The movie theater, which has survived two pandemics since opening in 1912, is widely considered “the oldest theater in Chicago that’s still operating.”
Rogers Park’s The New 400 Theaters ‘Almost Certainly Closing’
In Aaron Lawson’s office at The New 400 Theaters, a Dell computer is situated between two whirring projectors in a dimly lit, attic-like space. To his right, a four-foot-tall poster of Robert Redford’s “A River Runs Through It” leans against the wall. Behind him, a print for the original “Star Wars.”
“I absolutely love this theater,” Lawson, the theater’s current general manager, said. “It’s an old school movie theater, and we like it that way.”
At night, the glow of The 400 is the brightest on North Sheridan Road, but after a century, its light may soon be fading. Current owner Tony Fox said he is “almost certainly closing The 400” as soon as he finds a new tenant — a search that is beginning immediately.
The movie theater, which has survived two pandemics since opening in 1912, is widely considered “the oldest theater in Chicago that’s still operating,” according to Lawson.
Nearly 80 bulbs on the theater’s awning light the entrance at 6746 N. Sheridan Rd. — a block north of Loyola’s Lake Shore Campus. Before he started working at The 400 almost two years ago, Lawson remembers waiting in line beneath the cover to see “The Avengers” in 2012. Four years later, he would go on his first date with his now-wife Liz to see “Pete’s Dragon.”
He was hired in the summer of 2021 as The 400 began to phase out of its lockdown stage. The theater temporarily opened as a COVID-19 testing site in December 2021, The Phoenix previously reported. They also allowed patrons to rent out a theater for the night and bring their own movie or gaming console — something still offered by the theater today.
“It was a post-lockdown job for all of us, and it’s just changed everybody’s life,” Lawson said.
Of the approximately 10 current employees, only one worked at The 400 before COVID-19 — Daniel Richardson, the assistant general manager.
“Since the pandemic, it seems like movies in theaters in general have all been slower, and it’s definitely reflected here,” Richardson said.
Approximately 61% of American adults did not see a movie in the theater in 2021, a Gallup poll reported. Of those who did, they saw an average of 3.6 movies in the year, a dip from “6.9 in December 2007 and no fewer than 5.7 in any other Gallup survey.”
“It’s not like it’s a dead industry or even, in my opinion, a dying industry,” Lawson said. “It’s just a lot tougher than it used to be.”
Fox said attendance has only been about 50% of what it was pre-pandemic. A similar trend led to the closure of Harper Theater in Hyde Park, which was also owned by Fox.
“The only difference between that one and this one is that I own the real estate at The 400, and I didn’t own the real estate at the Harper, so I was paying rent to the University of Chicago,” he said.
Harper Theater currently has plans to reopen under new ownership, according to South Side Weekly.
The 400 employee and Loyola sophomore Lucy Myerscough said the proximity to the university benefits college students.
“You can really tell that it means a lot to students on campus, because it’s cheap,” the secondary education and English double major said. “We’re all broke and you can come here and watch a movie and get popcorn for less than $20.”
Tickets for senior citizens and children go for $6, adults pay $8.50 and students with their IDs pay $7.50.
An AMC theater recently opened in Evanston, The Daily Northwestern reported. Compared to The 400, their ticket prices are nearly twice as expensive, according to AMC. The movie theater chain will also be introducing a feature called “Sightline,” charging more for coveted middle seats, according to the Associated Press.
The 400 makes very little money from ticket sales and concessions are “definitely” where their profit comes from, according to Lawson. Selling popcorn, candy, soda and alcoholic beverages, he said the decision to keep their prices low is to make it affordable for the community.
The average annual household income in Rogers Park is $46,244, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.
“It’s fun to go to the big [theaters] to see movies on the biggest screens possible and stuff like that, but I want my neighborhood theater that has been around a long time, and it just feels like going to the movies when you were a kid,” Lawson said. “It’s still a great experience, it’s just not the big thing you would pay big money for.”
Film and digital media major Jacqueline Southwell said The 400 provides a great opportunity for students and young people to come together because of their low prices.
“Having cheap movie tickets is probably one of the best ways to get students out of the house,” Southwell said.
Summur Roberts, Loyola’s director of neighborhood initiatives, said it’s sad anytime a business is lost in the community, especially when the nearest theaters are elsewhere in Chicago or in Evanston.
“I don’t think we were ever truly successful in really making it ‘the local Loyola student theater,’” Roberts said. “But I hope against hope that maybe, at the last minute, something will pull through, and he’ll be able to stay open.”
Before the pandemic, Loyola hosted “Summer on the Plaza” for six years along North Sheridan Road, Roberts said. The program was intended to add “vibrancy” to the Loyola Red Line Station plaza with a farmers market and performances.
In 2017, it expanded and she and Fox worked together to have a live saxophonist and a three-piece band play outside The 400’s entrance.
“I’m grateful to the community for a lot of good years — grateful for Loyola for unwavering support over all those years,” Fox said. “I don’t have any misgivings about the community abandoning us now.”
Fox is the president of real estate firm ADF Capital and owns the property from The 400 to the corner of West Columbia Avenue and North Sheridan Road. The rest of the space is leased out to the Starbucks, Bank of America and Rice Thai Cafe.
When he originally bought the property in 2009, he said it was his third “Starbucks-anchored neighborhood center.” Now, the “most distinctive property in all of Rogers Park” is his last.
“After I re-tenant The 400, I’m gonna sell this building,” the Evanston resident said. “I’ll be in a position to retire if I want to.”
Fox said his brokers have told him the space may be best fit for a private school or daycare center.
“If somebody wants to come in and buy it because it’s a theater, they can do that,” Fox said. “I don’t think anybody’s gonna want to, though. For other people in the industry, they can tell how much we’re selling here, and it’s not gonna be enough to attract another operator.”
Lawson said he would love to see the location continue as a movie theater so his employees could keep their jobs. Regardless of what it becomes, Richardson just hopes the community aspect doesn’t fade with the theater.
“If it doesn’t come back as a movie theater, at least hold on to the memories of having such a neighborhood, communal space so that maybe something like it could come back again somewhere in the neighborhood,” Richardson said. “Just keep the idea alive.”
Despite changing the north-facing side of their sign to read “Save Your Local Theater,” Lawson said they’ve come to terms with the inevitability.
“I almost don’t want to call it, ‘Save The New 400,’ because those kind of grassroots campaigns, if they fail, it’s depressing,” Lawson said. “But I don’t think we should necessarily look at it like that anymore. We should just be like, ‘Please enjoy this great theater while you can.’”
Southwell, a senior at Loyola, said supporting small businesses is important, especially when it feels like she knows the people there, like at The 400. Lawson echoed this sentiment and said the theater belongs to Rogers Park and their tight-knit staff.
“That’s what makes me really emotional about it closing is that we all really care about this place,” Lawson said. “It’s a hard truth that it will probably close down and we’ll have to all move on. And that’s what happens.”
The New 400 Theaters will continue to show movies with reduced hours until a new tenant comes. Show times from Thursday to Sunday can be found at thenew400.com or by calling 773-856-5980.