The past importance of movie theaters to suburban downtowns and the difficulty of reviving them today

The downtown movie theater was once an important part of suburbs but a number of these theaters have been difficult to revive in recent years:

Theater stories abound in the suburbs. The lavishly restored Paramount Theater in Aurora offers Broadway plays and big-name musical acts. The Arcada Theatre in St. Charles is another success story. Others — including the Wheaton Grand, Des Plaines Theater and Clearwater Theater in West Dundee — face uncertain futures after opening and closing multiple times in recent years…

Main Street theaters became popular in the late 1920s, when film was just emerging, Fosbrink said. Their construction boomed through the late 1930s and 1940s, particularly as suburbs took hold.

“Planning to have a theater in your town, or an opera house or something (for entertainment) was just as important as planning a city hall or fire station,” he said…

“People at this point in time are paying a lot more attention to how a theater can be a catalyst for economic development in a downtown business district,” Fosbrink said. “Theaters really can drive economic development, and we see a lot of that happening all over the country.”

Once a status symbol and source of local entertainment, these theaters are now possible ways to attract more people to a suburban downtown and hope they spend more money while they are there. Even though they aren’t really needed now (even the multiplexes have had a difficult time in recent years), they might anchor new entertainment districts where suburbanites don’t go to the city for culture but instead stay nearby.

It would be interesting to think about how many of these downtown theaters the Chicago suburbs could support. Particularly if they hope to all thrive, how much money is there to spread around?

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