Randolph Theater

14 West Randolph Street
Built 1918
Architect: Henry L. Newhouse

The Randolph Theater, located at the northwest corner of State and Randolph Streets, was the product of shifting trends in the Chicago entertainment market during the early twentieth century. On the one hand, its lack of a stage for live performances reflected the diminishing importance of vaudeville and other live performances that had for so long defined the theater business. At the same time, the theater’s exclusive reliance upon motion pictures highlighted the growing popularity of films among those who frequented the Loop. When the Randolph opened in January 1919, it was isolated from the Loop‘s other movie theaters, marooned it seemed at the northern end of State Street. Ten years later, the 1,500-seat theater had been joined by several new movie palaces, each located within a block of the Randolph.

The Randolph opened in January 1919. Its opening was delayed by several months due to restrictions on new building construction during the last months of the First World War. The theater was operated as part of Jones, Linick, and Schaefer, a theater circuit that had made a name for itself in Chicago amusement circles with its management of the Orpheum and Bijou Dream theaters near State and Adams Streets. During the 1920s, the standard price for admission at the Randolph was twenty-five cents.

The Randolph was designed for the sole purpose of exhibiting motion pictures. At a time when most Loop theaters supplemented their motion picture features with vaudeville acts or music performances, the Randolph was built without a stage. As such, there was no expectation that the theater would rely on vaudeville or a mix of vaudeville and motion pictures to make money. Instead, the house policy was centered on motion pictures alone. Though a typical policy for neighborhood theaters, it was an unusual one for a Loop theater and, according to Variety, an indication owner Aaron Jones’ “faith in the future of moving pictures.” More than mere confidence, the all-picture policy was also a reflection of the demographic character of the theater’s location. Thousands upon thousands of Chicagoans passed the corner of State and Randolph on a daily basis, making it a prime site for any kind of mass amusement.

From day one, the Randolph was a no-frills movie house. In stark contrast to the lavish movie palaces that opened across the city during the 1920s, the Randolph’s managers kept the theater’s overhead as low as possible. For example, a lone organist, not a large orchestra, offered accompaniment to the silent movies shown at the theater. Also, management spend comparatively little on advertising to draw crowds to their theater. Instead, the Randolph throve on the so-called “turnaway” crowd, moviegoers who, failing in their attempt to get tickets to sold-out shows at nearby theaters, turned to the Randolph in hopes of salvaging an otherwise disappointing night on the town. Since convenience was in many respects the theater’s main drawing card, the theater’s managers seldom booked high-cost, first-run films. Most Randolph movies were on their second run, having enjoyed their first showing at one of the larger Loop houses.

At a time when the city’s larger movie houses purposely booked films and shows that would appeal to female patrons, the Randolph showed pictures that attracted greater numbers of male customers. Older men and young boys alike flocked to the Randolph to view its steady fare of westerns, war pictures, and other high-adventure films. Romances and melodramas were rarely offered. On certain occasions, as when a film with unique appeal to boy scouts or war veterans was booked, the theater’s staff would encourage these groups to buy large blocks of tickets and make a special trip to the Randolph to see the film. In 1926, for example, local chapters of the American Legion were given the opportunity to purchase tickets by mail to screenings at the Randolph of the war movie, “Men of Purpose.”

The Randolph has been demolished. The site is now occupied by a retail-residential complex for students of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Sources: Variety, 30 Aug 1918, 28; 29 Nov 1918, 39; 11 Feb 1925, 26; 13 Oct 1926, 7.