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Saving the screen


Linda MacLennan

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Updated: March 4, 2014 4:33PM

I call it “The Little Theatre That Could.” But for 100 years, it’s been called simply “The Wilmette Theatre.”

For a century, The Wilmette has defied depressions and recessions, the ravages of the elements, the conversion from silent black-and-white films to Technicolor talkies, the perceived threat from TV and now from on-demand, on-any-device. And we’re still open for business! Our somewhat tattered and decidedly outdated storefront, with what still passes for a movie marquee jutting over the sidewalk, sits almost stubbornly in the middle of Central Ave. in downtown Wilmette.

In its small-town, personal way, the ’Mette has welcomed generations of moviegoers, and now, live theater patrons, who understand what a historic local theater brings to the vibrancy of a village center and what it means for the cultural heartbeat for those of us outside downtown Chicago.

Just last month, we were reminded again that our sliver of the movie business is on the brink of extinction. Highland Park has given up trying to find a buyer who will renovate their historic theater. It may well be razed. At 1122 Central, we said a collective prayer of thanks that we’re OK. We’re still here because of public support, the support of local sponsor North Shore Community Bank and because we’re very lean.

Now a 501-(c)(3) not-for-profit, we inherited this aging building and a hefty mortgage. Our full-time staff consists of two for the theater, and three for our nationally-recognized acting school, the Actors Training Center. We can’t afford advertising, so we use email and social media to promote what’s going on at the ’Mette. The volunteer board co-presidents meet every Saturday to review operations, programming and to micromanage the balance sheet. We count our pennies and we count on donations to supplement box office returns.

Being miserly in our spending but creative in our programming is always a challenge, but just as we forged proudly into our Centennial year, we faced arguably our biggest challenge yet. The film industry has gotten out of the film business — in other words, the major studios aren’t distributing 35mm film anymore. To book current movies, theaters have to have digital equipment (“Go digital or go dark” is their ominous phrase). But we knew converting to digital would cost a minimum of $65,000 per screen.

We got lucky. In the 11th hour of our 99th year, Wilmette businesswoman Candace Mirza came forward and, through her late father’s foundation, donated a digital projection system. With that, we’ve stepped into the next era of movies and the next century of our history. We’re soon turning to another darling of the digital age — crowdsourcing — to raise money to convert our other screen. We’re launching a Kickstarter campaign, hoping it’s as successful as one that kept Barrington’s historic Catlow Theatre open.

For an old gal, we’re trying our best to be very modern and very much alive.

To donate to the Wilmette Theatre, visit

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