CHATHAM — It’s a warm weekday evening when Alonzo Velasco, a Chatham native, arrives at the new neighborhood movie theater.
In his hand, he carries a hot basket of chicken tenders and fries freshly ordered from the concession stand. Draped over his shoulders is his son, Josiah, who every so often leans down to expertly steal a fry. They’re here to see a Marvel flick, “Black Widow.”
“I’m happy that this theater is back open again,” Velasco said. “It’s the only one close to me, so I decided to take my family out.”
Cinema Chatham Powered by Emagine, 210 W. 87th St., opened its doors to movie lovers Aug. 13. The building’s previous tenant, Studio Movie Grill, shut its doors during the pandemic and permanently closed in April. The company declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year.
As moviegoers filed into the theater, some alone, others with family in tow, the feeling was unanimous: It’s good to be back.
Bryan Miller, general manager at Cinema Chatham, said he’s always loved movies.
“I’m a big ‘Star Wars’ fan,” Miller said. “I always ask people those questions first, like, if you’re a ‘Star Wars’ fan, ‘Are you a Jedi or a Sith?’ I am a Sith.”
Miller started his journey in the movie business as a manager at Studio Movie Grill nearly five years ago. He was born and raised in Chatham and grew up not too far from the theater’s location.
Soon after, Miller became general manager of the theater. To him, it felt like a “dream come true,” he said.
Then the pandemic hit.
“Being in a management position for so long, working with people and being able to give top-notch hospitality was great,” Miller said. “Then to have it all to go down to zero in the blink of an eye … you just get this feeling of uncertainty. You don’t know what the world is going to bring. I struggled there for a long minute.”
Like most theaters worldwide, Studio Movie Grill closed in March 2020.
For six months, Miller remained hopeful the theater would reopen.
But in September, that hope was cut short when he learned employees wouldn’t be coming back.
“That feeling, close to depression, really sunk in,” Miller said. “A lot of people went through depression during the pandemic, and I can understand.”
Staying still wasn’t an option, Miller said.
He worked at a nearby Extra Space Storage for a little while. Then he hopped to Hooters. But as much as he tried, there wasn’t anything quite the same as working at the theater.
To fill the movie-shaped gap, Miller said he turned to online streaming platforms.
“When you are trying to watch HBO Max and Disney+, it’s just not the same,” Miller said. “It doesn’t give you that feeling. You don’t hear enough rumbling behind you. You find yourself watching your TV and not feeling the same.”
A silver lining came Miller’s way when he received a call from John Goldstein, the movie theater building’s owner. Goldstein wanted to open a new theater at the location, and he wanted to know if Miller wanted to come in to speak about an opportunity.
“He made me feel at home after that first interaction,” Miller said. “It was fantastic.”
Goldstein, much like Miller, has always loved movies.
“When I was a kid, my mom used to want to go shopping, and the safest place for her to drop me off was at the movie theater,” Goldstein said. “A lot of the time, she’d drop me off there, and I would just sit and watch movies. I fell in love with movies and have always loved movies.”
In college, Goldstein said he studied both film and business. His family also had a background in real estate.
“Those three things came together and made the movie theater business,” Goldstein said.
For decades, Goldstein said he wanted to open a theater at the spot on 87th Street.
The opportunity finally came in 2019 when, together with a group of investors, he bought the building that housed Studio Movie Grill.
“Little did I know the world would be locked down six months later,” Goldstein said.
When Studio Movie Grill filed for bankruptcy, Goldstein said he knew he needed to act quickly to fill the vacant space. Another movie theater was a perfect choice, he said.
“When you want to provide quality entertainment, movie theaters are an affordable entertainment option,” Goldstein said. “You go to a Bulls game or a Bears game, and you could be out $600. You come to the movies and, for $50 to $60, you have a really good time seeing something that costs hundreds of millions of dollars to make. I felt like all of the pieces fit with this location.”
Cinema Chatham is on its way to becoming a South Side staple, Miller said.
From the cheesy popcorn and caramel corn that is “better than the bags at Garrett’s,” to luxury lounge seats, Miller said moviegoers will get an experience like no other at the theater.
“This theater is built by the community,” Miller said. “When you walk in, you just have a sense of elegance. That’s what this neighborhood deserves.”
And film lovers are thrilled to be back, too.
Wanda, a ticket holder at the theater who asked to only use her first name, said she’s seen the excitement in neighbor’s faces.
“There was a gentleman that was riding through the lot on a four-wheeler ATV, and he came up on the sidewalk to look in the window,” she said. “He left and then he immediately came back [for a movie]. People are really excited [to be back].”
“Respect,” starring Chicago native Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin, has been a crowd favorite, she said.
Watching excited families, couples and teens file into his theater feels like “fulfilling a purpose,” Goldstein said.
“Just now, I was in a theater, and there was a mom with her daughter, and they were ready to watch ‘Paw Patrol,’” Goldstein said. “I could just see in the kid’s eyes how excited they were to see this movie on the big screen. Whether I make money or lose money, I don’t care as much as I care about seeing that.”
Cinema Chatham is still a work in progress, Goldstein said.
Only nine of the 14 theaters are open to the public. And while the business awaits its liquor license, the bar planned for the theater is not yet open.
Goldstein said he hopes to have the theater fully up and running by Oct. 1.
In the meantime, he’s hoping to create a fun, safe environment where neighbors can get lost in the joys of film, if even for a little while.
“This might sound cheesy, but there’s nothing better than doing this,” Goldstein said. “Something about entertaining people and making people happy through entertainment has always been a real joy for me. The thought that I provided a couple of hours of escapism has always been something that just feels like my purpose. What a great business to be in.”
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