Oak Park Theater

120 South Marion Street, Oak Park
Built 1913, demolished 1988
Architect: unknown

The Oak Park Theater was located at 120 South Wisconsin Street (now Marion Street) along what was then the village’s main retail and entertainment district. For many years, the theater was Oak Park‘s largest and most popular motion picture venue.

The Oak Park was owned and operated by a group of Maywood investors that included entrepreneur John G. Hodgson and architect-engineer A.W. Maynard. It opened in October 1913 and initially followed a policy of “high-class” motion pictures and vaudeville acts. One local newspaper offered its readers this description of the new theater: “The exterior of the theater building is simple and gives a dignified impression. The lobby with a tiled floor and tile decorations has a cozy effect. The building is as fireproof as any building can possibly be, and the seats are placed on a reinforced concrete floor which rests upon solid earth. There are many exists and the emergency doors cannot be locked.” The theater initially had a seating capacity of eight hundred.

During its early years, the Oak Park operated as a “six-day house” and remained closed on Sundays. As in many other small towns across the nation, a Sunday “blue law” made it illegal to exhibit motion pictures, or conduct any other kind of commercial amusement, on Sundays in Oak Park. The ordinance reflected the village’s conservative religious beliefs and concerns about the morality of engaging in secular activities on the Christian Sabbath. Efforts were taken during the 1920s to have the ordinance repealed. Many businessmen, including Hodgson, believed the law hindered trade and deprived them of potential profits. In 1916, Hodgson had completed a $50,000, 500-seat expansion of the Oak Park Theater due in part to the village’s blue law. The project, he believed, was necessary in order “to provide means for making up this [Sunday] deficit” and “to make the theater a profitable venture.” Not until 1932 did the residents of Oak Park vote to repeal the ordinance that prohibited motion pictures on Sunday.

In 1919, Hodgson made plans with the heads of Chicago’s Lubliner & Trinz theater circuit to replace the Oak Park Theater. Their plans called for the construction of a nine-story hotel and a new, 5,000-seat movie palace on the site of the six-year-old movie house. Hodgson expected the project to cost $1.5 million and promised it would be the largest commercial development in Oak Park’s history. The new movie palace, he claimed, “will draw patrons for twenty miles around. The automobile now is common and Oak Park people think nothing of driving to Wilson and Sheridan road to visit the Pantheon Theater and the Riviera. We expect to open the theater within a year, and perhaps in ten months.”

The plan, however, fell through. Neither the movie palace nor the hotel were built. And the Oak Park continued to show motion pictures much as it had since 1913. In 1930, the theater’s name was changed to the Lamar Theater. By that time, the center of Oak Park’s retail and entertainment trade had begun to shift northward. Lake Street, with its better streetcar connections and easier access to the growing residential areas between Oak Park and the west side of Chicago, gradually became the village’s main commercial district. With the opening of the stylish Lake Theater in 1936, the Lamar Theater’s dominance as Oak Park’s leading movie house began to fade.

Nevertheless, the Lamar remained in business until the early 1980s. In the summer of 1983, the Family Service and Mental Health Center of Oak Park and River Forest announced plans to purchase the theater and demolish it to make way for a new three-story office building. The announcement sparked a brief debate between village officials and the state historic preservation agency over the future of the theater, which had been designated a contributing landmark as part of the Ridgeland-Oak Park Historic District. Village officials, backed by local merchants who considered the shuttered theater an eyesore, claimed the designation had been a mistake and eventually convinced the state agency to drop its opposition to demolition. This allowed the Family Service and Mental Health Center to proceed with its plans to demolish the theater and erect a new home for the organization on the site.

Internet Resources
Photograph: Lamar Theater, exterior view, 1987 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Lamar Theater, exterior view, 1987 [Library of Congress]

Sources: Oak Leaves, 11 Oct. 1913, 4; 18 Oct. 1913, 25; 25 Oct. 1913, 30; 4 Dec. 1915, 10; 28 June 1919, 1-2; 8 October 1986, 7; 15 October 1986, 5-6; Gertrude Fox Hoagland, ed., Historical Survey of Oak Park, Illinois (Oak Park Public Library, 1937), n.p.