4124 West Madison Street
Built 1927, demolished 1964
Architects: Alexander L. Levy & William J. Klein
The Marbro Theater, located at 4124 West Madison Street, was built by independent movie theater operators Louis L. and Meyer S. Marks. Known as the Marks Brothers (hence, Mar-bro), the firm’s other holdings included the Broadway Strand Theater, 1641 West Roosevelt Road, and the much newer Granada Theater, 6427 North Sheridan Road.
Opened in May 1927, the 4,000-seat Marbro was one of the largest movie theaters outside the Loop and drew patrons from across the city’s west side and adjacent suburbs. As one of the more prominent establishments near the intersection of Madison Street and Crawford Avenue, the movie palace did much to make the area one of the city’s busiest outlying retail and entertainment centers.
Architecturally, the Marbro was every bit as grand as the city’s older and better known movie palaces. Designed by the architectural firm of Levy and Klein, the theater won accolades for its spectacular lobby, which contained a two-story grand staircase and was lighted by an enormous triple-tier, crystal chandelier. “Its beauty is massive and loud,” Variety quipped, “but beauty nevertheless.” Among the theater’s other noteworthy features was its enormous Wurlitzer organ, advertised as the “World’s Mightiest” and said to be one of only three five-manual organs then in existence.
The Marbro opened for business at noon on Friday, 27 May 1927. Its opening was cause for great celebration for neighborhood retailers and business owners, many of whom believed the theater would boost their own business. Area business owners held a grand parade the evening before the opening of the theater, with members of the Garfield Park Business Men’s Association riding down Madison Street in stylish automobiles. According to one newspaper report, “They rode through principal west side streets, singing out the announcements for the new theater in the fashion of old-time town criers.” The theater’s opening program featured a Gloria Swanson film, “The Loves of Sunya,” and performances by dancing bandleader Benny Meroff and locally renowned organist Albert F. Brown, although the latter act was struck from the opening night bill due to mechanical problems with the organ.
Critics warned that the Marbro was too large for a neighborhood theater. As one reviewer noted, its more than four thousand seats were “a lot of seats to fill downtown, let alone in a neighborhood, and the Marbro is neighborhood.” In time, however, the theater proved to be quite profitable, in part by drawing business away from already profitable movie houses like the 3,000-seat Senate Theater. “The Senate,” Variety pointed out, “is about a mile down the street and plays the same type of show, draws from the same section, and until now has had a monopoly on the latter. This battle royal has the L. & T. [Lubliner & Trinz, operators of the Senate] press department attacking in an effort to regain any interest that might have switched to the other side. A stage band director has been permanently installed…. But the Marbro rests its case upon the glamor of newness, promise of Vitaphone for future weeks, a great stage show, and Benny Meroff, one of the sweetest stage band conductors in this or any other city, so far as performing ability is concerned. With these virtues, the Marbro seems to have the edge.”
Business at the Marbro also benefited from the theater’s proximity to growing residential districts to the west, such as Austin and Oak Park, where only small movie theaters existed. Some observers believed the opening of the nearby Paradise Theater in 1928 would hurt the Marbro’s fortunes. But business kept pace, especially once sound pictures became the standard and the Marbro’s acoustics proved far superior to those of the Paradise.
In late 1928, the Marks Brothers sold the Marbro, along with their other theaters, to Paramount Publix and retired from the entertainment business. As part of Paramount Publix, the Marbro fell under the management of the city’s largest movie theater circuit, Balaban and Katz.
The Marbro remained in operation until October 1963, when Balaban and Katz closed the movie palace and twenty-nine others in a move to reduce costs. The theater has since been demolished.
Photograph: Marbro Theater, 1927 [Theatre Historical Society of America]
Photograph: Marbro Theater, 1929 [Theatre Historical Society of America]
Photograph: Marbro Theater, entrance and marquee, 1933 [Wisconsin Historical Society]
Photograph: Marbro Theater [Theatre Historical Society of America]
Sources: Chicago Daily News, 27 May 1927, 31; 28 May 1927, 13; 30 May 1927, 14; Variety, 8 June 1927, 21; 30 May 1928, 25; 16 Oct. 1963, 7.