6. Frances Archer December 14, 2012 at 5:21 pm #

    Roger, thanks so much for taking the time to share your knowledge of Oscar Brotman. It can’t have been easy working in the cold, but the story is a good one and certainly fits in with the legend of Oscar Brotman.

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