231 North Pulaski Road
Built 1928, demolished 1956
Architect: John Eberson
Opened in 1928, the lavish Paradise Theater was an impressive but somewhat unsuccessful addition to the West Side amusement scene. Designed by renowned theater architect John Eberson, the 3,500-seat movie palace was one of the most elaborately decorated theaters ever built in Chicago, but its poor acoustic quality hurt its popularity once “talkies” became the norm. Never able to earn more than the most marginal of profits at the theater, its operator, the Balaban and Katz Company, closed the theater in 1956 and started demolition.
Impresario Louis Guyon first developed plans for the construction of an enormous movie theater near the bustling intersection of West Madison Street and Crawford (now Pulaski) Avenue in the early 1920s. Guyon was a leading West Side entrepreneur and owned several properties in and around the Madison-Crawford business district. His Paradise Ballroom, which catered to middle-class dancers who preferred a more conservative brand of dance music, had earned him a reputation as one of the city’s finest showmen, as well as a good deal of money. Looking to build upon the success of his ballroom, Guyon launched two new ventures. First, he opened a large and lavishly appointed apartment hotel next to his ballroom. Then, despite the financial burdens placed on him by the hotel project, he laid plans and, in 1925, began construction of a movie theater on a site directly across Crawford Avenue from his ballroom-hotel complex. His dream was to create and control the West Side’s largest single concentration of entertainment venues.
Guyon’s poor financial planning, however, soon undermined the theater project. When compelled to cut his losses, he sold the uncompleted theater to the Cooney Brothers, two South Side entrepreneurs, who in turn were forced by their own money woes to abandon the expensive project. When the Cooney Brothers bowed out, the Balaban and Katz Company, operator of the city’s largest and fastest growing circuit of movie theaters, purchased the unfinished theater. The Paradise project fit well into B&K’s ambitious expansion plans. At the time, the Marks Brothers circuit was building a new theater on Madison Street, just around the corner from the future Paradise. Scheduled to open in 1927, the Marks Brothers theater, later named the Marbro, threatened to squeeze Balaban and Katz out of the West Side movie market if not met seat for seat, show for show. By taking over the Paradise project from Guyon, Balaban and Katz hoped to put themselves in a competitive position and to avoid the loss of possible millions in ticket revenue.
Balaban and Katz spared no expense in their effort to make the Paradise one of the great showplaces in the city of Chicago. Unlike Guyon and the Cooney Brothers, the Balaban and Katz Company had vast sums of capital to invest in the project, due primarily to the tremendous profitability of its nine other theaters. Shortly after acquiring the Paradise, company executives authorized the theater’s architect, John Eberson, to significantly rework his designs for the Paradise, adding hundreds of new features and fantastic embellisments. Eberson, whose theater designs revolutionized the industry during the 1920s, incorporated a wide array of heavenly imagery and mythological figures into his plans for the Paradise. The theater’s marquee, one of the largest ever raised in the city of Chicago, featured a sunburst design, studded with electric lights in ten different colors. The vestibule was equally spectacular, adorned by marble statuary (not the usual plaster) and murals depicting zodiac constellations on the ceiling high above. Nothing, however, compared to the dramatic splendor of the main auditorium, in which audience members found themselves surrounded by a simulated night sky, full of twinkling stars, at the moment of daybreak. In the corners of the theater, statues of trumpeting angels signalled the approach of Apollo, the sun god, riding behind a team of marble-carved steeds as they raced across the sky above the proscenium arch.
The Paradise Theater opened for business on 14 September 1928. The opening day movie was “The Fleet’s In,” starring Clara Bow. Balaban and Katz prepared for the event by undertaking one of the largest advertising campaigns in company history. Exceptionally large ads celebrating the theater’s extravagant design and luxurious amenities appeared in Chicago newspapers, large and small, weeks ahead of the scheduled opening and continued well into October.
But the spectacular surroundings and the equally slick marketing campaign were not enough to guarantee the Paradise’s ultimate success as a movie theater. Only the quality of entertainment presented at the theater would draw patrons back once the novelty of the its appearance wore off. As it turned out, the Paradise—as a movie house—was no match for the Marbro, its main rival for the patronage of West Side movie-goers. This became glaringly apparent when silent movies gave way to “talkies.” Audiences found the more compact Marbro far more acoustically pleasing than the dome-like Paradise. When the hard economic times of the Depression caused many Chicagoans to cut back on their trips to the shows, business at the Paradise slumped to devastating levels. In 1931, Balaban and Katz decided to close the money-losing theater until the national economy improved. Although the Paradise reopened in 1934, its business never lived up to the company’s expectations.
Little wonder then that the Balaban and Katz began to look for ways to unload the hulking theater that, by the 1950s, seemed increasingly unfit to meet the needs of a changing motion picture industry. In 1956, the company agreed to demolish the theater and sell the vacant parcel of land to a local developer who planned to open a grocery store on the site. But the Paradise did not go easily. So sturdily had Eberson designed the building that it took the demolition contractor nearly two years to complete what had been planned as a six-month job.
Photograph: Paradise Theater, auditorium view, ca. 1928 [Univ. of Virginia]
Image source: Untitled postcard, n.p., n.d., cropped.