The Up and Down, Riches to Rags and Back Again Story of the Chicago Theatre {1921}

If there's one theater that says Chicago, it is, quite literally, The Chicago Theatre.

The Chicago Theatre’s six-story marquee is a classic symbol of the Windy City. Learn the story behind this iconic living landmark of Chicago.

When Balaban and Katz opened The Chicago Theatre on October 26, 1921, eager and hopeful moviegoers swarmed State Street. Lines formed as early as two o’clock, a full three and a half hours before the scheduled opening. By six, crowds wrapped around the block, and a force of two hundred patrolmen and thirty mounted sergeants tried to keep the masses in order.

Chicago was simply mad for movies, and Balaban and Katz’s reputation for grandeur was well-established with their Central Park, Riviera, and Tivoli theaters on the west, north, and south sides of the city. 

Chicago’s fascination with moving pictures began with the Columbian Exposition when they first saw Anschutz’s Elektrotachyscope at the 1893 World’s Fair. It didn’t take long before Chicagoans would invent projectors: George K. Spoor the Kinodrome and William N. Selig the Selig Polyscope.

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Soon nickelodeons provided inexpensive entertainment. According to The Chicago Theatre’s Chicago Landmark Designation Report, in 1902 there was one “five-cent theater” in the city directory. By 1913, there were 606. Most of these were storefront theaters; they were easy enough to set up since you could buy everything you needed in the Sears, Roebuck catalog.

Balaban and Katz, who would become the premiere movie palace providers in the Midwest, began because a family got the movie biz bug. Israel and Augusta Balaban were Bessarabian Jewish immigrants who owned a grocery store in a run-down neighborhood on the near west side of Chicago.

It was a hard business, especially with eight mouths to feed. Unsold stock would go bad, and Israel would often extend credit to customers who couldn’t pay immediately.

The eldest son, Barney, helped pay the bills with a $25 a week job at a cold storage plant, and Abraham, or A. J., worked at a wool mill for $10 a week. A. J. got a second job singing at The Kedzie, a nickelodeon, and his sister, Ida, accompanied him on the piano. The siblings realized that this was the business to be in.

They took Mom and she caught on immediately. Show biz was way better than the grocery biz. For one, there would be no spoiled product. For another, and most importantly, people paid cash, and they paid before they even saw what they were getting. What a magical concept.

They quickly roped in the whole family and Barney and A. J. pooled their savings of $175 to lease the storefront. It was a rough little nickelodeon. Seats consisted of camp chairs and the screen was a sheet.

The Balabans immediately classed up the joint by replacing the sidewalk barker, hired to harangue passing pedestrians, with a more soothing violinist. They even installed an electric fan to cool their customers, but it was so loud it could only be run between reels.

Barney kept his better-paying job at Western Cold Storage Company while managing the business side of things, keeping overhead low by pressing his younger brothers into service. A. J. was the frontman and booked the films and sang; Ida played the piano. Dad was the janitor; Mom the matriarch oversaw them all.

The Balabans were hooked. They decided to go big, ending their lease at the tiny storefront so they could build a full-fledged movie theater a block away. When it opened, the Circle hinted at the future amenities the family would provide patrons, including a pipe organ, a four-piece orchestra, and a service to watch baby carriages and alert the mom when the babies within them fussed.

Vaudeville acts performed between short one-reel movies. The talent of the talent steadily increased, with A. J. hiring the likes of Sophie Tucker and the Marx Brothers.

When they decided to build an even grander movie house, A. J. brought in his friend Sam Katz. Sam had also played piano at neighborhood nickelodeons, and he and his father, Morris, invested in theaters.

Related: another landmark built in 1921 was the London Guarantee Building. Now LondonHouse Chicago, it’s a beaux-arts beauty with a quirky story.

By the time Balaban and Katz partnered, Sam had attended Northwestern University, John Marshall Law School, and owned three theaters with his dad. In 1917, the Katz and Balaban families joined as well when Sam and Ida married.

After a visit to Ringling Theater in Baraboo, Wisconsin, the in-laws hired its architects, brothers Cornelius and George Rapp, to design the first true Balaban and Katz showcase movie palace.

This dazzling new theater was everything that nickelodeons were not. Opening October 27, 1917, Central Park was majestic, seating 2,800 people in a lavishly decorated auditorium.

The introduction of a cantilevered balcony meant no columns to block the sightlines. A horseshoe mezzanine enabled more intimate seating closer to the stage, and the exterior terra cotta embellishments and the interior ornate chandeliers, tile flooring, and plasterwork created a true escape, an escape that was sorely needed during the height of World War I.

Barney had left his job at the cold storage company by this time, but his experience came in handy. Central Park was the first movie house to offer air conditioning, which also made it the first theater to stay open year-round. An ad proclaimed the theater “Removes the Temper from Temperature,” with its “fresh and exhilarating air, chilled to any degree of coolness necessary to our patrons’ comfort.” 

The building itself was entertaining, but this was, after all, a theater. In addition to cinema, Balaban and Katz presented orchestral and live acts. New Yorker Frank Cambria directed these themed shows, setting the stage for all future Balaban and Katz productions.

Next came the Riviera in the north side Uptown neighborhood, and the Tivoli in the south side’s Cottage Grove. With west, north, and south covered, it was time to open downtown. 

The Up and Down, Riches to Rags and Back Again Story of the Chicago Theatre {1921} 1
In 1925, Balaban and Katz would also open the Uptown Theatre

Balaban and Katz found an L-shaped lot that wrapped around one of Chicago’s oldest buildings. This odd configuration became a blessing because it meant the theater would be wider than it was deep, providing the illusion of intimacy despite a capacity of thousands.

They again hired Rapp and Rapp, the brothers who had designed their previous three movie palaces and would be their architects of choice for all future projects.

The Rapp brothers outdid themselves, creating a Neo-Baroque French Revival temple to entertainment on State Street. This was to be the “largest, most costly and grandest of the super deluxe movie palaces built up to that date.”

With its six-story Arc de Triomphe-inspired entrance and its three-story lighted marquee, the “Wonder Theatre of the World” promised luxury, and what Balaban and Katz promised, they delivered.

The thousands who gained entrance that opening night of October 26, 1921, were greeted with a five-story lobby designed to resemble the Royal Chapel at Versailles. Patrons could mingle along the balcony and mezzanine level promenades. Even the grand staircase, modeled after that of the Paris Opera House, brought a touch of France to Chicago.

The auditorium itself rose seven stories to a dome covered in murals by Louis Grell and lit by crystal chandeliers. Yet, it had a feeling of intimacy. A November 5, 1921, Billboard article about the opening proclaimed:

“The greatest marvel, perhaps, is the architectural triumph achieved in bringing so many seats so close to the stage. Despite the great size of the theater proper, there are still wide, roomy promenades on three sides of the auditorium. Here, amid paintings, sculpture and imported furniture, one may sit and look at the performance, across grilled railings and beside fluted marble pillars.”

The Chicago Theatre in 1921, photo from Illinois History Magazine 1989
The Chicago Theatre in 1921, photo from Illinois History Magazine 1989

None other than Charles H. Wacker, chairman of the Chicago Plan Commission, presided over the opening night’s ceremonies.

And, oh, what ceremonies they were. Patrons poured into the grand lobby, serenaded by a string quartet. When it was time to be seated, 125 crisply uniformed ushers showed them to their places. The fifty-piece Chicago Theatre Symphony Orchestra played an overture, which was followed by an operatic scene from “Faust,” which was followed by a solo by famed organist Jesse Crawford on the Mighty Wurlitzer.

There were short films and a musical pageant all about Chicago. Finally, they presented the feature film, The Sign on the Door, starring Norma Talmadge. 

This extravagant, extensive program was not reserved solely for opening night. Future patrons were entertained from start to finish with orchestral overtures, newsreels, and entertainers. There’d be an organ solo and a full stage production before the featured picture. They even provided childcare, making it easy for parents to enjoy a day at the movies.

In September 1922, The Chicago Theatre welcomed jazz artists to the stage for Syncopation Week. Jazz found a ready audience, and even after the talkies arrived, the theater survived both that change and the Great Depression by bringing in acts like Jack Benny, Ethel Waters, Cab Calloway, Judy Garland, Tommy Dorsey, and Benny Goodman.

In 1926, Famous Players—Lasky Corporation, which would become Paramount Pictures, bought a controlling interest in Balaban and Katz. The result was Paramount Publix Corporation, a cinematic powerhouse that combined a production company with physical theaters, creating a vertical monopoly that the U.S. Supreme Court dismantled in 1948. 

The 1933 Century of Progress Exposition prompted the theater’s first renovation and consisted mainly of redecoration. They hired Louis Grell to paint over his original murals, replacing the French themes with Greek and Roman deities. During World War II the programs switched to patriotic shows and motion pictures, and Frank Sinatra and Danny Kaye performed on stage. 

The 1950s saw both a reduction in attendance and the theater’s glamour. Another renovation, which the nomination for National Register of Historic Places called a “carefully done but artistically inferior remodeling that was typical” of the decade covered the grand staircase and window with drapes.

Flower boxes with plastic foliage replaced bronze torches. False ceilings covered the vaulted lobby. All of the Louis XIV furnishings disappeared, replaced by chrome and coral chairs and built-in benches capped with Formica end tables. This “Streamlining for a Palace of the 20’s,” as it was called, didn’t help. By the end of the decade, stage acts were discontinued entirely.

Without live entertainment, there was nothing to set the downtown movie palace apart from its growing suburban competition, and in1973 shows returned to the stage. It was a thumb in the dam and owners Plitt Theaters, a descendant of Paramount Publix, the company that absorbed Balaban and Katz, wanted to demolish the former flagship.

Despite the building’s landmark designation in 1981, Plitt was undeterred and applied for a demolition permit the following December. This demolition would include the adjacent Page Brothers Building, which had been designed by the city’s first architect and at the time was believed to be the last in downtown Chicago with a cast-iron front.

After heavy negotiations, a private/public partnership with the city, and the devoted attention of attorney Marshall Holleb, in 1985 the Chicago Theatre Preservation Group purchased the buildings and renovations of both National Historic Landmarks began.

This renovation corrected the travesty of the 1950s whitewashing, removing false ceilings, restoring original artwork, and generally bringing the theater back to its golden days.

They replaced the rusting three-story “Chicago” marquee and its archaic wiring with a replica. In less than a year, The Chicago Theatre reopened with five nights of Old Blue Eyes himself, three decades after his previous appearance.

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The Chicago Theatre Today

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In its prime, Balaban and Katz operated more than 125 movie palaces, 50 of which were in Chicago. Since reopening after its third restoration on September 10, 1986, The Chicago Theatre has been a mainstay of live performances, featuring among other renowned acts Sting, Aretha Franklin, David Letterman, Dolly Parton, Prince, and Diana Ross.

For decades it’s been a tradition for performers to make their marks backstage and the walls are covered in autographs, including Dean Martin’s and Bob Hope’s.

Signatures on the walls of the Chicago Theatre

The Mighty Wurlitzer, with its 29 ranks, is itself an historic landmark. Madison Square Garden Entertainment purchased the building in 2007. In 2011, the Chase Bank logo replaced the Balaban and Katz symbol at the top of the marquee. While this corporate sponsorship ruffled some feathers, Preservation Chicago considered it a small price to pay to ensure this landmark would be secure.

The Chicago Theatre remains a shining example of early 1920s lavish flamboyance. As the National Register of Historic Place Nomination Form concluded: “To millions of Chicagoans, the Chicago Theatre is the world’s ‘Wonder Theatre’.”

The Chicago Theatre; 175 North State Street, Chicago, Illinois  60601

Tour The Chicago Theatre

If you’d really like to see behind the scenes, take The Chicago Theatre Marquee Tour. Not only will you get the story behind the grand lobby, the staircase, and the auditorium, you’ll also go backstage.

It’s a tradition for performers to autograph the walls and the staircases. They range from simple signatures to elaborate sketches and paintings.

See if you can find Frank Sinatra’s, Dean Martin’s, or Bob Hope’s. (You can’t miss Prince’s mark.) Perhaps the most exciting part of the tour is when you actually step on the stage itself.

Of course, the best part of visiting The Chicago Theatre is seeing the live performances. Despite facing an uncertain future at one point, this majestic theater rebounded and is back to bringing the best performers to its historic stage.