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How a 90-year-old theater endures hardships and shapes community



There’s nothing like the experience of watching a film in a movie theater—the heart-pounding action, mystery, and romance of the silver screen amplified by the booming sound system and rich, surrounding darkness.

But in 2020, a different kind of palpitation swept over independent theater owners, when pandemic mandates forced them to close. Some would never reopen, while others would be lucky enough to welcome their communities back.

Music Box Theatre in Chicago was one such business that endured the pandemic. Built in 1929, it has become a neighborhood treasure to the residents of Southport Corridor, who love its vintage vibe. With its twinkling overhead lights, red velvet curtains, and ornate plasterwork reminiscent of an Italian villa, Music Box transports movie-goers to another time and place.

Buck LePard, senior operations manager, has been at Music Box since 2009 and seen the theater go through many challenges, renovations, and iterations, while always maintaining what makes it special.

“We’ve tried to keep pretty much the same feeling as when the theater was first built in 1929,” said Buck. “Any time we make updates to the theater, we try to make it stay within that same style and same feeling. We never want to disregard the theater’s history or change the atmosphere.”

This isn’t to say the theater is stuck in the past. When Music Box’s staff realized the theater could use a space for customers to gather, they built an outdoor garden space to accommodate them. Responding to its community in this way is all part of Music Box’s unique culture and attention to customer service.

Staff play a pivotal role in this endeavor as well, providing insight into what customers might like to see based on new and emerging interests.

“We like our staff to be really involved in shaping the culture of the Music Box,” said Buck. “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.”

For Buck, it’s about creating a place people want to come back to, and it seems like the mission is working. Yelp reviewer Carly S. is particularly fond of the iconic theater, writing, “The Music Box is my favorite part of living on Southport [Avenue]. It gives the neighborhood such a classic and historic feel. It is so great to see the people flowing out again after a movie gets out.”

“They are very welcoming,” Carly adds about the Music Box staff. “They’re really excited to have you there, especially after COVID. They’re really helpful. They tell you what’s on the menu; tell you if there’s things to know before. And then they’re really excited for you to go see the movie as well, which is really great.”

As excited as staff were to return to business as usual when quarantine was lifted, reopening safely—and maintaining a high level of care—was no small feat. The key to Music Box’s success is, once again, its passionate staff and dedicated customers.

“We’ve been really lucky,” said Buck, “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.”

After almost a century in business, the Music Box has learned much about remaining relevant in modern times that many other businesses can take to heart:

  • Your team’s passion is your advantage. Engaged, impassioned employees are a great asset to your business. Their investment shapes company culture, operations, and the customer experience.
  • Preserving history doesn’t mean living in the past. Establishing an online presence, sending emails and newsletters, and engaging customers on social media are integral to a modern company’s success.
  • Be intentional, thoughtful, and considerate. Listening to customer (and employee) feedback, particularly in challenging times, will apprise you of opportunities for growth. Similarly, training employees to care about the total customer experience will solidify your reputation in your community and keep people coming back.

Photos from Music Box Theatre on Yelp; editorial by Emily Moon & Kristi Lindahl


These lessons come from an episode of Behind the Review, Yelp & Entrepreneur Media’s weekly podcast. Listen to the episode below to hear directly from Buck and Carly or visit the episode page to read more, subscribe to the show, and explore other episodes.

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The information above is provided for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice and may not be suitable for your circumstances. Unless stated otherwise, references to third-party links, services, or products do not constitute endorsement by Yelp.

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