One Night at the Granada
Darius had been leading the way for less than a minute when he called out, “Hey, it seems like the water level is tapering off pretty fast. Aren’t you all glad we didn’t wuss out?”
Definitely, I thought. Feeling my social stock climb with every step forward in the inky (and stinky) basement corridors, I started thinking about what we might find, although unlike Conor I didn’t suspect there were going to be any theater props. I was almost certain that the Granada had been one of those swanky old movie houses, built back in the day when the “moving pictures” were still a relatively new phenomenon and going out to a movie would have been a very fancy affair.
I didn’t know too much about Chicago’s history, much less this area of the city (being a Lake View man myself), but suddenly I got hit with a flood of visions loosely related to the history of the place and I couldn’t explain them.
Maybe it was the weed, or maybe it was the darkness, but I felt a strange presence of people who had been in this place, and a sort of crushing nostalgia and sadness. It was probably the weed, but still I imagined it could be some sort of spiritual residue, triggered with my memories of the city’s historical preservationists losing their last appeal to have this majestic theater saved. I remembered the occasional story in the Chicago Tribune about the theater — local architects and fans of architecture had made a strong case to landmark the building, based on the incredible architectural detail of the façade and the interior, and the fact that it was one of the few remnants of a golden age long gone, the Roaring Twenties. There had been some outrage when the building had been condemned, but now it was slated for demolition some time in the next year.
Darius, Conor, R.J., and I continued to slowly make our way through the labyrinth of corridors and rooms. We were largely silent, having yet to find anything of mention, and as a result I remained lost in a vision of the grand opening of the Granada Theatre in 1926…
I imagined hundreds of people flooding the sidewalks, dressed to the nines in fedoras, long overcoats, and other fashions of the time; huge black sedans dropping off Chicago’s elite, with chauffeurs holding doors open for the ladies.
Perhaps there were even gangsters at the event. They ran most of the city’s nightlife by way of the speakeasies and the jazz clubs, so it would follow that they might have had a desire to hobnob at a new movie theater. Indeed, some might have had financial interest in it. You could never say organized crime didn’t embody the spirit of capitalism: If there was a buck that could be made, they found their niche.
I had to break the silence. “Dude, can you imagine how crazy this place must have been in its heyday? I’m having visions of this place with all the lights in front lit, the balcony teeming with people… it’s a little too much like The Shining, man!”
Darius stopped for a second. “Come ON man, don’t be freaking us out with that Stephen King shit, that’s uncool. This place is spooky enough, and the floor is wet enough, that I don’t want to be thinking about that movie with all the blood flooding through the hallways and those creepy ghosts and…”
R.J. cut him off, “Now YOU’RE doing it! Let’s get it together, people. There aren’t any ghosts here, or anyone for that matter. Am I the only one who notices how bad the mildew or whatever it is STINKS down here? This standing water has probably been here for years. I don’t think even homeless people would live here to escape the winter. It’s awful.”
“Yeah, sorry guys,” I said, “I was thinking more about how old this place is, and how it went from being a palace to the crap-shack it is now. Haven’t you guys ever noticed that all of Chicago’s fanciest buildings date from a few years before the Depression? Nobody saw it coming. People figured the good times would never end so they built all these places as if money wasn’t an issue.”
“Interesting observation, I was thinking about that stuff too,” said Conor. “I wonder what happened to places like this after the Depression. Must have been brutal for the investors. Look at all the great theaters in Chicago that were converted to concert venues — the Vic and the Cabaret Metro in Lake View, the Aragon and the Riv in Uptown. It’s stupid that they can’t do that here. At least we got a chance to hang out in here before it comes down. This is a hell of a lot cooler than hanging out in the park or some cramped apartment.”
Thank God somebody said something, I thought, I was starting to feel really weird, thinking about all this history stuff. I briefly postulated that maybe someone had slipped me some acid, as I wasn’t even sure where I was getting all these images in my head. Typical post-weed conversations didn’t normally get this melancholy, I thought. The immensity of the theater was overwhelming my consciousness, making me feel like a tiny bug at the bottom of a very deep hole in the ground.
My train of thought was derailed as Darius got to a wall and it was apparent we were going to have to choose between two paths.
“OK, left or right?” Darius asked. “They look identical, so make sure you all remember this for later, when we have to get back out of here. I hope somebody is thinking of that!”
Oops. Not me, I thought.
“How long have we been gone, anyway?” asked R.J. “Seems like a while. Maybe we should check out these two corridors and any rooms we find off of them, and then call it a night and get back to the lobby. Darius, you’ve got the light, whatcha think?”
“Well, so far we’ve been going down what I think is a long hallway, so I can find our way back from here. I think you’re right though, we don’t want to get too lost down here. It seems like there’s more standing water and it smells worse to the right, so I vote left.”
There was a quick murmur of approval, and we started moving. Not a lot to see. Our limited light showed us lots of doors, but they were all locked and they were steel doors, meaning there was no way we were going to get in. Damn, why would these doors be locked when the office upstairs had been open? What about our props? The water started getting a little deeper as we continued, and then Darius yelled, “Hey, an open one!”
We quickly converged on the door and made our way in. Boxes. Even deeper water on the floor. Chairs on their sides. Conor nudged at one of the boxes with his shoe, and it was obviously empty. The others just had papers in them, all of them soaked through.
“Well, this blows,” I said. “What if we go back the other way?”
Darius made a face. “I dunno. The water looked deeper that way.”
“Yeah, but we’ve come this far,” I said. “And we want to bring something back upstairs cooler than an empty box, right?”
This logic went over without a murmur of dissent. We took one last look around the room, felt satisfied it would reveal no treasures, and backtracked to the split in the hallway.
“OK,” said Darius, “let’s start checking doors.”
Again, they were all locked, but then, right as we were about to give up, R.J. let loose a triumphant cry. One door was unlocked. We went in the room and again noticed boxes and more chairs. But there were also cigarette butts, which were floating lazily in the parts of the room with standing water, and a McDonald’s bag and some other trash. Maybe someone had been staying down here after all.
The boxes were stacked in rows four or more feet high, forming kind of a maze. The room was much bigger than we expected, and R.J. and Darius were already pulling down some of the boxes and tearing them open as Conor and I felt our way toward them.
“Hey, check it out,” Darius called out. “Looks like ledger books or something, but they’re all soaked. I can hear water dripping somewhere close. Dammit, there better be something down here that hasn’t been ruined!”
Darius angrily kicked down a pile of boxes, cursing under his breath. R.J. joined in, also not bothering to disguise his frustration with our poor discovery. Conor and I caught up right as a giant tower of boxes came plummeting down from one of Darius’ better-than-average kicks.
Then we all froze right in our tracks, our eyes glued upon the dim shape in front of us. Darius brought his light closer. It was a man slumped over in a chair, facing away from us. We gaped silently, as the realization that his hands were handcuffed behind him sank in. Then the panic set in.
My first instinct was to turn and run the hell out of there, but I didn’t have the light so I waited for Darius to bolt so I could follow him. I could feel the anxiety growing as we stared dumbstruck as Darius circled around so he was right in front of the man.
Darius bent over a little bit, then backed away, gagged, and started vomiting. He stumbled back toward us, mumbling something incoherent under his breath.
For some reason all I could think about was that not only had I seen a dead body, but a murder victim, and I hadn’t pissed in my pants!
But I couldn’t dwell on this minor triumph as the flight part of the “fight-or-flight” syndrome kicked in. We hustled our way back out of the room and into the wet corridor, splashing and pushing each other forward and then almost tripping over ourselves as we found our way back to the staircase, which we flew up at light speed and then slammed the door shut behind us.
Then, the uncomfortable moment of silence, followed quickly by the melodrama of “worst possible scenarios,” led off by yours truly:
“Holy crap, did you all see the handcuffs? Oh man, that was probably a mob hit, and for all we know the guy or guys who did it are still around here!”
“Yeah,” piped in Conor, who began yakking away excitedly at a mile a minute: “Dude probably was a crooked accountant who was cooking all those ledger books, or maybe not cooking them, or maybe they dragged him here recently, not knowing about all the people upstairs, or…”
“No, that guy’s facial features were barely recognizable. There’s no way whoever killed him would still be around. He’s been dead for a while.”
We looked at Darius and saw that while he was still a bit green around the gills, he made a good point, so accepting that we weren’t in any danger was a welcome relief.
“OK,” said R.J. “So, should we be telling the police about this? And what are we gonna tell the people in the lobby? Given their, uh, condition, some of them might lose it.”
Nobody answered him, though. We traced our path back to the lobby, and as we did so I realized that all those ghosts I had envisioned earlier were gone. All the glamour I had pictured surrounding the Roaring Twenties — the speakeasies, flappers, and sharply dressed gangsters — paled in comparison to the ugly side of that time period — the greed and brutality. I shook it off and thanked God that I hadn’t been on acid.
By the time we got back to the lobby it had pretty much cleared out, although there were a few people curled up and sleeping on the carpeted areas.
“I know where they all went,” said Conor. “Down to the beach to watch the sun rise — it’s a great way to cap off a trip, especially when you start at night because you usually can’t get to sleep until mid-morning anyway. Let’s go check it out. It would be a good way to shake that nasty image out of our heads.”
We were all in agreement, and as we popped back out onto the fire escape from the second floor, we rubbed our eyes as we adjusted to the early sunlight just peeking over the lake’s horizon.
We shuffled down the street, the conversation turning into what we’d do that evening, with nary a word about dead bodies or any other creepiness.
But I smiled to myself, realizing we had a hell of a story to tell wherever we ended up…
Author’s note: This story is based in fact, and it is true that for almost a year many of Chicago’s “undesirables” — also known as teenagers — had the most glorious clubhouse imaginable. No adults, no rules, no violence, just us, happy to have found a refuge from police curfew sweeps at our usual gathering spot around Belmont and Clark.
Nobody actually saw a dead body in the basement, as the flooding was significant and we always forgot a flashlight.
When the Granada Theatre was being demolished a murder victim was indeed found, handcuffed, in one of the rooms of the basement. We used to talk about what would have happened had we ever stumbled upon it, and it was generally agreed we would have pissed in our pants.