When I was a kid growing up in Evanston in the late ’40s and early ’50s, movies were what we did!

Every Sunday afternoon we would go to the movies, my BFF and I. Of course, one parent would have to drive us and drop us off, the other would pick us up at the ending time. (Because we both lived in Skokie, the part often called “Skevanston.”) 

The Varsity Theater is seen in 1967. Credit: Courtesy of the Evanston History Center

You could count on seeing your friends at one of the four movie theaters in town – the Varsity, the Valencia, the Coronet or the Stadium Theater (later renamed the Evanston 5). The Varsity, the Valencia and the Coronet were all owned by Balaban & Katz, a Chicago-area chain.

The Varsity Theater, built in 1926, was probably our favorite. The marquee, ticket box and entrance were at 1710 Sherman Ave. (where the Gap was until recently), next to what used to be Evanston’s own Marshall Field’s. It only cost a quarter to get your own ticket. And if there was a double feature, you’d stay through both shows, a real bargain.

I would buy a box of Milk Duds or nonpareils to occupy me through the movie. We saw black and white newsreels, colorful cartoons and previews (of what to plan to see next week). I don’t remember much violence. My favorites were pirate films, with windblown adventure and always a touch of nonprurient romance.

There was also the Valencia Theater, a block and a half south on Sherman Avenue. It was fondly called “The Armpit” in our circles, but I certainly don’t remember why. Farther south, on the east side of Chicago Avenue, was the Coronet, smaller and less popular with “northsiders” like us.

Two projectors are seen in the projection booth of the abandoned Varsity Theater. Credit: Matt Lambros/Afterthefinalcurtain.net

On Central Street, across from the new location of the Evanston Art Center and certainly preceding the long apartment and retail building there now, was once the Stadium Theater – so named for its proximity to Dyche Stadium, as Northwestern’s football stadium was called in those days.

I had my first date at the Stadium Theater, in sixth grade. His parents must have dropped him off, as did mine. Mine told me I should have my own admission money, but my young man elbowed me out of the way when I got in line to pay for my ticket. I guess that was his way of saying, “This is a date – I’m buying!” It’s still funny when I think of it.

Why did the movie theaters close? Was it the big chains that drove them out? The multiplexes? Absolutely. Old single-screen movie houses in crowded downtown areas couldn’t compete against the new suburban megaplexes with their many choices (films and showtimes), huge screens, stadium seating, big parking lots, state-of-the-art projection and surround-sound technology. Here’s what I’ve pieced together from my research and memories.

The Valencia was the first to go. It was built in 1911 as a vaudeville house, the Evanston Theater. After several purchases and renamings, the theater was completely rebuilt in 1932 as the Valencia with seating for around 950 and Art Deco style decor. It was closed as a movie theater in 1975 and replaced by the 18-story building that now houses the world headquarters of Rotary International.

The Coronet Theater is seen in 1969. It would later be home to Northlight Theatre. Credit: Courtesy of the Evanston History Center

The Coronet Theater at 817 Chicago Ave. was built in 1915, also Art Deco in style, seating 800. In the 1950s and ’60s it was known for its foreign and art films. From 1990 to 1994 the theater was home to Northlight Theatre – the theater company currently in Skokie that’s soon scheduled to return to Evanston. Plays and other events were presented, but the theater was not set up for that – too long and narrow. It closed and was demolished in 2000.

The Stadium was the next to stop showing movies. Hope Summers, a local movie and TV actress known for character parts, took it over and staged plays there, but not for long. In fact, Wikipedia doesn’t even mention that part of her life, but I remember that time, late ‘40s into the early ‘50s. In 1956 the theater was purchased by a private family and transformed back into a movie theater. It was remodeled in 1969 and renamed the Evanston Theater.

The Evanston Theater on Central Street before its demolition in 2007. Credit: Brian Wolf

In the early ’80s, Loews acquired the theater and enlarged it into five auditoriums with two separate entrances, renamed it the Evanston 5. It continued to draw viewers into the ’80s and ’90s. But the building of the 18-screen Century Cinemas on Maple Avenue along with the city parking garage there, spelled the end. The Evanston 5 couldn’t get first-run movies like the Century. It closed along with many of the Loews chain in 2001 and was demolished in ’07. 

The Century movie theater in Church Street Plaza was closed by Cinemark but has been reopened by AMC, with fewer auditoriums. Credit: RoundTable file photo

The Century was huge, 18 screens, but lacked the warmth, the glamor and the adventurous feeling of the old movie theaters, in my view. The cocktail lounge was quite nice though, especially when they had live music. You could get a good snack there. The pandemic did it in, however, among other issues. The AMC Evanston 12, with six fewer auditoriums, is its welcome replacement, opening just last month.

Perhaps it’s childhood memories that call to me. I remember early kisses with junior high dates in those old movie theaters. The boy would sneak his arm around the back of the girl’s seat, then, finally, drop his hand on her shoulder. (More stealthy and less awkward than actually holding hands.)

Remember the saying ”to steal a kiss?” That’s what really happened – if a girl didn’t turn away, a boy would then “steal” a kiss. Then they’d both look back at the screen and pretend it hadn’t happened, because who knew what to say or do anyway, after you’d been kissed in grade school?

Some decorations remain inside the Varsity Theater. A drop ceiling (note HVAC ductwork) separates the retail space below, on what was once the orchestra level, from the remains of the balcony and the rest of the auditorium above. Credit: Matt Lambros/Afterthefinalcurtain.net

The spectacular Varsity, with 2,500 seats and a design that looked like a French royal chateau, was the longest-lasting of the movie theaters, closing in 1988. In fact, it’s still there – not the marquee or the box office, of course, but the balcony, the stage, and the screen area – hidden, dark and quite decrepit now, and desperately in want of a gutting and new purpose.

At the Varsity, 600 of its 2,500 seats were located in the balcony. All have been removed. Credit: Matt Lambros/Afterthefinalcurtain.net

In 2012-13, a large study was done of the role and future of the arts in Evanston, EvanstARTs. Among its recommendations was a multiuse performing arts facility downtown, leading city planners to look at what was left of the Varsity Theater. Nothing came of it, though, and soon the Varsity will be turned into an apartment building with ground-floor retail.

Perhaps Northlight’s return to Evanston and its new facility on Church Street will fulfill that need. The movies and live performing arts are two different things. And they can both be magical.

Gay Riseborough

Gay Riseborough is an artist, has served the City of Evanston for 11 years on arts committees, and is now an arts writer at the Evanston RoundTable.

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  1. This is an awesome article. Growing up in the 60s-70’s in Evanston both Varsity and Valencia were big with my family. And the Evanston theaters on Central Street became popular as well. I cherish two beautiful photographs taken by a local artist, one of the Valencia, interior, and one of the Varsity interior which hang in my living room as memories of those historical sites and times. Thank you for your articulation. It’s most interesting.

  2. Back in 1968 or so, when I was way too young to have a job, I worked at the Varsity as a popcorn girl for $1 a hour, paid in cash. Best part of the job was getting to see all the movies for free and we could take home the advertising posters after the movie left. I had the Camelot poster on my bedroom wall for years. Worst part was the sleazy manager who always tried to open the dressing room door when we changed into our uniforms.

  3. I remember watching my first horror film at the Varsity (Dracula) and not being able to sleep that night, Jeanette McDonald/Nelson Eddy operettas for Nichols Music class assignments at the Valencia, and many walking trips in all weather to the Coronet throughout High School.

  4. Gay,
    A very nice piece. I came to Skevanston(an 80’s term) as a 3-year-old left for the army in 71 and came back in 82. You did not mention the Evanston II just down the street on Central from the 60s or that the Cornet also showed porn for a few years.

  5. What an interesting review of movie… theaters. I am glad to know the history of Evanston…from one who knew this places, dare I say, intimately?

  6. I have fond memories of all those theaters! Thanks for a good piece! Here’s hoping the new AMC12 theaters have a long and happy life!

  7. Thanks for the memories. I went to all of those old movie theaters back in the day ( late 60s /70s ). Then I ended up running the Evanston Century after the Wilmette Theater closed.