175 North State Street
Architects: C.W. and George Rapp
For several decades, the Chicago Theater was the city’s premier movie palace. Located on the east side of State Street between Randolph and Lake Streets, the theater’s combination of first-run movies, light vaudeville, and musical performances drew patrons from across the city. The Chicago was also a popular destination for out-of-town visitors, businesspersons, and conventioneers. The theater, like many of its counterparts in nearby blocks, helped enliven the city’s central business district by catering, in large part, to wealthier Chicagoans—women especially—who might otherwise have been reluctant to venture downtown alone by day or visit the area with friends or family after dark.
Opened in 1921, the Chicago served as the flagship for the Balaban & Katz Company, a fast-growing Chicago theater circuit destined to become one of the city’s largest and most profitable amusement enterprises. Balaban & Katz first made a name for itself in the city’s outlying neighborhoods by opening large movie palaces in predominately middle-class residential areas. With the Chicago, the company gained its first toehold in the Loop. It expected the new theater to garner huge profits, not only because of its location in the heart of the city, but also by offering exclusive engagements of newly released motion pictures in an exceptionally elegant setting.
As a result, Balaban & Katz spared no expense in building the Chicago. The cost of the entire project—land and construction—topped $4 million. Prior to that, the city’s most expensive theater construction project had been the State-Lake vaudeville theater, located across the street from the Chicago site. Completed in 1919—the same year that plans for the Chicago were announced—the cost of the State-Lake was only $2.5 million, an amount that covered construction not only of the theater, but also nine floors of office space above it.
To design the theater along lines that would distinguish it from the area’s less highly regarded movie houses, Balaban and Katz hired the famed theater architects C.W. and George Rapp. The Rapp brothers modeled the Chicago after seventeenth-century European palaces that had been built to help the aristocratic classes of Europe use architecture and culture to set themselves apart from an upstart merchant class. The new theater’s lobby, for instance, sported marble columns, glass chandeliers, and red-carpeted stairways that led to the upper balconies. Likewise, the theater’s auditorium offered 5,000 upholstered seats beneath a well-lit, sculptured ceiling. As in the palaces of the seventeenth century, so in the Chicago Theater of the 1920s was high-class architecture used to broker social differences, only this time between the city’s native-born, middle-class whites and growing numbers of working-class immigrants and African-Americans. Indeed, the final design of the theater and its carefully selected interior decorations reflected the Rapp brothers’ and Balaban and Katz’s belief that wealthier Chicagoans would be more willing to partake in low-brow amusements, such as movie-watching, if they could do so in a setting that upheld their high-class cultural pretensions.
The new Chicago Theater formally opened Wednesday evening, 26 October 1921. The opening attraction was “The Sign on the Door,” a film starring Norma Talmadge. A capacity crowd greeted the new theater. Among the notables on hand opening night was poet Carl Sandburg, reporting on the event for the Chicago Tribune. “At 8 o’clock,” wrote Sandburg, “the sidewalks were crowded with folks waiting to get in. Not until after the main picture run at 10:30 was over did the sidewalks get clear and the police, mounted and afoot, breathe easy.”
The Chicago Theater remained a big draw throughout the 1920s. It is debatable, however, exactly how many Chicagoans visited the theater just to see the latest films. After all, this could be accomplished much less expensively by waiting a week until the same pictures showed in a theater closer to one’s own neighborhood. Rather, it appears that much of the Chicago’s popularity lay in the blockbuster “presentations”— dance troupes, beauty pageants, comedy routines—that accompanied each week’s feature film. In many cases, these presentations were little more than “cleaned-up” versions of classic vaudeville routines. Other presentations, such as those that explored aspects of Chicago’s history or showcased the talents of local school children, were promoted as serving civic or educational needs.
The most popular presentations, however, were those featuring jazz bands. Jazz came to the Chicago for the first time in September 1922, when Balaban and Katz launched their first “Syncopation Week” in an attempt to bolster the theater’s sagging attendance figures and push profits to all-time highs. The plan worked. Jazz played by white-only bands quickly became the theater’s top attraction, drawing huge crowds to the Chicago regardless of the quality of the movie being shown. Indeed, the Chicago quickly became one of the best places for more conservative white Chicagoans—those who avoided dance halls, night clubs, speakeasies, and other “dives” because of their unsavory reputations—to hear and enjoy live jazz. The fact that the jazz was performed by white rather than African-American musicians within the apparently respectable confines of the elegant Chicago Theater made the music itself seem less threatening, more artistic—at least to the theater’s predominantly white audiences. For Balaban and Katz, jazz meant the difference between barely breaking even and turning a large profit. During the 1920s, weekly gross revenues at the Chicago were typically fifty percent higher when jazz was included as part of the show.
The Depression posed new challenges to the Chicago and the city’s many other large movie palaces. To keep patrons coming to the theater during the tough economic times of the 1930s, Balaban and Katz continued to rely heavily on jazz performances, offering engagements by some of the nation’s best-known big bands. Other promotions, such as free giveaways, were also used. During 1933 and 1934, the city’s Century of Progress World’s Fair and the thousands of visitors it attracted to the city helped fill seats as well.
The Chicago Theater’s fortunes began to slip in the 1950s. Law suits filed by the city’s neighborhood theaters against the major film studios brought an end to the highly profitable practice of releasing new movies in Loop theaters first, neighborhood theaters a few weeks later. The growing popularity of television no doubt took its toll as well. Far more devastating, however, were new government housing and highway programs that encouraged the city’s white, middle-class residents to sell their homes in the city and move to the suburbs. Few returned to the city to partake in the same amusements they and their parents had patronized so faithfully during the 1930s and 1940s. Hoping to shore up the Chicago’s position as the city’s leading movie theater, Balaban and Katz undertook a remodeling of the theater in the 1950s, replacing or covering up its more ornate architectural features with “modern” lighting fixtures and false ceilings. As a cost-cutting measure, stage shows and other live performances were also dropped from the program. Given the shrinking size of the theater’s traditional customer base, however, such efforts were doomed to failure even before they were conceived.
During the 1970s, under the ownership of Plitt Theaters, many of the Loop’s movie palaces, including the Chicago, gradually adapted to the city’s changing demographic characteristics. Just as the city’s white, middle-class population had shrank during the 1960s, its black and Latino population had grown. At the same time, urban renewal programs had demolished many of the older movie houses that had once done business in the city’s black and Latino neighborhoods. These developments encouraged many African-American and Latino residents to patronize Loop retail and entertainment establishments more than they had in the past. Eager to keep their theaters open and profitable, Plitt willingly catered to their newfound patrons, showing “blaxploitation” and similar films that were especially popular with minority teenagers.
Such policies did not, however, sit well with City Hall and Loop businessmen, neither of which welcomed the increased presence of black and Latino Americans in the central business district. As a result, Mayor Richard H. Daley and his successors cooperated with downtown business organizations to have much of the downtown theater district, including the Chicago, designated a “blighted” area subject to government-backed redevelopment. According to plans, the city would buy out Plitt, bulldoze the Chicago and several other nearby theaters and retail establishments, and subsidize the construction of new office towers on the cleared land.
Preservationists fought the city’s plans, however. Although they were unable to save some of the area’s other historic structures, their efforts to prevent the demolition of the Chicago were successful. In 1986, with the financial assistance of the city, Plitt sold the Chicago to an organization of preservationists who oversaw a nine-month, $25 million restoration of the historic theater.
The last movie at the Chicago was shown on 10 September 1985. Since its restoration, the theater has hosted Broadway musicals, concerts, comedians, and other live performances.
Photograph: Chicago Theater, exterior view, 1923 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Crowds standing on State Street, Chicago Theater on right side of image, 1926 [Library of Congress]
Sources: Chicago Tribune, 26 Oct 1921, 34; 27 Oct 1921, 29; Variety, 28 Mar 1919, 33; 22 Aug 1919, 81; 22 Sept 1922, 1; 29 Sept. 1922, 27; 30 Aug 1918, 28; 29 Nov 1918, 39; 5 Mar 1924, 18; and Ross Miller, Here’s the Deal: The Buying and Selling of a Great American City (New York: Knopf, 1996).
Image sources: “Chicago Theatre, Chicago,” postcard, Max Rigot: #223 (n.d.), cropped; “Stage and Orchestra Pit, Chicago Theatre,” postcard, n.p. (n.d.), cropped; “Entrance to Main Foyer–Chicago Theatre,” postcard, n.p. (n.d.), cropped.