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Thursday, Sept. 9, 2010 04:38 pm

Goodbye, Kerasotes

Springfield’s century-long cinematic dynasty ends... with a whimper


AMC Entertainment, Inc., now owns all three Springfield movie houses, including the Showplace 12, but the new company has been slow to take down the old name and logo.

“Frankly, it’s not the end of the world for me,” asserts Tony Kerasotes when queried about the January 2010 sale of all but three of his family’s 96-theater empire — including all Springfield locations — to cinematic behemoth AMC this past January. “My family hadn’t owned a controlling interest in the company since 2004 anyway.”

The previous year had found the Kerasotes company entering into an investment deal with multinational firm Providence Equity. Under the original terms, the family maintained a 70 percent share of the company while gaining access to $75 million in funds to develop new locations and improve existing ones. However, things took a less than providential turn when, a year into the agreement, brothers John and Dennis Kerasotes sold their shares of the company to Providence, effectively reducing the family’s interest to a mere 40 percent.

“John and Dennis were not interested in pursuing the business,” says Tony. “The die was pretty much cast when they decided to sell out for the quick money. After that, well, seven years is about the amount of time it takes for an equity firm to turn around their investment. It was pretty much inevitable.”

In 1934, Kerasotes marked 25 years in Springfield at the downtown Senate Theatre, which was on the north side of Monroe, between Fifth and Sixth. The building was demolished in 1983 to make way for Lincoln Square apartments.

Inevitable or not, it was an inauspicious swan song for a long-lived, sometimes controversial, Springfield institution.

It was 1909 when Gus Kerasotes converted his candy store at 214 S. Sixth St. into a storefront nickelodeon he dubbed the Royal Theater. The Greek immigrant and Chicago expatriate watched his business develop alongside the young movie industry, transitioning from primitive, hand-cranked films through the entire silent film era and eventually the revolutionary “talking pictures.” By the time of his death in 1960, Gus’s four sons were ready to grab the reins of the company.

The business continued to grow in the following decades but there was a schism within the family in 1985 when George Kerasotes split off from his brother, company president Louis Kerasotes, to form his own chain, GKC Theatres. When Louis died in 1988, his sons Tony and Dean took over and by the late 90s had moved the company’s corporate offices from Springfield to Chicago. At the time of the agreement with Providence Equity, Kerasotes owned and operated 539 screens across six states.

Kerasotes showed off its new projection equipment at Springfield’s Strand Theatre in 1931.

Despite the generally held notion that the Kerasotes company held a long-standing monopoly of movie houses in Springfield, Tony is quick to point out that there was healthy competition in town for many years. “Before we bought it in 1988, the theater at White Oaks Mall was owned by General Cinema,” he avers. “We acquired the Fox Town & Country in about ’85, but until then it had been run by the Wehrenberg chain.”

The Kerasotes company has been no stranger to contention in the local community. The closing of the Fox Town & Country in 1998 and then Esquire in 2004 can arguably be blamed in part for the decay of the once-thriving, now blighted strip of MacArthur between Wabash and South Grand. Odd judgment calls have abounded over the years, including a beefing up of security at the 2007 premier of the African American fraternity film Stomp the Yard, measures which some deemed racist but which the family justified due to a shooting incident at one of their theaters in Rockford [See “Misstep: What made Kerasotes think Springfield couldn’t handle a film about black frats?” by Dusty Rhodes and R.L. Nave, Jan. 17, 2007]. Even more strange, similar measures were taken at the 2009 premier of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (perhaps in fear of violent retribution from historical purists). In the late 80s there was a series of incidents in which Kerasotes family homes and theaters were targeted with pipe bombs, though perpetrators and motivation remained cloudy.

AMC has been slow to remove the Kerasotes name from their newly acquired theaters’ facades, perhaps fostering the impression that the family business may continue in the form of some sort of corporate partnership, but this is not the case. The new owners officially took over as of January 2010 and any remnants of the Kerasotes legacy lingering around Springfield are strictly cosmetic. This includes the Kerasotes building downtown at Sixth and Washington. “The building is empty and up for sale,” Tony Kerasotes confirms. “Since we’re no longer doing business in the region, we really don’t have a use for it anymore.”

The old 66 Drive-In featured the 1953 hit, Dangerous When Wet.

Appearances aside, the Kerasotes family is still active in the movie theater business. Two of the three properties they continue to maintain following the AMC buyout are the innovative Showplace Icon “concept theaters” located in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood and in suburban Minneapolis.

“At our Icon theaters it’s all reserved seating,” explains Tony, with the mounting excitement of a true entrepreneur. “The seats themselves are super-plush and there are tables for food and a special menu which was designed by Jerry Kleiner, a very well-known Chicago restaurateur. We’ve got paninis, meat and cheese plates, sliders, you name it. See, the thing we noticed is, a lot of adults don’t like to go to the movies anymore because of all the teenagers messing around, people talking and texting and whatnot. There’s a lobby lounge where you can gain access with a VIP ticket if you’re over 21. It makes for a self-contained kind of evening out, dinner, movie, everything in one shot, and it’s a classy experience, which we’re finding is hopefully bringing some people back in who may even have stopped going to the movies in recent years.”

The departure of Kerasotes from the Springfield movie market is in many ways just another tedious example of that most overused of modern clichés: Usurping of Family-Owned Business by Faceless Corporate Megalith. And sure enough, big, bad AMC has thus far shown little regard for the local market, raising ticket prices immediately and refusing to honor, even transitionally, any of the passes and packages left in place by the previous, human owners. AMC has also proven uncooperative in providing accurate showtime information to at least one local weekly paper.

It seems that after 100 years of quirky, controversial, community-eroding and sometimes just plain irritating behavior from the always colorful Kerasotes, Springfield moviegoers may never again have it so good.

Scott Faingold is the author of the novel Kennel Cough and former assistant music section editor for the Houston Press. He can be reached via scottfaingold@gmail.com.

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