Oriental Theater

24 West Randolph Street
Built 1926
Architects: C.W. and George Rapp

The dazzling Oriental Theater, its designs loosely inspired by Indian culture, opened in 1926 to rave reviews and enormous crowds. Located in the heart of Chicago’s Loop entertainment district, the movie palace earned a reputation among Chicagoans as one of the city’s best places to enjoy live performances of the nation’s most popular jazz bands. Band leader Paul Ash headlined at the Oriental during the late 1920s and Duke Ellington made many appearances there during the 1930s. The theater’s days as a movie house ended in 1981, but a recent renovation project has restored the Oriental for use as a live theater venue.

Oriental Theater, ca. 1928

Oriental Theater, ca. 1928

The Oriental opened in 1926 with the showing of an early Joan Crawford picture. The theater seated 3,250 patrons and was located on the north side of Randolph, midway between State and Dearborn streets. Though there were seven other large movie houses within one block of the Oriental, the theater seldom wanted for patrons, especially during the war years, when, because of various wartime restrictions, Chicagoans sought accessible, inexpensive forms of commercial entertainment like never before.

However, by the late 1970s, declining patronage and the Loop’s worsening reputation as a safe place to visit reduced the Oriental to a third-rate movie house showing only pictures that rowdy, male teenagers wanted to see. The last months of the theater’s operation were marred by knife fights between rival street gangs and a small arson fire at the rear of the balcony.

Shuttered for more than fifteen years, the Oriental underwent an eighteen-month restoration during the late 1990s. The restoration project was jointly funded by the Toronto-based Livent Inc. and the city of Chicago. On 18 October 1998, the theater was rededicated and opened to the public.

Image source: “Masonic Temple and Oriental Theatre,” postcard, Gerson Bros.: #183, n.d.