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New outdoor movie screen debuts at Millennium Park

Steve Johnson

Tribune reporter

10:18 AM EDT, June 18, 2013

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Because of its proximity to The Bean, they are calling it "The Screen."

Not "The Screan," although that would delight everyone but copy editors. Simply, "The Screen," an official shortening of the more formal "The Millennium Park Screen."

And it's worthy of so stark a designation.

Unveiled Monday morning before its public debut Monday and Tuesday nights, it's a video display unit that, at 900 square feet, or 40-by-22.5 feet, is likely bigger than all the big screens at a typical Best Buy put together. It is definitely bigger than many studio apartments.

Suspended at either the front or back of the stage, the LED device is bright enough to be viewed in full daylight from all 4,000 seats in Millennium Park's Pritzker Pavilion concert venue and even from the front turf of the pavilion's Great Lawn, 50 or more yards away.

And as it dangles down like that, it hangs one more winning charm on the bracelet that is Millennium Park, one more way for Chicagoans to have a pretty full warm-weather cultural life without ever having to buy a ticket or, better still, pay a ticket-agency "service fee."

"We hope that, ultimately, The Screen will be able to stand big shoulder to big shoulder with all of our other iconic features here in the park, the Bean and the (Crown) Fountain and the (Lurie) Garden," said Donna LaPietra, chair of the not-for-profit Millennium Park Incorporated, at the unveiling Monday.

She called it "one of the first, and only permanent, large-formate LED outdoor screen systems of its kind in the world." The $550,000 cost of the screen, and the expense of running it, come from the not-for-profit, not from taxpayer funds, officials said.

Whether a removable instrument for displaying other art can truly become "iconic" is debatable. From close up, you can see that black colors aren't true black, one of the hardest things to achieve in video, and even make out the individual LEDs that are the pixels.

But in the demonstration Monday, featuring a segment from the movie musical "Chicago," there was no denying the overall vividness and clarity of the picture — or the vividness of the chosen scene, which intercut the song "All That Jazz" with a character taking her lover to bed.

The Screen's official inaugural event will come at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, when a tribute to the late film critic Roger Ebert will precede a showing of "Chicago," the initial film in the new, free Millennium Park Film Series.

But even before that, it'll serve Monday night as backdrop to a performance in the free weekly Downtown Sound, an eclectic, well-chosen pop music series running through July 29.

Seeing themselves blown up to 20 feet tall as they play, Monday openers Brokeback, a Chicago band, and headline performer Daniel Lanois, the Canadian musician of high critical respect and modest popularity, will be able to get a taste of what it would be like to be the Rolling Stones playing a stadium show.

The films in the inaugural series — switching to 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays next week — were chosen to show off the screen and the venue's award-winning sound system, said Rich Moskal, whose Chicago Film Office guided the programming choices.

"It's incredible. Not only the sound, but the brightness," Moskal said.

The films, which run through Aug. 20, include "Dream Girls," "Buena Vista Social Club" and, in a nod to director Mary Zimmerman's new musical at the Goodman, "The Jungle Book."

From the crowd at the media event, veteran Chicago newsman Bill Kurtis drew laughs by asking, "Are you going to show 'Anchorman'?" Kurtis is LaPietra's longtime partner, and "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" is the 2004 Will Ferrell comedy for which Kurtis supplied the narration.

Park officials have talked about getting permanent video capability since the park opened nine years ago, she said, but projection systems, the best available at the time, would only work well in true darkness and gobbled energy.

A demonstration last year of The Screen's technology convinced them the time was right to buy. Lighthouse Technologies, the Hong Kong-based manufacturer, loaned a smaller, 30-by-16 foot screen last June for a showing of a ballet performance from Paris.

Of a type being widely used now in sports scoreboards and roadside billboards, the loaner screen had a great picture, even before sundown, plus energy efficiency, weather hardiness and a degree of portability. Essentially a curtain of meter-long connected panels known, in a proprietary term, as VideoBlades, the screen can be taken down and rolled up in about two hours, stored on four carts that are each about the size of a triple-wheelbarrow.

Officials at Millennium Park Inc., working with Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, hope the screen will eventually be used more than 50 times a year for events that might include live simulcasts of sports, classical music or live theater.

It's early in the planning, though, LaPietra said, and the only somewhat firm plans, beyond film and concert use, are to show events from the Harris Theater, behind the Pritzker Pavilion, on the screen, and to possibly show a Chicago Symphony Orchestra performance from Symphony Center in the fall.

But she won't limit herself to traditional ideas. In winter, LaPietra asked, why not use it for "literally putting up a video fireplace?"

It's not a bad idea, interpretable as either avant-garde or kitschy and demonstrating to visitors that the city, despite its history, isn't afraid to play with fire.

sajohnson@tribune.com | Twitter: @StevenKJohnson