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<< Go Back up to Region ‘Chicago’
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The Chicago Theatre was completed in 1921 as the flagship theatre of the Balaban & Katz theatre chain, built primarily as a movie palace but with stage facilities included. Designed by noted architectural firm Rapp & Rapp, it was executed in their signature Neo Baroque French Revival style, the most obvious nod being the theatre’s six story façade which echoes the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The massive movie palace takes up half a city block, rises seven stories, and seats 3,600.
The Chicago-based Balaban & Katz theatre chain was formed in 1916 by A.J. Balaban and Sam Katz. At its peak Balaban & Katz operated over 100 theatres throughout the US Midwest, with 50 of those being in the Chicago area. Balaban & Katz generally built their theatres, and many were designed by Cornelius W. Rapp and George L. Rapp, brothers who formed the architectural firm Rapp & Rapp based out of Chicago.
At its opening in late October 1921 the Chicago Theatre was billed as “The Wonder Theatre of the World”, and with its lavish decoration (drapes, furniture and interior decoration by Marshall Field, Steuben glass light fixtures, ceiling murals by Louis Grell – some 30ft wide) it’s hard to deny that title. The theatre’s original seating capacity was 3,880.
The theatre’s marquee, although not the original, is almost as famous as the theatre, having represented the city on many occasions with its iconic CHICAGO lettering playing out in multi-colored lights. The Y-shape behind the central “C” is the city’s municipal device, a badge that symbolizes the forked Chicago River at Wolf Point.
The interior of the five story Grand Lobby boasts two levels of promenades and was modeled after the Royal Chapel at Versailles. The theatre’s Grand Staircase was modeled on the Paris Opera House. The Balaban & Katz coat-of-arms, two horses holding ribbons of 35mm film in their mouths and surrounded by film reels, can be seen in the Grand Lobby’s massive stained glass window.
The theatre retains its original 4-manual, 26-rank Wurlitzer Organ. The organ was renovated in 1970, increased to 29-ranks, and is one of the oldest Mighty Wurlitzers in existence.
From its opening the Chicago Theatre combined premiere movies with live stage shows, and was also popular for live jazz during the 1920s and 1930s.
Ahead of the 1933 World’s Fair, the theatre was redecorated which included repainting the 14 French-themed ceiling murals in the auditorium. Louis Grell was again the artist however chose to re-theme the murals with Greek and Roman deities.
In the 1950s a “modernization” took place which spelled the end of live entertainment at the theatre and saw various architectural elements boarded-over in favor of a more minimal design aesthetic. By the 1970s business was slow at the theatre and in 1984 it was sold to the Chicago Theatre Preservation Group.
A restoration project costing $4.3 million was undertaken and completed in 1986, with Anthony Heinsbergen’s firm consulting on the interior design to restore the theatre to its 1930s appearance. The original lavish lobby promenades, modernized in the 1950s, were found to be intact behind the 1950s alterations, and were revealed in all their glory as part of the restoration project.
The theatre was purchased in 2007 by Madison Square Garden Entertainment who currently manage the theatre.
An enduring tradition is that the backstage corridor walls and stairwell are signed by stars who have graced the Chicago Theatre’s stage…from Frank Sinatra to Kelly Clarkson! The signature walls are a feature of the theatre’s daily tours.
As of February 2020 tours run daily at the Chicago Theatre, generally with no reservation needed unless on a busy weekend. Tours commence 12pm (Noon) at the State St entrance, cost $18 (Students/Military with valid ID $13, Children 12 & under $13, Seniors 65 and older $13), and run for about an hour. Expect to see the Grand Lobby, Auditorium, Stage (assuming it’s available), Wurlitzer Organ, and the autographed corridors backstage. Exact itinerary depends on the visiting company’s schedule and not all areas may be available on any given day. Check out the Chicago Theatre’s Tour website for more details, online booking, and for any upcoming tour blackout dates.
Photographs copyright © 2002-2020 Mike Hume/historictheatrephotos.com unless otherwise noted.
Text copyright © 2017-2020 Mike Hume/historictheatrephotos.com.
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