History of The Chicago Theatre
The grandeur of The Chicago Theatre often leaves its visitors breathless. The elegant lobby, majestic staircase and beautiful auditorium complete with murals above the stage and on the ceiling, are components of an amazing building called “the Wonder Theatre of the World” when it opened on October 26, 1921 with Norma Talmadge on screen in “The Sign on the Door.” A 50-piece orchestra performed in the pit and Jesse Crawford played the mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ. After a “white glove inspection,” a staff of 125 ushers welcomed guests who paid 25 cents until 1 p.m., 35 cents in the afternoon and 50 cents after 6 p.m.
The Chicago Theatre was the first large, lavish movie palace in America and was the prototype for all others. This beautiful movie palace was constructed for $4 million by theatre owners Barney and Abe Balaban and Sam and Morris Katz and designed by Cornelius and George Rapp. It was the flagship of the Balaban and Katz theatre chain.
Built in French Baroque style, The Chicago Theatre’s exterior features a miniature replica of Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, sculpted above its State Street marquee. Faced in a glazed, off-white terra cotta, the triumphal arch is sixty feet wide and six stories high. Within the arch is a grand window in which is set a large circular stained-glass panel bearing the coat-of-arms of the Balaban and Katz chain—two horses holding ribbons of 35-mm film in their mouths.
The grand lobby, modeled after the Royal Chapel at Versailles, is five stories high and surrounded by gallery promenades at the mezzanine and balcony levels. The grand staircase is patterned after that of the Paris Opera House and ascends to the various levels of the Great Balcony.
The 3,600 seat auditorium is seven stories high, more than one half of a city block wide, and nearly as long. The vertical sign “C-H-I-C-A-G-O,” at nearly six stories high, is one of the few such signs in existence today. A symbol of State Street and Chicago, the sign and marquee are landmarks in themselves, as is the 29-rank Wurlitzer theatre pipe organ.
Balaban and Katz spared no expense on the workmanship and materials for this miniature Versailles. Marshall Field’s supplied the drapes, furniture and interior decoration. Victor Pearlman and Co. designed and built the crystal chandeliers and lavish bronze light fixtures with Steuben glass shades. The McNulty Brothers’ master craftsmen produced the splendid plaster details and Northwestern Terra Cotta Company provided the tiles for the facade. Artist Louis Grell painted the 10 ceiling murals in the auditorium, the largest mural over the stage measuring over 30’ across.
During its first 40 years, The Chicago Theatre presented the best in live and film entertainment, including John Phillip Sousa, Duke Ellington, Jack Benny, and Benny Goodman. The Chicago Theatre was redecorated in preparation for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair and “modernized” in the 1950s when stage shows, with few exceptions, were discontinued. In the 1970s, under the ownership of the Plitt Theatres, The Chicago Theatre was the victim of a complex web of social and economic factors causing business to sag. It became an ornate but obsolete movie house, closing on September 19, 1985.
In 1986, Chicago Theatre Restoration Associates, with assistance from the City of Chicago, bought and saved the theatre from demolition and began a meticulous 9-month multi-million dollar restoration undertaken by Chicago architects Daniel P. Coffey & Associates, Ltd. and interior design consultants A.T. Heinsbergen & Co. of Los Angeles, interior design consultants. The Chicago Theatre reopened on September 10, 1986 with a gala performance by Frank Sinatra.
Since that time, an array of the entertainment world’s brightest stars and greatest productions have graced the stage, including Allman Brothers Band, Arcade Fire, Blues Traveler, Kelly Clarkson, Harry Connick Jr, Ellen DeGeneres, Aretha Franklin, Kathy Griffin, Gipsy Kings, Indigo Girls, Alicia Keys, David Letterman, Lyle Lovett, Oasis, Dolly Parton, Prince, Diana Ross, Van Morrison, Widespread Panic and Robin Williams.