Movie The Lyric Theater is a family affair

Movie The Lyric Theater is a family affair

For most high schoolers, a part-time job is a way to make a little money, get out of the house, and meet people you otherwise wouldn’t connect with outside of family or school. When Janet Fischer was a Chicago teen, she never expected that she’d have the rare privilege of being able to point to the exact spot where a seed from her family tree was planted. Its fruits would take the shape of a popular, local pizza chain and the reopening of a Blue Island landmark, the place where she fell in love at a ticket booth.

Blue Island’s Lyric Theater opened in 1917, but it has been shuttered on and off for decades. Closed since 1989, the Lyric Theater was reopened last summer by the Garetto family, preserving the space where their matriarch was taking tickets in the 1940s.

“I was 16 and 17 as a cashier in a little booth outside. It was, at that time, right in the middle of the theater near the sidewalk,” Fischer says. “I met a lot of people, and they seemed to like me, so it wasn’t like a job. It was really fun. I used to have an angora sweater. Mr. Atkins was the manager [stepping in the box to count the money], and he would say, ‘You’re getting it over my coat! Everyone’s going to start talking.’ He was just teasing.”

She lived on 118th and Longwood, blocks from the Blue Island-Chicago border.

“I got to see everyone in town. They all got to see me,” Fischer remembers, adding that she met a number of guys back then, but only one really stood out.

Angelo Garetto and his brother Larry, the Garetto Twins, ran a successful Blue Island music shop, giving lessons and performing around town. Angelo played the saxophone, Larry the accordion. Angelo was seven years older than Fischer, and he had to ask permission from her family to take her out.

“They weren’t too happy at first. But they got used to it. And he was very good to my grandma, my dad’s mother. He took her down food because she was alone. So they grew to love him,” she says. “I started dating him and before I knew it, we were engaged and married with children.”

Angelo Garetto and Janet Fischer early in their relationship. Courtesy Amanda Melvin / Garetto Family

Together, they had six kids. Two of them, Larry and Peter Garetto, would open Beggars Pizza in 1976, with a little help from dad Angelo, but all the siblings worked hard to get it off the ground.

“He opened it for me and my brother because we didn’t do so well in college,” says Larry Garetto, with a laugh.

Today Beggars boasts 27 locations in Chicago, the suburbs, and northwest Indiana. Peter Garetto died ten years ago, but Larry still owns it. When his daughter Amanda Melvin, who has marketing and operational duties at Beggars, was looking for another pizza shop location, she stumbled upon the shuttered Lyric Theater.

Melvin already knew the story of how her grandparents met and was curious about the building, so she asked her realtor about its status.

“I said, ‘What’s going on with that Lyric Theater?’ He was like, ‘Well, let me find out,’” remembers Melvin, who says at the time, the owner wasn’t ready to sell. A week later, though, the Lyric was put on the market “at a more reasonable price.” 

After talking about it with her father Larry and her uncle Ray Cantelo, they decided to go for it. 

“We didn’t really know exactly what we’re going to do, but we just knew it meant a lot to my dad and my grandma,” says Melvin.

This was 2019, and Blue Island’s MetroSouth Medical Center had just closed, leaving the local economy without a hospital and without workers, many of whom either lived in or near Blue Island and regularly patronized many local businesses.

“It just seemed like everyone was starting to abandon Blue Island. And my dad was heartbroken. So this was a way for him to do his part to really, not necessarily revitalize, but stop that downward slope that he felt was happening,” Melvin says.

The Lyric Theater has had several owners since it opened more than a hundred years ago. A fire engulfed the building in 1960, but everyone inside got out safely. The theater was at the center of a bustling business district, which included venues like the Blue Island Opera House, stores like JCPenney and Kline’s, and many restaurants that kept Blue Island’s Uptown area thriving. 

Melvin didn’t know what to expect when they got the keys.

“We saw a blank shell. It was not in good shape,” remembers Melvin. But the theater, which at one time was a space for dance and theater events, still had good bones.

“They had torn out all the movie theater seats. So it was a concrete floor, black walls. Upstairs was nothing. And when we looked at it, we just saw possibilities.”

What she didn’t see was a global pandemic on the horizon that would stop everything, including work on the Lyric, in early 2020.

“Beggars being my full-time job, I had to say, ‘This [theater] needs to go on the back burner.’ Because we need to survive. We need to survive this pandemic,” says Melvin. Supply chain issues also affected how they’d find a path forward.

“We saw basically the cost of every single thing that we were going to do triple,” she says. “We’re going to open a theater, which literally brings people together, when you cannot come together.”

Larry Garetto convinced his daughter to proceed, even if they couldn’t open right away. Ray Cantelo and his wife Janet are also part owners. They paid $90,000 for the building and spent another $100,000 to fix the sprinkler system, but remodeling costs, which included a new marquee, came in at around $3 million.

“They said we have to do it right. We can’t just do it half-assed,” Garetto says. “It was my commitment to invest in Blue Island.”

While still working at Beggars and the Lyric, Garetto bought the business next door, the popular Iversen’s Bakery, as Garetto says its owner was ready to close it for good after more than 60 years.

“I’m 68. I’m doing more than I want to do, but that’s OK. I’m having fun doing it,” says Garetto, who credits Amanda and her husband Pat Melvin with the vision and ideas to make the space come alive. She admits that without a designer, “every single finish, every single color, every single tile, every single door” was selected by her and her husband. 

One thing that was not going to be part of the Lyric’s future was that it would be exclusively a movie theater. Viewing habits had been shifting for years, and as the 1980s brought in multiplexes and as streaming options became more popular, the former one-screen theater space had to be reimagined.

“If we turned it into just a movie theater, we were likely to fail,” says Melvin, who gave the interior a 1940s supper club feel, with a large, sleek bar area and seating for more than 300 people, with private suites in a balcony area.

John Goldrick is thrilled the Lyric is back. He owns Big ’n Little Shoes on 111th and Kedzie and fondly remembers growing up on 118th and Hale, when he’d walk to the Lyric with his mother. Goldrick likes the new Lyric and says its presence will only attract other businesses.

“I think it’s a great idea. I would have never thought of it, but absolutely,” Goldrick says. “Life is a roller coaster. It [has] peaks and valleys. I think Blue Island right now is heading for one of those peaks, becoming vibrant again.”

Born-and-raised Blue Islander Pat Disabato also has great memories of the Lyric. The former sports columnist for the Daily Southtown says, back in the day, the 900+-seat theater made an impression.

“Growing up, I saw Rocky there. I saw Star Wars there as a kid. It was a big thing.”

After leaving the Southtown, Disabato says he wanted something different. He found it as the Lyric’s live events manager, handling everything from drag brunches to comedy shows, as well as live blues and rock concerts.

“If this was any other town, I would not have done it. But it was Blue Island, and I know what this means to the town,” says Disabato. “I love the Garetto family and the Cantelo family, so I’m like, ‘You know what, I got to see this through. I want to be a part of this.’” 

Melvin says they’re looking at “immersive” movie experiences. Over the summer, for a screening of Grease, the staff dressed up as Grease characters with a “Frosty Palace” diner pop-up inside and a classic car show outside the theater.

And in December, for a screening of It’s a Wonderful Life, each seat had a little bell and a small bag of rose petals, a nod to what Jimmy Stewart’s character finds in his pocket. The flowers came from a local florist.

“To hear the bells ring at the end of the movie, I mean, that might have been my favorite moment,” remembers Disabato.

A favorite moment for Melvin came from her five-year-old daughter Madelyn, who watches her do just about everything at the Lyric. It happened after seeing The Polar Express at a friend’s party.

“She goes, ‘Mom, give me a broom and a dustpan. There’s popcorn I gotta sweep up,’” says Melvin. “And she actually asked me, ‘Mom, when I grow up, can I work with you at the Lyric Theater?’ and I was like, of course you can!”

The Lyric Theater
12952 Western, Blue Island

The Lyric’s mix of events includes music (a blues brunch with singer Stacy Brooks on February 4), comedy (the Vito Zatto Variety Show, a throwback to lounge shows, on February 24), drag extravaganzas (coming February 17, Lindsey Devereaux and friends with “Crazy, Sexy, Cool”), rock showcases featuring original acts (Eric Lindell on March 11), groups with retro sounds (Jonny Lyons on February 18), and, of course, more movies. 

Disabato says that like the variety of events, their audience comes from the suburbs but also from Chicago neighborhoods near and far. 

“Vernon Hills, Plainfield, Aurora. They are just finding out about us, still. So it’s been kind of organic,” Disabato says, on meeting people coming from different places. “South Loop. We had a big family here the other day from Lincoln Park and Lakeview. So it’s kind of crazy.”

He adds that the remodeled interior, with its midcentury modern accents and supper club, sets the tone for comfort and entertainment for people who say, “‘I want a good night, to be entertained. And have a nice evening with some nice cocktails and, you know, watch a good show,’” Disabato says, noting that the Lyric is the only venue that does what it does south of downtown Chicago.

“I mean, up north, you got the Genesee [Theatre in Waukegan], you got the Arcada [Theatre in St. Charles], and Des Plaines Theatre. So there’s some places up north, and they all have their niche, but down here, particularly, there’s nothing,” says Disabato, adding that the Lyric hopes to change that.

The Cantelo-Garetto family. Credit: George Poulous

Now in her 90s, Janet Fischer Garetto is living a full-circle moment; her home is near the bright Lyric Theater marquee, not far from where her family tree began to grow, and some relatives still call Blue Island home.

“It makes me happy that it’s open and alive again,” says Garetto. “Yeah, I think it’s beautiful. And it livens up the town. It’s good for everyone.”