Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Film and Architectural History in our Midst

The original film exchange included 
the space that is now Zapatista.
When you think of movies and filmmaking, Chicago may not be the first place that comes to mind. But back in the early days of moviemaking, Chicago was a pretty important place.

Hollywood in the Midwest
Before the sound era, Chicago housed Midwest corporate offices for Paramount, Warner Bros., Universal, and the Samuel Goldwyn studios. Most of the offices were in Chicago’s South Loop along Wabash Ave. Other film offices were located one block east on Michigan Ave. During this period, major silent movie productions starring Charlie Chaplin and Gloria Swanson were made here.

Wabash Ave. was Film Exchange Row
Warner Bros. movie poster 
from early 1930s hangs in 
Film Exchange Lofts lobby.

Some evidence of this history still exists. In 1929, The Film Exchange Lofts, at 1307 S. Wabash Ave., was owned by the Warner Bros. studio. Warner Bros. owned Vitaphone Corporation, which pioneered the introduction of synchronized sound to movie audiences. The studio had corporate offices at the Wabash Ave. location, but its most important use was for storing film for distribution. With Chicago’s location and easy access to train travel, it was the ideal distribution point for Chicago and Illinois theatres. Film exchanges would store films from Hollywood to be rented or “exchanged” by local movie theater owners. These exchanges had screening rooms where films were shown to exhibitors in local markets like Chicago.

Flammable Film
A careful look inside 1307 S. Wabash will reveal that it is constructed of mostly concrete and steel. This was an important feature for an office storing nitrocellulose or nitrate-based film. Until the late 1940s, all film was nitrocellulose, which was highly flammable. Projectionists had to be very careful when threading film through the projector. A misfeed or jam could cause the film to ignite and start a fire. Even when stored properly, nitrate film could spontaneously combust. For safety measures, early projection booths had walls and ceilings covered in asbestos. Film exchanges had vaults with sprinklers and ventilation systems to house nitrate film.

These curved designs on the facade of The Film Exchange
Lofts are classic Art Deco ornamentation.
Art Deco Showplace
The Film Exchange Lofts doesn’t have vaults anymore, but it does have some original architectural details that survived the rehab. The stepped forms and curved designs on the façade are typical of Art Deco design, as are the original, beautifully stylized doors.

At one time, every major city had film exchanges. Almost all of the exchanges, built in the late-1920s, were designed in the art deco style. On Hyde St. in New York’s Tenderloin district, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 20th Century-Fox, Paramount, Columbia, and other Hollywood studios set up film exchanges.

Before the invention of safety film, it wasn’t uncommon for movie houses to catch fire and burn down. Two tragic movie fires happened on the other side of the Atlantic: In 1926, what became know as the Dromcolliher Burning in Limerick, Ireland, occurred when a candle set a canister of film on fire. Forty-eight people died in that tragedy. In 1929, The Glen Cinema Disaster fire in Paisley, Scotland, resulted in the deaths of 71 people; 69 of them were children who were there for an afternoon matinee.

The 1988 Italian film Cinema Paradiso, is a fictional account of a famous director looking back on his youth, during the years after World War II. The movie contains a scene where a fire starts in a movie projector room. The film cases explode, destroying the theartre.

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