Ben Munro talks about reinventing the Davis Theater in Lincoln Square. His mother, Jennifer Munro, talks about being a professional storyteller.
Ben Munro and four partners are in the process of completely overhauling Chicago’s Davis Theater. The new Davis will have three screens—two theaters with about 150 seats each, and one with about 300—and is scheduled to reopen in August.
Munro’s previous experience was mostly in the restaurant industry. “None of us has been professional movie theater owners as a career,” he says, “so we did a decent amount of research into how theaters can revitalize themselves. Because if you drive around, you’ll see a lot of closed theaters just sitting there.”
The renovated Davis will have a restaurant and bar on site and will show primarily first-run movies. It will offer other options—perhaps Cubs games, international soccer matches, and independent films—during the slow season.
“It will be a lot of experimentation and seeing what works and what doesn’t,” Munro says. “Basically, we’ll let our patrons decide what they want to see.”
Ben’s mother, Jennifer Munro, published her first book, Aunty Lily and other delightfully perverse stories, in late May. It’s a collection of personal tales about growing up in a working-class town about 100 miles north of London.
Munro, a professional storyteller based in Connecticut, moved from England to the U.S. in 1976. Crossing the Atlantic helped her appreciate the culture that she left behind, and when she started telling stories in the mid-1980s, she mined it for material.
“I thought growing up in this scrappy, working-class neighborhood was totally and utterly magical,” she says. “And the people have such a rich accent. To me, it’s lyrical and musical. And this is what moving to America allowed me to do: to appreciate the richness of that heritage.”
Munro calls “Aunty Lily,” a tale about the transformation of a beloved aunt, her signature story.
“‘Aunty Lily’ was the first story I ever wrote,” she says. “It starts off with a description of my Aunty Lily. She was extremely beautiful. There was something almost frightening about her because she was so well put together. She wore her long, auburn hair piled high on the top of her head in a bun. She wore long, golden gypsy earrings and she always wore designer clothes. But the thing I loved best about her was the fact that she swore. She swore like a trooper!”
The story describes a trip Jennifer and her aunt make into town to buy Jennifer a new pair of school shoes. It ends when she discovers that her aunt isn’t quite what she appears, and Jennifer is forced to see her aunt with new eyes. This insight confirms for Jennifer that her aunt is truly beautiful, and that true beauty has nothing to do with external appearances.
The book also includes stories about her grandfather coming to live with their family; the death of her father; neighborhood bullies and how “fear made kids do things they normally wouldn’t do”; the pets her family kept; and giving birth, among others. Watch a video of Munro telling a story about her childhood at the Sharing the Fire storytelling conference in April 2016 by clicking here.
Munro, a retired English teacher, performs in schools, where she usually tells folktales. “I tell them stories that I think are important,” she says. “All good folk tales have been honed by generations of oral storytellers. Only the bare bones—what’s essential to the story—remain.”
Munro also tells personal stories on the live storytelling circuit. She has appeared at the premiere live event of its kind in the U.S., the National Storytelling Festival, in Jonesborough, TN, and several other festivals.
Highlights from recent SC conversations with the Munros:
It’s almost frightening, the depth of the silence and attention kids will give a good story. We say kids have no attention span. Well, if we keep giving them little bites of information, instead of a well-developed story, they will lose interest. They’re sophisticated. When they’re bombarded by the huge, kaleidoscopic stories of Hollywood movies filled with bombings and special effects, they are taken by surprise when they just listen to a story. The power of their own imagination is far richer than any screen rendition.
For a story to be meaningful, there must a transformation. Every story worth telling must contain a moment when a character learns something about life. It is a moment of understanding that could not have occurred unless the events in the story take place.
We’re constantly going through tiny transformations. Moments of understanding. So my stories, I think, become universal in appeal. Because they deal with small moments of transformation.
The thing I love about having the book is that, you get to be my age—I’m 65—and you wonder: What’s going to happen to these stories once I’m dead? Not that I think it’s my gift to the world. But it’s lovely to know that, in the future, the books will be collecting dust on second-hand bookshelves. And it’s also for my kids. My way to say: ‘Here’s your tribe. This is where you came from.’
With the home-theater movement, you were finally able to put all the pieces together. You didn’t have to leave your house to see a movie and enjoy the entire experience. But prior to that, theaters were enjoying a lot of traffic. So they were becoming bigger and bigger, and they lost a lot of personality.
The nice thing is, with a smaller theater, there’s much more character. We don’t have to worry about how to revitalize a huge, 14-screen theater, and where to put a parking lot. It’s three screens. It’s going to be a lot easier to put butts in the seats. And you don’t have to go to the giant complex, the cold hallways. You’re seeing a movie in a neighborhood that you love, with your neighbors.
There’s been joy in pulling down a wall and finding something, or exposing something, and being able to enjoy it again. A prime example is that we exposed the tin ceiling that used to hang in front of the lobby. That was unreal—taking off all this wood and thinking back to what it was originally, what decisions people made to cover it, and why they thought it was the best decision. And being able to uncover it again.
We’re revealing what once was—to continue operating the same business. It’s a weird connection to 100 years back that we wouldn’t have otherwise.
The nice thing about the position we’re in is that other people did a lot to cover up what was originally there. And what they installed we would qualify as being ‘broken.’ The seats needed replacing, for example. So we feel like we’re repairing what has broken over time. And the elements that we can preserve from 100 years ago, we get to showcase those and make sure they stay protected.