From Rhett Butler’s sharp-witted response to Scarlett O’Hara’s plea, to Steve McQueen’s motorcycle leaping over Nazi soldiers, the Golden Age of Hollywood produced some of the most iconic images captured on film. It was a time when Marilyn Monroe and Katherine Hepburn’s names covered marquees across the country. And in a popular theater along 95th Street, residents of Southland came to see their favorites on the big screen.
Built in 1942 as one of several cinemas owned by the Lucas Theater Corporation, the Coral Theatre quickly became one of Oak Lawn’s most popular weekend destinations. Prior to Coral’s construction, the nearest venue was in distant Beverly, making a trip to see the latest flick impractical for those without a car. With an admission price of 22 cents for adults and 11 cents for children, the theater’s sole ticket booth was constantly swamped with movie-goers, eager to catch their favorite Tarzan serial.
To help their theater appeal to the widest audience, the Coral’s managers switched features at least three times each week. Abbott and Costello comedies, adventure pictures, and epics such as Spartacus entertained Oak Lawn residents. Young female ushers, clad in white blouses and blue slacks, escorted patrons to their seats while keeping an eye out for rowdy teenagers.
Virginia Ascroft Pote, speaking to reporters from the Oak Lawn Reporter in 1984, recalled her numerous responsibilities during her short time as an usher. One of their chief duties was to break up cozy couples hiding in the back rows.
“How could you actually stop your friends from necking in aisle number three?” Pote remembered asking herself daily as she would interrupt a first date.
When polite requests and glances over the shoulder were not enough, dour-faced manager Mr. Knapp would be called in. Coughing loudly and constantly jingling his keys, the lovebirds were quickly dissuaded from further public displays of affection. Despite the rowdiness of some young patrons, the Coral Theatre remained a popular destination for movie enthusiasts of all ages. Only a bike ride away from downtown, the posh cinema began to show its age by the 1960’s, after almost two decades of constant use.
After an extensive renovation, the new and improved Coral reopened in August 1963. Featuring a cutting-edge “hands-free” voice box at the ticket window, a pair of booth operators sat behind thick glass, protected from the elements. And as patrons were guided through the lobby to their respective screens, they marveled at the colorful Polynesian murals and collages. Sparing no expense, the Coral’s managers contracted artist Martin Ziegner to paint the theater’s unique façade.
The Coral’s grand re-opening pamphlet boasted that the art was “a real change of atmosphere, spacious, graceful, bright and natural, accenting all the calm and freshness of a far away land”.
Further setting itself apart from today’s mega-plexes, the Coral featured a fireplace lounge, where customers could relax with a cup of coffee between movies. On cool, summer evenings, the tasteful outdoor patio would be the perfect place to catch a bit of fresh air as you waited for your children to get out from their favorite Disney picture. And all the while, smartly-dressed managers in three-piece suits tended to each customer’s needs with attentive service.
When the infamous Oak Lawn Tornado struck the community in April 1967, Assistant Manager Robert Kehe went above and beyond his duties, allowing fleeing cars to seek refuge in the Coral’s parking lot. An amateur broadcaster, Kehe braved the torrential downpour and fierce winds armed with only a tape recorder. of the tornado still sends shivers down the spine.
Even after surviving a cataclysmic storm, the Coral was not immune to the changing retail landscape of Southland. By the early 1980’s, the theater’s prime location along 95th Street made it one of the most desirable pieces of real estate in town. Although village officials tried to develop a plan to modernize the Coral, the now-dilapidated structure failed to meet local building codes.
The discovery of sagging ceilings and rotted support beams forced the Betka Family, the Coral’s final owners, to close the theater for good in 1984. While some construction companies offered to remodel the cinema in time for Christmas 1985, the idea was ignored by village hall. Within the year, the village tore down the Coral and had begun construction on a high-end strip mall.
Although the Coral is gone, it has not been forgotten. The old theater harkened back to the days when Hollywood was a magical place, filled with damsels and heroes. And if you wanted to escape into a world of fantasy for a few hours, all you had to do was stroll a few blocks towards to Coral’s unmistakable flowing marquee.
For more information on the Coral Theatre, including photographs and brochures, visit the Local History Room of the Oak Lawn Public Library.