4719 South Martin Luther King Drive
Built 1928, demolished 1973
Architects: Alexander L. Levy & William J. Klein
Built as part of a commercial real estate development project that included the South Center department store and legendary Savoy Ballroom, the Regal Theater, 4719 South Parkway (now Martin Luther King Drive), opened in February 1928 as part of the Lubliner & Trinz movie theater circuit. Throughout its existence, the theater served the predominately African-American neighborhoods between 23rd and 63rd Streets and helped anchor the 47th and South Parkway bright-light district, or what was sometimes referred to as the “Harlem of Chicago.” Though one of the city’s most impressive movie palaces, the Regal also doubled as an important cultural and social institution for Chicago’s growing African-American community.
Plans for the construction of a large movie theater on the southeast corner 47th and South Parkway were announced in 1926 by a syndicate headed up by real estate investors Harry M. and Louis Englestein. Having already acquired several properties on the site, they planned to replace the existing string of small commercial structures with an expansive three-story structure that would include space for a theater, ballroom, department store, drug store, bowling alleys, billiard rooms, offices, and as many as fifty smaller stores. Construction on the project began late in 1926, with $1.5 million set aside for the building of the theater alone.
The theater, along with the rest of the project, was designed by architects Alexander L. Levy and William J. Klein. They used a variety of Spanish, Moorish, and Eastern achitectural elements to give the Regal its distinctive look. When the theater opened in 1928, many visitors marvelled at the theater’s glamorous appearance. “The interior of the Regal,” observed the Defender, the city’s leading African-American newspaper, “presents one of the most beautiful and amazing spectacles ever exhibited in a public institution; a triumph of imaginative designing that carries the theatergoers into an Oriental garden on a moonlight night. Overhead is stretched a mammoth polychrome canopy supported by huge poles of gold and fringed with a horizon-like vista of blue sky. Over the giant stage is the outline of an entrance to an Oriental pagoda, completing an effect that is almost enchanting in its romantic charm.” Other features that won the Regal praise included its nearly 3,000 leather-covered seats and its state-of-the-art ventilation and air-cooling systems.
Another remarkable feature of the Regal was its hiring practices. At a time when Chicago-area movie theater circuits almost invariably refused to hire African-Americans for anything other than janitorial and doormen positions, the Lubliner & Trinz theater circuit adopted a far less discriminatory policy for the Regal, albeit in the expectation that few if any white Chicagoans would patronize the theater. Almost all of the theater’s management staff, cashiers, ushers, and house musicians were African-American.
In addition to a steady fare of motion pictures, the theater’s managers entertained patrons with both a regular house orchestra and a top-flight stage orchestra (an approach often referred to as the “Paul Ash policy” after the band leader who first perfected the idea at Chicago’s McVickers Theater). Fess Williams led the Regal’s first stage band and thrilled theater patrons with powerful jazz tunes. “In a house of white patronage,” Variety noted, his music “might be classed as too hot, but in its own neighborhood there won’t be any squaks.” Also on the entertainment card when the theater opened were Blanche Calloway, blues soloist, and Dave Peyton, head of the Regal’s pit orchestra. Over the years, the Regal showcased at one time or another almost all of the nation’s greatest African-American entertainers, including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Lena Horne. It has been said that Nat King Cole got his start at the Regal during an amateur night contest.
The Regal assumed a major institutional presence in Chicago’s African-American community not only by showcasing top African-American entertainers, but also by championing a variety of highly regarded community causes. The theater frequently hosted parties and other special events for the Bud Billiken Club, the popular children’s organization sponsored by Robert S. Abbott, editor of the Chicago Defender newspaper. During the Depression years of 1931 and 1932, the Regal management permitted the Defender’s Good Fellows Club to use the theater free of charge for Christmas charity benefits.
Although business at the theater was brisk during its initial years of operation, the Depression hit the Regal hard as cash-strapped African-Americans cut back on their leisure spending by going to the show less often. In November 1931, as part of a massive cost reduction plan, the Balaban & Katz theater circuit, which had earlier merged with Lubliner & Trinz, announced plans to close the Regal. The announcement alarmed the Chicago’s African-American community, not least of all because of the hundreds of jobs that would have been lost. The combination of public outcry and rent reductions convinced Balaban & Katz to keep the theater open.
The Regal Theater was demolished in 1973. For more than two decades, the site of the theater remained vacant. During the 1990s, local alderwoman Dorothy Tillman spearheaded plans to redevelop the site with a performing arts and community center. After many delays, construction on the $4.2 million Harold Washington Cultural Center began in 1998 and was completed in 2004.
Photograph: Regal Theater, exterior view, ca. 1941 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: “In front of the movie theater, Chicago, Illinois,” 1941 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: “Movie theater, Southside, Chicago, Illinois,” 1941 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: “Crowd coming out of Regal movie theater, Southside of Chicago, Illinois,” 1941 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: “Art exhibit in the lobby of the Regal Theater, Chicago, Illinois,” 1941 [Library of Congress]
Sources: Chicago Defender, 4 Feb. 1928, pt. 1, pg. 1; 1 March 1930, 15; 29 Nov. 1930, 1; 28 Nov. 1931, 7; 11 June 1931, 1; 19 Nov. 1932, 1; Variety, 15 Feb. 1928, 37; Sunday Tribune, 29 Aug. 1926, pt. 3, pg. 1.
Image source: “Regal Theatre, Chicago,” postcard, n.p. (n.d.), cropped.