1920 South State Street
Located on the southwest corner of Archer Avenue and South State Street, Chicago’s Alhambra Theater adopted a burlesque policy around 1909, following nearly two decades of one-night operas, Irish melodramas, and minstrel shows.
Originally operated by showman H.R. Jacobs, who also ran the North Clark Street Theater and the Academy of Music on Halsted Street, the Alhambra opened for business in 1890 and had a seating capacity of over 2,500 persons. One newspaper account described the theater’s early appearance: “The seats are handsomely upholstered in plush and are of commodious size. The parquet contains several rows of ‘divan’ seats, constructed to hold two occupants. The decoration is entirely in gold and of attractive design, the effect being harmonizing and pleasing. The theater is lighted entirely by electricity, but has facilities for gas illumination if needed. The drop curtain, behind which lies a stage of ample dimensions and facilities, represents a scene in the courtyard of the ‘Alhambra’ Palace [in Spain].”
During the 1890s and early 1900s, the Alhambra staged a variety of one-night operas and romantic Irish-themed melodramas with charming “colleens” as leading ladies. Following national theater trends, the theater also presented numerous plays with Southern settings. Many of these productions looked back on the antebellum South with nostalgia, casting plantation owners as noble heroes, their wives as virtuous angels, and African-American slaves as carefree fools, much to the amusement of the theater’s predominantly white patrons. However, during the traditionally slack summer months, when hot temperatures kept away white audiences, the Alhambra’s managers often filled seats by staging “Minstrel Festivals” geared toward the city’s theatrically underserved African-American community.
Control of the Alhambra shifted in 1897 to showman William H. Barry, who updated the theater’s appearance with an improved electric lighting system, fresh decorations, and new stage scenery. Minstrel shows and vaudeville productions continued to dominate the theater’s offerings during these years. Under Barry’s management, the Alhambra became one of the first theaters in Chicago to feature newly invented motion pictures as part of its playbill. In February 1904, a fire at the adjoining Alhambra Hotel partially damaged the theater; repairs took six months to complete.
By 1909, rising production costs and the increasingly industrial character of the Levee district made the Alhambra less viable as a traditional theatrical venue. By staging burlesque shows, however, the theater’s owners found a way to boost attendance and increase profits. In the summer of 1909, the Alhambra won the Columbia (Eastern) Burlesque Wheel affiliation from the nearby Trocadero Theater. One show starred a voluptuous young woman known as “Frenchee,” who entertained her audience with a combination of sexually suggestive dialogue and mildly erotic dances. The Alhambra’s burlesque shows attracted a predominantly male clientele. A lack of age restrictions meant that most audiences included teenaged boys. In late 1909, the city’s leading child-welfare agency, the Juvenile Protective Association, denounced the theater, along with several others, as a threat to the moral well-being of the city’s youth.
Never a big draw as a burlesque house, the Alhambra Theater closed for business in September 1912. Owners Max and David Weber attributed the theater’s demise to long-standing “troubles” with its labor-union employees. “Before the season opened on the first of September,” Max Weber claimed, “we were threatened by representatives of four different unions, the musicians, bill posters, stage hands, and moving picture operators, each of whom declared they would close the place unless we gave in to their demands.” But the theater’s declining appeal and increased competition from newer, fancier theaters in the heart of the Loop, were the bigger obstacles. One month after closing, the Webers sold the Alhambra Theater and adjoining hotel. The theater remained dark for most of the next two decades, while the hotel fell into disrepair. In 1929, city officials condemned the Alhambra building as a fire hazard and ordered its demolition.
Photograph: Alhambra Theater entrance, 1907 Archer Avenue, 1907 [Library of Congress]
Sources: Chicago Tribune, 31 Aug 1890, 30; 2 Sep 1890, 5; 7 Jan 1895, 8; 17 Nov 1895, 42; 19 Apr 1896, 34; Oct 4 1896, 40; 5 Apr 1897, 3; 1 Aug 1898, 8; 8 Aug 1898, 8; Dec 17 1900, 3; 23 Feb 1904, 12; 26 Sep 1909, 7; 17 Dec 1909, 3; 28 Sep 1912, 10; 12 Oct 1912, 14; 12 Sep 1929, 12; Variety, 21 Aug 1909, 6.