Shouting fire in an empty theater

All across campus, econ majors are feeling queasy—if not i-banking on Wall Street, then what?

By Claire McNear

[img id=”80747″ align=”alignleft”] Things really aren’t going very well. Amid the four-alarm blaze that is Wall Street, terrible things can be seen with the kind of wide-eyed horror that only the headlights of Doom itself inspires: the creeping Russian claws of Vladimir Putin, Congressional games of Whac-A-Mole (Where’s the bailout coming up next? House? Senate? The Straight Talk Express?!), hurricanes, angry legions of South American leaders, and the first icy hints that winter is on its way, to name a few.

All across campus, econ majors are feeling queasy—if not i-banking on Wall Street, then what? Geography majors are seeing their islands and lower landmasses melt rapidly into the sea; gender studies majors can only watch as terms like “sexist” are rendered meaningless on a national stage. By my estimates, the vast majority of the student body should at this point be afraid—everyone except the philosophy and music majors, who can at least warm themselves together with folk songs about moral decline and the judgment of humanity as they hunch in front of campfires fueled by the tinder of worthless dollars and dreams.

But things have been bad before. In 1929, stocks—and for many, life as they knew it—tumbled suddenly toward an oblivion that was previously inconceivable. For many Americans, unemployment, uncertainty, and unhappiness ruled: The Great Depression was to the status quo what being dropped on the floor of a men’s restroom is to lollipops.

However, there was one notable exception to this sudden, overwhelming awfulness: American cinema. Variables aside—sound had just been introduced, and it did not take long for the public to realize that talking moving pictures are significantly more interesting than silent moving pictures—movie theaters did quite all right, given the situation. Though eventually the industry would stumble, the first years of the crisis saw a Hollywood that was immune to the economic misery spelunking: Even at the height of the Depression, between 60 and 80 million Americans still went to the theaters every week. It became evident that Americans, tired and weary and a little mortified by the real world, were more than happy to forget their woes for a couple hours and step into a cheerier cinematic world of their choosing.

And now dark times are upon us again, but U of C students are at a critical disadvantage: Hyde Park has no movie theater in which to seek relief. To be sure, there is Doc Films, but with just one film a night and a conspicuous lack of popcorn, Icees, and dancing candy bars, it offers little of the joy bequeathed to patrons of real theaters. As a result, students here are seemingly condemned to the harsh cruelty of reality without respite.

Yet there is a movie theater in Hyde Park: The Harper Theater at the intersection of East 53rd Street and South Harper Avenue stands proud, ready, and utterly empty. For the six years that the University has owned the property, it has attempted to find tenants to populate the Theater complex not with movies but with retail, only briefly investigating the possibility of reviving the cinema for its original purpose at the behest—or maybe the prophetic war cries—of Hyde Park preservationists. Ultimately, the University decided to resume its retail tenant hunt.

Very well. Perhaps when the administration made this decision in 2006, Hyde Park didn’t need a movie theater. I can believe that—Bush had been in office for a full half-term less; Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Lehman Brothers, and A.I.G. were all as shiny and unsinkable as the pre-iceberg Titanic; paychecks could provide for more than rent, a quarter-tank of gas, and some wilted celery; and no one beyond dozens of weeping, orphaned moose calves had ever heard of Sarah Palin.

Not so anymore. Now, we long for then—that was the best of times; this is the worst of times (though worse of times loom). We, as students, Hyde Parkers, citizens of the world, and most of all as horrified bystanders to what are generally The Worst Things We Have Ever Seen, need a movie theater. Things are crashing down all around us, but at least with a movie theater we could sink into happier, simpler times of enamored cartoon robots and Bond Girls. Please, President Zimmer—give us sanctuary, and let us eat popcorn.