Bette Burgess - Elmhurst and Millennium Park
Dan Knapp - Riverside
Gene Ramsay - Graceland Cemetery
Hugh Keenan - Chicago Theatre


Chicago Trip. October 18, 2004

Hugh Keenan - Chicago Theatre

At 10am, Javier Ayala, the historian of the Chicago Theatre (1921) gave our group an extensive private tour of the Chicago Theatre (1921), owned since April 1, 2004 by TheatreDreams Chicago, LLC, a production company. Designed in French palatial style by famed Chicago architects C.W. and George Rapp, it was the flagship in the mid 1920s of the Balaban & Katz chain of 28 theatres in the city plus over 100 others in the Midwest. Constructed with a lavish use of ivory and black marble wainscoting and walls, ivory scagliola columns and historical architectural details, it cost $4 million and became the prototype for movie palaces in America. An extensive renovation in 1986 of the interior restored the 29 rank Wurlitzer organ, the nearly six story Chicago marquee sign, and French decorative interiors. Theatre seating was restored to the auditorium after a false floor install when it served for a banquet hall of the adjoining hotel was removed. The original 5000 seats have been reduced to 3600.

In the glazed white terra cotta façade at 175 State St. modeled after Paris’ Arc de Tripmphe, there is a large stained glass roundel at the top of the 60 foot wide and six story multipaned window of clear glass; this has the coat of arms of the Balaban and Katz chain with their initials and two horses holding ribbons of 35-mm film in their mouths outlined by a border of film reels. The five-story grand lobby is designed after the Royal Chapel at Versailles with gallery promenades at mezzanine and balcony levels to which a grant marble staircase copied from the Paris Opera (1895) ascends.

Javier led the group up through the elaborate stair halls into one of the side boxes to view the classical murals around the ceiling of the auditorium and the large recessed center of the ceiling outlined with a bulls’ eye openings, which exposed the varied colors of the cove lighting. A mural of Apollo with his sun chariot is over the proscenium. On either side are organ screens with niches below, each with a classical female figure holding a scallop shell form which originally water fell into a pool below. In the 1933 renovation classical motifs replaced the original French scenes. A second and more drastic renovation (1953) covered the ornate French architecture of the lobby and halls to make the areas modern and removed the original furniture. With assistance from the city, the 1896 restoration by Chicago Theatre Restoration Associates cost $25 million and took 9 months. French decorative details were uncovered in the lobby and stair halls and a large crystal chandelier from a Fox theatre replaced one of the two sold from the lobby.

Modern theater seats replaced those lost when it became a banquet hall. In the balcony, cocktail service is now available at banquettes and tables. Due to the width of the large auditorium, all seats are close to the stage. The original console of the Wurlitzer organ was played at its height of fame by the duo of Mr. And Mrs. Jesse Crawford for whom a second console was installed. Javier told the story of their romance, marriage, and professional partnership.

The theatre has a connection to Al Capone, who took over the unions of projectionists and stagehands and extorted money from the B&K chain, so it became his ATM as Javier said. The well-designed stage is just a bit smaller than Atlanta’s Fox. We toured the dressing rooms upstairs and the Green Room below, passing on the stairway wall the stencils of shows and signatures of performers since it re-opened as a legitimate theatre in 1986. These include Frank Sinatra, Julie Andrews, Lyle Lovett, the Indigo Girls, and others. Live performances occupy most of the year, but movies are shown on occasion.

Below, passing the large window of a room where a radio station once operated, we entered a long corridor in the Egyptian style, which connected the restrooms and displayed photographs of the early history of the Chicago Theatre, including one of Norma Talmadge, the star of “The Sign on the Door,” when it opened on October 26, 1921. The men’s lounge in Venetian style has its original murals and variegated Goth columns. At the other end is the ladies’ in a Persian motif.

After thanking Javier for his extensive, complimentary tour of the Chicago Theatre, those of us staying at the historic Palmer House (1927) returned to check out and store out luggage before lunch and final sightseeing before our return flight to Atlanta. Those that lunched at the Walnut Room of Marshall Field’s, celebrated with a good meal in an elegant space with a center display of pieces of 19 th century ornate cut glass furniture: a large cut glass lamp, a 10 ft. high crystal torchiere, and a cut glass table set with smaller items. The corridor outside displayed Baccarat figures and vessels.

This concluded our trip to various sites of architectural significance in Chicago. Further details and photographs of the Chicago Threatre are available on the Internet at:

http://chicago.urban-history.org/sites/theaters/chicago.htm

www.thechicagotheatre.com/about_history.htm

 

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