by Chris Loeber
One October afternoon in 1921, a crowd gathered on State Street for the grand opening of what was then the newest theater in Chicago. By 5 p.m. that Oct. 26, a line stretched for two blocks in each direction and overflowed onto adjacent streets, according to a Billboard Magazine article published on Nov. 5, 1921.
Ornate chandeliers hung five stories overhead from cathedral arches as the first 5,000 patrons entered the grand foyer. They were led through promenades adorned with rare paintings and gilded with imported gold and jewels to the auditorium where, flanked by marble statues and murals of the French countryside, they were shown to their seats.
“What is perhaps the most magnificent theatre in the world, The Chicago, opened with appropriate ceremonies yesterday evening at 5:30 [p.m.],” wrote the author of the Billboard magazine article. “It is the latest venture of Balaban and Katz, movie magnates, who own the superb Tivoli, on the South Side, and other film palaces.”
The Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State St., in its 90 years of existence, has helped bring film to the masses, endured difficult times and evolved to reflect the city’s ever-changing urban environment. Through thick and thin, it has remained an icon of arts and culture in Chicago.
As reported by The Chronicle on Nov. 11, Columbia will hold its graduation ceremonies at the legendary theater because of changes to its academic calendar.
The Chicago Theatre was known as a movie palace for its elaborate architecture and for showing films before they were a popular form of entertainment, said Tim Samuelson, a Chicago cultural historian.
Balaban and Katz, a theater development firm, built and originally operated the Chicago Theatre. They pioneered many of Chicago’s modern movie palaces in the early 1920s, like the Riviera or the Tivoli, according to Samuelson.
“There was a striving to show the motion picture as a respectable medium of art,” Samuelson said.
The 1920s, commonly referred to as the Roaring ’20s, was a time of economic prosperity that followed the end of World War I in 1918. Cinema’s shift from its modest beginnings to its first appearances in major theaters was a reflection of the times, said Jennifer Masengarb, senior manager of educational research at the Chicago Architectural Foundation.
At the end of World War I, troops brought home their experiences from Europe, and Americans were becoming more aware of foreign cultures, Masengarb said.
This is evident in the architecture of Chicago’s movie palaces—each of which are supposed to represent a certain time and place, according to Masengarb. The Chicago Theatre was designed by architects C.W. Rapp and George L. Rapp in the French baroque style to resemble the Palace of Versailles.
Movies were just one of many attractions at the theatre, where the mainstay was vaudeville—a variety of musical, comic and dramatic acts in a single theatrical presentation, said Richard Sklenar, executive director at the Theatre Historical Society of America.
“This was going on all over the country by various entrepreneurs,” Sklenar said. “You had Marcus Loew doing the same thing in New York City, the Skouras brothers in St. Louis and Sid Grauman on the West Coast in L.A.”
As vaudeville grew less popular, the entertainment industry changed and so did the Chicago Theatre.
By the 1930s, it was one of the first venues in the country to feature big-name acts, said Ron Falzone, an associate professor in Columbia’s Film and Video Department.
The Chicago Theatre discontinued almost all stage shows and became strictly a movie theater when it came under the management of ABC in the 1950s and the Plitt Theatres in the 1950s—ventures that brought it success, Falzone said.
“The longest first run of any movie in a theater was James Bond’s ‘Thunderball’ in 1965 [at the Chicago Theatre],” he said. “It lasted for two-and-a-half years and was selling out almost the entire time.”
The Chicago Theatre used to be a regular hangout for Columbia students, according to Falzone, who said that when he was a student at the college in the 1970s, groups of students would walk up State Street to the theater to see movies between classes.
Its run as a movie theater came to an end on Sept. 18, 1985 when it closed as an “ornate but obsolete movie house,” according to TheChicagoTheatre.com.
The theater’s decline began in the 1970s, said Falzone, who recalled having to lift his feet off the ground to avoid rats while seeing movies.
The theater made a grand reopening with a performance by Frank Sinatra on Sep. 10, 1986, with the help of the city of Chicago, according to TheChicagoTheatre.com.
The Chicago Theatre, now owned by the Madison Square Garden Company, has staged some of the world’s most popular acts. This was a move, Falzone said, that has brought the theater full circle.
“It converted back to a full arts center with primarily live performance,” he said. “In a sense, it’s drawing back to its roots.”