526 South State Street
The Hopkins Theater at 526 South State Street was one of several vaudeville and burlesque theaters located at the southern edge of Chicago’s central business district. The theater was originally known as the People’s Theater. In February 1895, however, “Colonel” John Hopkins, a Saint Louis showman, leased the theater and renamed it in his honor. The theater’s formal debut as the Hopkins took place on 10 February 1895 with a performance of Frederick Brayton’s play “Forgiven” and an eight-act vaudeville program.
The theater’s location outside the main business district limited its appeal among more sophisticated local theater patrons, as well as visiting businessmen and conventioneers. To attract business, Colonel Hopkins employed marketing strategies designed to draw attention to his theater and increase its appeal among Chicagoans who might not ordinarily attend a show. First, Hopkins touted the theater’s low admission prices: just ten cents for a seat in the gallery, fifteen cents for the balcony, and thirty cents for the orchestra. “Nothing Small About Us but Our Prices,” read one advertisement. For Chicagoans who could not afford fifty cents or one dollar to attend a play or opera in one of the city’s finer theaters, the Hopkins offered an affordable alternative.
Second, Hopkins dispensed with the traditional policy of adhering to a prescribed schedule of performances. Instead of offering regular evening shows and occasional afternoon matinees, as was customary at other Chicago theaters, Hopkins adopted a policy of “continuous performances” at his theater. The daily program began in the late morning and continued non-stop until at least eleven o’clock in the evening, with some acts making several appearances throughout the day. At one point, the theater offered two full-length performances of “Quo Vadis” and similar dramas each day, and filled in the before-and-after hours with a variety of vaudeville acts. For Chicagoans who worked irregular hours or were reluctant to purchase tickets in advance, such a schedule permitted them to attend a show whenever they pleased. Rather than arriving at a prescribed time, patrons could arrive at any time, purchase a ticket, and immediately take their seats. “No Waits—No Overtures—No Stops” was how one of the theater’s advertisements put it. If a patron happened to miss the day’s first three acts, he or she simply waited until the program repeated itself and the acts returned for a second round of performances.
The Hopkins Theater also made local amusement history by being the first theater in Chicago to exhibit motion pictures on a purely commercial basis. This milestone occurred during the first week of July in 1896, when Hopkins added a series of short motion pictures to the theater’s regular vaudeville. Among the first pictures shown at the Hopkins were several movies produced by the Edison Manufacturing Company, including “Herald Square” (1896), “Shooting the Chutes” (1896), and “The Kiss” (1896), the last of which reportedly stirred strong reactions among the theater’s patrons. Thousands of curiosity seekers packed the Hopkins to see the films. In so doing, they demonstrated the enormous potential of motion pictures as a form of mass amusement in Chicago. As the Chicago Tribune observed, “It is not only an interesting and instructive novelty for the regular patrons of the house, but is drawing scores of hundreds of people who never before attended this popular form of entertainment, and the policy of changing the views and pictures weekly maintains an interest that would otherwise wane.”
During the late 1890s, Hopkins gradually expanded and upgraded his increasingly popular theater. In early 1896, he acquired the Park Theater, which stood to the north of the Hopkins Theater. Combining the two theaters into one, Hopkins demolished the front and intervening walls of the Park Theater and in their place constructed a fancy new entrance, lobby, and foyer. This allowed for the old Hopkins auditorium to be extended back to the street wall, creating room for the installation of several hundred additional seats. Three years later, Hopkins completely refurbished the theater’s interior. One newspaper account described the new look: “The changes begin at the entrance. The box office, which once stood at its center, has been properly subdued by being placed by a side wall. The color scheme begins to unfold itself at this same entrance, the folding doors, the box office, and the side walls themselves being a bright but not offensive green. Inside the theater the green is made a background for effects in red and gold…. The old time seats have disappeared and in their places are comfortable opera chairs. With the innovation has come an increase in the price to 50 cents for the parquet, where the seats are now reserved.”
In 1904, the theater’s policy shifted from vaudeville to a combination of vaudeville and burlesque, and with it the theater’s name was changed to the Folly. The first burlesque acts performed there on 21 August 1904. Despite its close proximity to the more established Trocadero Theater, the Folly did well as a burlesque house. During the first week of 1907, for instance, it set a local burlesque box office record by taking in over $5,600 in revenue with a show titled “Rialto Rounders.” The Folly was affiliated with the Western Burlesque Wheel.
Aside from burlesque and vaudeville shows, the Folly also held amateur talent nights. These events were wildly popular and very boisterous events, an early twentieth century version of later televised talent contest shows, such as “The Gong Show” of the 1970s, “Star Search” of the 1980s, or “American Idol” of the 2000s. All sense of decorum and audience restraint broke down during these shows. Audience members cheered gleefully for unexpectedly good performances, but showed no mercy to less talented acts, booing them, heckling them, and occassionally hurling rotten eggs or dead chickens in their direction. Indeed, patrons seemed to revel at times in the intensely democratic privilege of putting an end to the lofty aspirations of those who dared to dream of a career in show business. For one night a week at least, it was the audience, not the house manager or some well-connected booking agent, that decided the fate of the young hopefuls on stage.
The Folly’s popularity as a burlesque house did not last, however. It closed during the mid-1910s and remained empty until 22 November 1919, when it reopened as the State-Congress Theater. In a bid to win the patronage of women shoppers, the new theater’s managers switched from the more male-oriented burlesque policy to one of “high grade continuous vaudeville” and partnered with Loop department stores to sell discounted tickets. Attracting large numbers of women shoppers to the theater was a difficult challenge. The stretch of State Street south of Van Buren was notorious for its saloons, pool halls, gambling dens, and all-male rooming houses. Many women, not wanting to subject themselves to unwanted sexual propositions, scrupulously avoided the area. Unable to attract women to a theater located so far south of the city’s main department stores, the theater’s owners eventually returned to a burlesque policy, which remained in place until the theater closed in 1933 due to financial difficulties brought on by the Great Depression. Two years later, in the summer of 1935, the historic theater was demolished to make way for a parking lot. The site is currently occupied by the University Center, an 18-story residence hall for students of Columbia College, DePaul University, and Roosevelt University.
Source: Chicago Tribune, 27 Jan 1895, 14; 11 Feb 1895, 8; 29 Mar 1896, 43; 19 Jul 1896, 31; 26 Jul 1896, 34; 3 Jul 1899, 7; 21 Aug 1904, D1; 17 Feb 1907, 3; 7 Dec 1919, D8; 9 Jun 1935, E2; Variety, 12 Jan 1907, 2; 14 Nov 1919, 25; 30 Aug 1923, 40.