Movie-going offers a sort of timeless joy. Cinema enthusiasts a century apart share the experience of immersing themselves into the big, bright screen. The same wonder and suspension of belief attend viewing both a silent Chaplin film and Marvel’s next 3-D blockbuster. Even the popcorn has featured prominently for generations of filmgoers since the Great Depression. But the movie theater business has also undergone considerable changes as economic downturns and the advent of television have reduced box office lines. These challenges loomed even larger for small, older theaters which had to compete with the shiny new multiplexes with far more screens. All these factors make the continued existence of the theater at 6746 N. Sheridan Road, currently known as the New 400, all the more remarkable; it is arguably the oldest still-operating theater in Chicago. How has this comparatively-small location so far from the Loop kept projecting Hollywood magic for over a century? Two factors stand out: adaptation and community involvement.
In 1912, architectural firm Grossman & Proskauer designed the Regent Theater as a vaudeville venue, but by December 1913 it was showing movies produced by the Mutual Film Corporation and soon advertised its film offerings multiple times a week in the Chicago Tribune. (A Mr. F.A. Duffield served as manager-owner in 1914; Duffield, previously a typographer for the Chicago Record-Herald, appears to have joined the movie theater business after the Tribune bought out his previous employer.) Although boasting 736 seats, the Regent, like most early theaters, only contained one screen. The theater served as an important hub for Rogers Park community activities; the Regent hosted a benefit for the Catholic Women’s Club of Rogers Park in 1913, and in 1914 showed patrons slides to raise money for a power boat to help lifeguards prevent drownings on Lake Michigan’s north shore. During World War I, the theater took part in the Four-Minute Men Program, where government spokesmen would use the intermission to appraise patrons of the war effort and encourage patriotic involvement. By all accounts, the Regent Theater was a high-class place, representative of a prosperous and active Rogers Park.