ARTS AND CULTURE
A Short History of The Chicago Theatre
This is the first in a series exploring the histories of North America's last remaining grand movie palaces.
The Chicago Theater is more than a Windy City landmark; it’s part of the city’s living history. The theatre’s neon marquee and six-storey vertical "Chicago" sign have become unofficial Chi-town logos, and The Academy Award-winning musical Chicago (2002) even appropriated the lettering for its title sequence.
Despite the fact that it no longer serves a cinephile audience, The Chicago Theatre has dodged the fate of other grand dames of its era: closure. Instead, as one of the city’s premier live entertainment venues it remains a vital part of Chicago’s cultural fabric.
Here, a brief history of the building behind Chicago’s most famous marquee.
Billed as “the Wonder Theatre of the World,” the opulent 3,600-seat hall was designed as a cinema and opened on October 26, 1921. It is one of the oldest of the original movie palaces still operating, although today its focus is on live musical acts, comedians and dance troupes.
In its time, The Chicago Theatre was but one of thousands of movie palaces. Baring more in common with European opera houses than today's functional multiplexes, these plush, ornately decorated cinemas aimed at making movie patrons feel like royalty – at least for a couple of hours.
It may surprise that film going was so popular in the pre-sound era that impresarios built such majestic facilities, but this was well before TV and broadcast radio was only just beginning to spread. With few other entertainment options, North Americans flocked to these urban oases where women swooned to Rudolph Valentino dancing the tango in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and everybody laughed through the tears as Charlie Chaplin fought to keep Jackie Coogan out of an orphanage in The Kid.
These elegant environments helped elevate the appreciation of these motion pictures, which initially had been considered lowbrow entertainment to be viewed in nickelodeons – bare-walled converted storefronts.
To design The Chicago Theatre, exhibition firm Balaban and Katz, which would open dozens of theatres in the Chicago area, tapped prolific architects Rapp and Rapp. The building cost US$4 million to build at the time, which would be more than US$53 million in today's funds.
No detail was deemed too lavish for the architects. Behind the famous exterior signage is a replica of the Arc de Triomphe framing a stained-glass window featuring a pair of scarlet horses flanking the Balaban and Katz company crest. Inside, a magnificent crystal chandelier hangs above a spacious lobby that is inspired by the columned Versailles chapel. And patrons can ascend the red-carpeted grand staircase – based, of course, on that of the Paris Opera house – on their way to the "great balcony."
Then, there was the music. The silent movies of the 1920s were augmented by a 50-piece orchestra and the building's "Mighty Wurlitzer" pipe organ – a precursor to the synthesizer that could replicate orchestral instruments and produce special effects. Keyboardist Jesse Crawford helped design it and played it on opening night to the Norma Talmadge melodrama The Sign on the Door. The original installation still stands.
SOUND AND THE POST-DEPRESSION ERA
The end of the ’20s marked the arrival of sound, and despite the Great Depression audiences continued coming in droves, looking for a cheap all-round fantasy experience to help them forget their troubles.
A few years later, to prepare for the 1933 Chicago World's Fair, local painter Louis Grell painted over his French countryside murals that originally adorned the auditorium, replacing them with 14 classically themed works, highlighted by a stunning 30-foot-wide depiction of the sun god Apollo riding his chariot.
MID-CENTURY AND BEYOND
The theater was physically updated in the 1950s, when stage shows, which had been part of its regular offerings, were largely phased out. But in the decades that followed, sagging movie attendance could not justify such a large venue and the theatre shut down in 1985.
But while some other movie palaces slipped into abandoned decrepitude, Chicago wasn't going to forget its jewel. In 1986, Chicago Theatre Restoration Associates spearheaded a US$9 million (US$19.6 million today) renovation that was celebrated with a Frank Sinatra concert. The venue, purchased by MSG Entertainment in 2007, has been used for live entertainment ever since.
The theatre website provides event listings, and surely this glorious relic from Hollywood's Golden Age alone is worth the price of admission. One-hour daily tours start at noon, allowing visitors to see the backstage wall autographed by the many stars who have graced its stage. Tickets can be purchased in advance.
Address: 175 N. State Street, Chicago
Tours: 12 p.m. daily
Adult ticket price: US$15