For nearly ten years from the 2nd week in July to the end of August, the Chicago Park District used to put up a huge screen in Grant Park and show classic films for free. It was a very urban experience sitting outside on that classic park lawn with thousands of people watching great films. That meant that every summer, instead of watching movies at home, I would finally be getting outside, relaxing in the cool green grass…and watching movies. Redundant, isn’t it?
Several years ago when the city began to make cutbacks in events, such as no more Venetian Nights and Fourth of July fireworks, the Movies in the Park were the first to go. They were wonderful evenings. For my next few posts I’ll be remembering some of my favorite movies in the park.
There were many memorable nights in the park but nothing compares to the showing of Citizen Kane.
Now supposedly the founders of the Movies in the Park were Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. As many of you may know, Roger had been really sick with throat cancer. For a couple years it looked like he wasn’t going to make it so for a couple seasons they let him pick the Movies in the Park. The movies shown those years came from a book he wrote about the movies you ‘need’ to see. The problem was that they were all film study class films, The Hustler, High Noon, On the Waterfront, all good movies, but not really movies that inspire festive, high spirits. Well, the opening night of the festival Roger was there to introduce his favorite movie, Citizen Kane.
Citizen Kane is of course a great movie, but not a movie that you want to see while sitting in the dirt in a sling chair; it’s not very campy. People can’t yell “you go girl” or “woo-hoo”.) Com Ed, one of the sponsors that year, gave out these big foam hands with the thumbs up. We were instructed that at some point everyone in the audience was supposed to hold the hands and yell “Thumbs up, Roger!”
Well, Roger came out and did his speech about the movie and how wonderful the opening shot is “blah, blah, blah.” Then we did the ‘Thumbs up, Roger,” applauded his years as a reviewer, and waited for the movie to start. I was completely unprepared for what I was about to experience.
For some unknown reason, the sound was turned up full blast. And it was DEAFENING. I grew up next to an airport and the Southwest Flight to Miami had nothing on the opening credits. I’M TELLING YOU LOUD. To top it off, Citizen Kane is a loud movie anyway. When it got to part where it jumps into the March of Time newsreel about Kane’s life and the announcer yells, “Legendary was the Xanadu where Kubla Kahn decreed his stately pleasure dome” I thought the windows on all the buildings on Michigan Avenue were going to shatter. It just seemed to get louder and louder. I remember at one point yelling in my friend Jonathan’s ear that I couldn’t stand it for very much longer: “What?” he yelled back unable to hear me. There was a very large crowd to see the film and Roger, several thousand people, but by the time Kane and his wife, the opera singer, start fighting, the sound of her screeching voice made people gathering up their blankets and run out of the park as if there was a sniper in the bushes, their hands covering their ears.
Our group couldn’t really get up and run because Hugh always brought a most elaborate spread with mini tables, candles, and silverware. The sound didn’t seem to be bothering him at all and he wasn’t about to give up one of his Movies in the Park nights for something as little as hearing loss. A couple in front of us had a great idea and they turned around to us to share it. They were ripping up the foam Ebert “Thumbs Up” hands and were frantically tearing them up and stuffing them in their ears. We all did the same and we were able to get through the film.
It was the most insane movie going experience I’d ever been through. And come to think of it, I’ve never been able to watch that film again.