Having been around since before the Great Depression, Chicago’s Music Box Theatre has seen a lot over the decades. From adding social spaces in the building to establishing seasonal events, current senior operations manager Buck LePard discusses the evolution of the historic venue and how they’ve built such a tight-knit workplace culture. We’ll also hear from Carly, a resident of the neighborhood, about her experience as a moviegoer during the pandemic.
On the Yelp Blog: Read more about how this 90-year-old theater has endured hardships and shaped its community.
EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Every episode I pick one review on Yelp and talk to the entrepreneur and the reviewer about the story and business lessons behind their interaction.
Let’s see what’s behind this week’s review.
CARLY: I’ve lived in the neighborhood for a while. So I always knew where the Music Box was. But I’d only ever thought about going in and I’d only ever been once a few years ago. So, it’s always been a historic thing in the neighborhood and kind of a fun thing that people are always taking pictures of. So, it’s always been a fun thing to walk by and see, it’s a nice staple to have in the neighborhood for sure.
EMILY: That’s Carly, a Yelp user from Chicago. Living in the city helped her discover the Music Box Theatre, a historic movie theater on Chicago’s north side. After passing by countless times, she finally stepped inside on a whim earlier this year and was thoroughly impressed by the venue’s service and ambiance. Let’s hear her review.
CARLY: The Music Box is my favorite part of living on Southport. It gives the neighborhood such a classic historic feel and it’s so great to see the people flowing out again after a movie gets out since they reopened after COVID. I decided last minute to stop in today and see In the Heights. The staff was helpful and welcoming and other moviegoers were all spaced out in the theater seats. It feels like you’re in such a historic space. Seeing movies here, you can’t go wrong with the popcorn as well. Love supporting this local spot.
EMILY: The Music Box has been around since 1929, and actually opened a few months before the Great Depression. With such a long history, this small independent theater has endured decades of change and expansion.
So how does a venue like this keep its historic integrity in 2022? And how has it adapted amid the challenges of the past two years? Let’s hear from Buck LePard, senior operations manager of the Music Box.
BUCK: I’ve been with the company since 2009. The Music Box itself has been in Chicago since 1929. We just had a big 90th anniversary bash a couple years ago. The Music Box has been an operating independent movie theater with a lot of different identities in Chicago for the past nine decades. Right now, we do a lot of, we’re an art house, independent art house cinema. We do foreign films, independent films, documentaries, classic films. We do a lot of special events with special guests, singalongs, midnight movies. I like to say, if you look at our calendar, you’re not going to like everything on it, but you will find something that you like, just because of the wide range of our programming and events.
EMILY: Part of what entices customers like Carly is that the venue stands out among the megaplexes seen everywhere throughout the country.
CARLY: It’s feels very historic, which is really cool. It’s not your typical modern day movie theater. It has that old school feel. It has like the spinning lights on the outside and it has a huge, really cool sign. So you can see it from a mile down the road.
EMILY: Every so often, like every historical building, the Music Box needs to undergo updates and renovations. However, Buck knows that the Music Box has a unique identity, and intends to preserve the theater’s vintage look.
BUCK: So we’ve kept, tried to keep pretty much the same feeling as when the theater was first built in 1929. We have a main auditorium that seats 750, which at the time was one of the smaller movie houses in Chicago. Originally movie theaters were, you know, 2000 or 3000 seats. And then when the Music Box was built, it was a scaled down version of that. And obviously things have swapped where now that room is one of the largest movie theater rooms in Chicago.
Our main theater has sort of an outdoor Italian Villa atmosphere with a lot of ornate plasterwork and sculptures on the wall. We’ve got twinkling stars on the ceiling. So kind of like if you were watching a movie outside in the open air. We’ve kept a lot of things in their original sense. The theater was built in 1929 and any time we do make updates to the theater, we try to make it stay within that same style and same feeling. We never want to feel like. You know, updating, um, with too much disregard to the theater’s history or changing the atmosphere of the theater.
EMILY 5: An example of this is when the Music Box team realized that the theater had potential to become more of a social space.
BUCK: Because previously our lobby was very narrow and we were somewhat limited. You know, after you saw the movie, you couldn’t really hang out, you had to go find another place to go because we needed people to get out of the theater. So we would have room to invite the next group of people in. So we built this a lounge and outdoor garden space to accommodate gathering before or after the movie.
EMILY: These inviting, gathering spaces in the venue are only part of the Music Box Theatre’s unique culture. Building a community through a business often starts with the staff, and Buck’s goal is to make sure that everyone who works there gets to contribute to the way the theater is run.
BUCK: We’d like our staff to be really involved in shaping the culture of the Music Box. We obviously have a lot of people who are very passionate about movies, and because we do so many things, people are able to, you know, get their own imprint on it.
We’ve had staff come up with a lot of ideas for special events that we can do, or special screenings or if we get approached about a movie that we might not be familiar with or things within specific genres, we definitely run it by the folks on staff. You know, we have a couple of people who are very passionate about anime, and so whenever a new anime offering comes up, we’ll go to them and say like, “Hey, what do you think about this one? And what’s the best way to, to reach this group of people?” We’ll have them keep an eye out for things like, “Hey, this film has a 20th anniversary coming up and I have a great idea for a special screening we could do.”
EMILY: Making employees feel valued and heard is so important for businesses, and it’s impressive that the Music Box has been able to foster a vibrant community of staff. Even now, Buck sees former employees returning to the venue, which is a reflection of the supportive workplace culture they’ve created.
BUCK: We have a lot of people who stay with us for long periods of time. And we have a lot of people who will leave, go to college out of state or pursue a summer internship or another opportunity and then return to us. Which I feel very proud that we’ve created an environment that people want to come back to.
EMILY: The staff are clearly passionate about sharing movies with people, and that enthusiasm translates to their customers. For Carly, the service at the Music Box is something that stood out during her experience.
CARLY: They are very welcoming. They’re really excited to have you there, especially after COVID. They were closed for a long time. So you can tell that everyone’s really excited to have moviegoers back in the business again. They’re really helpful, you know, they like tell you what’s on the menu, tell you if there’s things to know before, and then they’re really like excited for you to go see the movie as well, which is really great.
EMILY: Communication doesn’t end with customers walking out of the theater. Buck’s team makes sure to connect with moviegoers through email newsletters, social media, and most recently, Tiktok, which one of their employees asked to launch on behalf of the theatre.
There are other things that keep customers returning, too. Unlike many nationwide movie theater chains, the Music Box is able to host their own seasonal events and festivals. These established traditions have become something that people look forward to every year.
BUCK: With our annual events, a lot of it does really come down to folks coming year over year, whether it’s their Thanksgiving tradition to go to the Sound of Music that weekend, it’s their Christmas tradition to go to It’s a Wonderful Life or every October come to the 24 hour horror film festival. These are things that we’ll start getting questions about way before they’re around the corner. You know, folks start asking us in June what the dates for the horror festival in October are going to be, during the summer, when can they buy tickets for our Christmas show?
EMILY: Despite being an established part of the Chicago entertainment scene, the pandemic has brought its share of challenges for Buck and the Music Box. Movie theaters were among the first businesses to shut down, with many venues around the country being forced to permanently close their doors.
BUCK: We were lucky that when we shut down, we were coming off of several really good years of business, especially for, you know, an independent movie theater. So we had a little bit of money in the bank. So when we shut down, we actually kept our staff on for several months.
And then as things went on longer, you know, we gave people plenty of notice that like, okay, come the end of May, 2020, we did have to start letting people go, either to, you know, get unemployment or pursue other opportunities. And also letting people know that, as soon as we are able to reopen, we’d love to have them back if they wanted to. And a lot of people did. The majority did. And so they’ve been very understanding about this whole thing.
EMILY: With an ever-evolving pandemic, re-opening has been tricky, particularly since customer and employee safety is of utmost importance for Buck. While restrictions have gradually lifted, his approach was never to let loose immediately.
BUCK: Our mantra this whole time has been, we want to err on the side of caution for both our staff and our audience. You know, even when restrictions have been lifted, we’ve been like, okay, well let’s wait a couple of weeks before we implement anything new. Let’s make sure that we have plenty of lead time in training our staff and informing our audience what they can expect when they come to the Music Box.
EMILY: Reopening required considerable cooperation and attention to detail. Buck knew he needed a clear, comprehensive plan to return to in-person operations safely. Here’s how he made it work.
BUCK: We would have only 50 people in our 750 seat room. In addition to having, you know, extra cleaning procedures. Updating our air filtration system and making some tweaks. So it was like the most efficient it could be. Adding more time in between movie screenings, so we could ensure that there was total air turnover and, you know, good, proper cleaning.
But we’ve been really lucky, really fortunate that we have a very dedicated, smart staff who’ve been really gung ho about making sure that everything is taken care of properly. And we have a great audience. We had a lot of people that came back to the music box during that time. And then we, you know, closed again in October, 2020, and then reopened March, 2021. Again, gradually, but then increasing, you know, our audience size and our operations as time went on. We have a lot of mandates still in place of, you know, you have to be masked at all times. We do check vaccination status for folks coming into the theater.
EMILY: Buck says he’s grateful for customers like Carly, who appreciate the efforts they’ve been making and now feel much safer in their theater. Through their proactive efforts and attention to service, it’s clear that the Music Box team’s efforts are being recognized by their customers.
We’ll be taking a quick break, but when we come back we’ll hear about reviews, and how Buck stays optimistic about them.
EMILY: Customer feedback is an essential part of running a business. In my conversation with Buck, I quickly realized that he’s someone who is deeply committed to creating great movie going experiences, and this really allows him to see the value of every review.
BUCK: I’m not being modest when I say the majority of the reviews that I see are really good. And it’s always nice to see something where someone says, like had a great time at the movie and especially, the staff was really great or, this person was very helpful. This, you know, I had a certain experience and one of the staff members came in to help out. So I especially keep an eye out for those so I can pass them along to the appropriate people.
We had an experience a few weeks ago where someone was faint during the movie and had a bit of a medical issue. But they sent us a note afterwards, just really complimentary towards the staff that was on hand. How helpful and understanding and accommodating everyone was. And because I’m one of the names on the website, an email will go to me and a couple other people being like, Hey, I’m not sure who to send this to, but can you can just pass it along to the right folks? And then, we do get negative reviews. Everybody does! And then just have to evaluate them and see, okay, what is useful here? What can we do to improve our business? And then we will end up with ones of, ‘I didn’t like the movie.’ Which is fine. That’s fair, not every movie is going to be for every person. We can only do so much.
EMILY: I’m impressed with how levelheaded Buck is about receiving criticism, and how he sees customer comments as a growth opportunity for the business. When I asked Buck about his roll-off approach to negative reviews, this is what he said.
BUCK: Some of it is probably based on having been with the theater for so long at this point, I feel like I’ve kind of seen, I don’t want to say it all, because I had not seen a pandemic until a couple years ago, so, but I’ve seen a lot with the theater.
And so if you’re going to look at the good reviews, you do have to look at the bad reviews. Some of it is stuff that, maybe we didn’t consider, or maybe we didn’t notice. If someone leaves a comment like, oh, the movie was great, but the theater was chilly. We’ll look into like, okay, well, let’s see if there was something up with the heater the night before, or let’s have a person come out and take a look at, this heating or electrical or something with the soda machine that we might have missed in our day to day.
And sometimes it might just be a person’s personal preference. It might’ve been a fluke, and sometimes are things that have been brought to our attention of like, okay, we didn’t, this person noticed it. We didn’t notice it right away. We’re gonna fix it. And we’re also going to make a note to be more on top of it in the future.
EMILY: This sort of business owner to customer interaction is part of the reason why Carly loves writing reviews. Especially during a time when small businesses have been struggling, leaving positive feedback is a good way to help.
CARLY: With COVID, a lot of businesses are just struggling on many different aspects. So I think it’s helpful to, especially if you had a good experience, share that. Because you never know, when I get a response from the owner, I think it’s really fun to have them say thank you.
And like, you can tell that it means a lot to them to get, especially for a small business to get that feedback, especially on a positive end. So I really like taking the time to review. I think it’s fun to read other people’s reviews too. It kind of supports whether or not I’m going to go to a place. And so I liked to take the time to do it also because it helps me remember where I’ve gone before as well. So I can go back and be like, oh, I really love that place. Maybe I should try it again.
EMILY: For Buck, analyzing reviews, maintaining customer relationships, and creating concrete business operations are all key to keeping the Music Box Theatre thriving in its community. Despite the challenges over the years, he’s confident that this independent theater can handle whatever comes next.
BUCK: The theater has obviously been through a lot over 90 years, changed what type of theater it was. It has been closed and reopened several times.
We have no intention to stop anytime again soon. And like I said, we’re keeping an eye on everything we’re being cautious. And we’ll continue to do so going forward. But. If for whatever reason we have to close down again, we’ve got several ideas of what to do in the meantime, until we can reopen. And I have full confidence that our staff will be able to handle it.