Silence is golden
A classic theater reopens with the Silent Film Fest
Walking down the aisle of the empty Portage Theatre on North Milwaukee Avenue, Dennis Wolkowicz asks the handymen to dim the lights to show off the theater’s charms. The theater is steeped in the glamour typical of 1920s movie palaces: a gold-painted dome fit for Ali Baba, walls adorned with trellises and glowing sconces, a massive retractable screen hung behind velvet curtains, and an expansive, Art Deco–style lobby. After five years of sitting vacant and unused, the 85-year-old theater is getting another chance because of Wolkowicz’s determination.
Having grown up barely a mile from the Portage, Wolkowicz, 55, reminisces about going to the theater as a kid, the larger-than-life experience of the films exaggerated by the old theater’s grandeur: “I distinctly remember my brother taking me to the Portage on a summer afternoon. It was raining like crazy and all the ushers in their red suits and their slicked-back greasy-kid-stuff hair were oblivious to the rain, controlling the crowd. This place was just jam-packed on a Wednesday afternoon for Ben-Hur with Charlton Heston.”
Over the past two decades, Wolkowicz has dedicated himself to bringing silent film to the masses in its authentic form. For him, that means showcasing the films in a historic setting, accompanied by music in the original silent-film style. His efforts have resulted in the revival of two theaters, the formation of the Silent Film Society of Chicago (SFSC) and an annual Silent Film Festival that shows classics like the original 1923 Ten Commandments and Murnau’s The Last Laugh. He has also devoted years to composing and performing silent-film scores. Since finishing his 22-year stint first as volunteer and then as a manager at the Northwest Side’s Gateway Theatre, Wolkowicz has turned his attention to the Portage; this year’s Silent Film Fest, which kicks off May 19 with a screening of the early Chaplin feature Tillie’s Punctured Romance, marks not only the reopening of the Portage but the next phase in Wolkowicz’s career as the theater’s managing director.
Wolkowicz got hooked on silent films as a boy, watching shorts and full-length features on TV. He became further enthralled by the musical genius of Gaylord Carter’s silent-film organ accompaniment at Lake Forest’s Deerpath Theater in 1973. “It was the first time I got goose bumps,” he says. “I was just blown away, and I said, ‘That is the way silent film should be.’?”
What he really loves about silent-film scores is the way the music expresses the characters’ voices and emotions. “I don’t think anybody really develops a theme for the characters in these modern scores,” he notes. “We don’t try to beat it to death too much, but we’re reprising it throughout the film so that as the climax builds, especially for dramas, it really hits home.”
His passion for the art evolved from hobby to career in 1998 when he cofounded the SFSC, launching silent-film programming at the Gateway and a handful of other historic theaters in the Chicago area. Two years later the group kicked off the first Silent Film Festival. Now the festival draws huge crowds (1,700 at one Gateway showing) and spices up the program with everything from contemporary silent shorts to live orchestral accompaniment and hula-dancing performances.
A night of silent cinema “is not your typical Friday night at the movies,” Wolkowicz emphasizes. Seated at the keyboard, he fills the space with the rich sound of organ music.
Unapologetically boastful of the 1,300-seat theater’s spectacular facade, Wolkowicz isn’t concerned that the Portage will go unnoticed. After the festival ends, it will host everything from silent films to indie flicks and documentaries to live shows.
“Compared to some of these big arts organizations, [the Silent Film Society] is just a blip on the screen,” Wolkowicz says. “We’re not going to make the social pages or any of that, but we think we’re unique.”
The sixth annual Silent Film Festival runs Fridays from May 19 through June 16 at the Portage Theatre, 4050 N Milwaukee Ave. For more information, visit www.silentfilmchicago.com.