Haymarket Theater

716-26 West Madison Street
Built 1887; demolished 1950

The Haymarket Theater, one of Chicago’s largest theaters at the time of its opening, stood at 716-26 West Madison Street, just east of Halsted Street, on the city’s Near West Side. Opened in December 1887, the theater had a seating capacity of 2,475 persons and originally operated as a regular playhouse, featuring a variety of classic plays and contemporary melodramas. The Haymarket’s first offering was a production of “Richard III” with the much-admired, nineteenth-century Shakespearean actor Thomas Keene in the title role. Opened in December 1887, the Haymarket spent its first nine seasons as a legitimate playhouse, featuring a variety of classic plays and contemporary melodramas starring some of the best-known actors of the era, including Richard Mansfield, Edwin Booth, and Jessie Bartlett Davis. Thomas Keene, one of the most-admired, nineteenth-century Shakespearean actors starred in the theater’s debut production of “Richard III.” During these years, the theater was managed by Will Davis, who also ran the Columbia Theater on Monroe Street near Dearborn. Ticket prices were rather steep: as much as $1.00 for a seat on the orchestra level. On 1 December 1893, a large fire caused extensive damage to the Haymarket’s front end, but quick repairs enabled the theater to reopen just five weeks later with an Irish-themed melodrama entitled “Killarney.”

Vaudeville promoters Charles E. Kohl and George Castle gained control of the Haymarket in 1896. Dropping full-scale dramatic productions from the theater’s schedule, Kohl and Castle adopted a policy of “continuous vaudeville” at the Haymarket. First deployed in Chicago at the Hopkins Theater on South State Street, continuous vaudeville featured a series of one-act dramas and comedy routines in constant rotation throughout the day. In contrast to stage plays, which required attendees to arrive at a pre-determined time in order to enjoy the entire show, the new vaudeville policy allowed customers to arrive and depart as their schedules permitted. Kohl and Castle also lowered prices: thirty cents for a seat on the orchestra level, twenty cents for a box seat, and ten cents for the balcony. The Haymarket’s shows featured a variety of acts, from balladeers and comedians to contortionists and jugglers. At one time or another, Sophie Tucker, Will Rogers, The Four Cohans, and Harry Houdini each made appearances there as vaudeville artists.

By the early 1910s, rising production costs and the increasingly industrial character of Chicago’s Near West Side made the Haymarket less viable as a vaudeville theater. In 1916, management of the theater shifted to showmen Warren B. Irons and Arthur Clamage, who introduced a burlesque show policy to boost attendance and increase profits. Irons and Clamage undertook an extensive remodeling of the theater as well. They lowered the ceiling to cut off the third balcony, installed 2,200 new leather seats, and built an electric-lit burlesque runway from the stage to the center of the theater. The burlesque shows featured a mix of risque chorus-girl revues, irreverent male comedians, and occasional boxing or wrestling matches designed to appeal to the Haymarket’s increasingly male clientele. Among those who performed at the theater during this period was funnyman Joe Yule, the father of actor Mickey Rooney.

During the 1920s, investigations on the part of the Juvenile Protective Association and other private child-welfare and anti-vice organizations led to several police crackdowns. Reformers complained that the Haymarket’s shows were indecent and raised concerns about the moral well-being of the many teenaged boys who attended them. The shows, claimed one 1925 report, were “as vulgar and sensuous as it is possible to find in any place save a house of prostitution.” In particular, it noted how the “tights worn by some of the young women performers are constructed in such a way as to excite by abnormal representation” and criticized the theater’s so-called Garter Nights, “when much of the action and talk is involved in the appeal to the feminine garter fetish.” Police responded to such complaints by periodically raiding the theater, arresting a handful of showgirls, and hauling them into the city’s Morals Court to face charges of public indecency. In most cases, however, the women were released upon payment of a small fine and returned to the theater in time for the next evening’s performance.

The onset of the Great Depression ended the Haymarket’s days as a live-performance venue. In 1932, showing signs of serious physical deterioration and no longer able to turn a profit, the theater fell into bankruptcy. After passing through the hands of a series of new owners, the theater was temporarily operated as a ten-cent, discount movie theater. In September 1949, the city of Chicago condemned the Haymarket, which stood in the path of the new Northwest Expressway, later known as the Kennedy Expressway. Demolition of the theater took place in 1950.

Internet Resources
Architectural Drawing: Haymarket Theatre exterior [Library of Congress]

Sources: Chicago Tribune, 2 Dec 1893, 9; 10 Dec 1893, 44; 20 Nov 1896, 3; 5 Dec 1896, 3; 4 Dec 1920, 1; 5 Dec 1949, 10; 23 Mar 1950, A8; Variety, 5 May 1916, 33; Ernest W. Burgess Papers, Special Collections, Regenstein Library, University of Chicago.