Riviera Theater

4746 North Racine Avenue
Built 1918
Architect: C.W. and George Rapp

The Riviera Theater was one of the Chicago’s more popular movie houses during the early twentieth century. The theater’s opening boosted the financial prospects of the emerging Uptown entertainment district and significantly advanced the theater management careers of showmen Barney Balaban and Sam Katz.

In August 1916, Tom Chamales announced his intention to invest $650,000 in the construction of a ten-story hotel and large theater on the southwest corner of Broadway and Lawrence Avenues. Chamales, owner of the nearby Green Mill Gardens restaurant and cabaret, hoped the Riviera would attract additional theater-goers to the neighborhood, some of whom might visit his resort after the show.

Designed by the famous movie palace architects C.W. Rapp and George Rapp, the Riviera and other theaters built during the late 1910s stood apart in size and capital investment from those built only a few years before. The Riviera project included not just a 2,500-seat theater, but also adjacent space for eight retail storefronts and thirty-six “bachelor apartments.” The final price tag for the project, though not as high as it had been when plans called for a ten-story hotel, nonetheless surpassed a half million dollars. During the summer and fall of 1918, the project budget was nearly busted by the rising costs of building materials during the First World War. This caused several construction delays and eventually pushed back the opening of the theater to the first week of October 1918.

When the project was first announced, it was anticipated that the theater would be managed as part of the seasoned Jones, Linick & Schaefer vaudeville and movie theater circuit. But at some point in the months leading up to the theater’s opening, Chamales agreed instead to have the up-and-coming theater management duo of Barney Balaban and Sam Katz to manage the Riviera. By 1918, Balaban and Katz had begun to make a name for themselves in Chicago movie theater circles for their stunning successes with theaters on the city’s west side. In 1917, they built what most historians now consider the city’s first movie palace, the Central Park at 3535 West Roosevelt Road. As managers of the Riviera, Balaban and Katz refined many of the theater management techniques that would become trademark features of their theaters during the 1920s.

Riviera Theater, advertisement, 1918

Riviera Theater, advertisement, 1918

Balaban and Katz attempted to make the Riviera an attractive and inviting place for young, upwardly mobile Chicagoans—especially women—who harbored reservations about the safety, reputability, and healthfulness of the typical movie theater. Among the amenities offered for this purpose were a toy-filled playroom where mothers could leave their children while viewing a movie and a nursing station to treat minor medical emergencies. To enhance the public’s sense of safety and respectability while at the Riviera, the theater’s interior was colorfully decorated and evenly lit with amber lights.

For similar reasons, Balaban and Katz imposed strict work rules on employees who regularly dealt with paying customers—ushers and ticket sellers. Inspired by wartime displays of military discipline, the Riviera’s managers dressed all its ushers in full military regalia and required them to salute patrons when showing them to their seats. They even hired a former army lieutenant to drill the ushers in the rudiments of precision marching and the taking of orders.

Advertisements for the new theater urged patrons to view the Riviera as a more upscale version of the older and smaller nickel theaters that lined the streets of the city’s poorer, working-class neighborhoods. “Choose Your Theatre With Discretion,” appealed one of the theater’s earlier advertisements in a not so subtle attempt to flatter the social pretensions of the theater’s desired clientele.

To keep patrons entertained, Balaban and Katz supplemented the theater’s feature films with live music acts, a policy that would become standard at Chicago movie palaces during the 1920s. Theater managers had long integrated films and vaudeville acts. Far fewer, however, had combined orchestra performances with movies. But the new mix had proven popular at two well-known theaters in New York (the Strand and the Rivoli) and, given the increasing popularity of jazz music in Chicago during the late 1910s, Balaban and Katz were willing to experiment. Charged with the responsibility of booking “high grade musical acts” was Morris S. Silver. The Riviera opened with performances by the orchestra of S. Leopold Kohl, with “A Woman of Impulse,” starring Lina Cavalieri, as the first feature film.

The Riviera remained a popular movie theater for residents of the Uptown neighborhood and much of the city’s north side throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Even the opening of the enormous Uptown Theater, one-half block to the north, in 1925 did not significantly affect the theater’s business.

Today, the Riviera is a well-known concert venue. In 2000, the theater was designated a contributing structure to the Uptown Square National Historic District.

Sources: Variety, 18 Aug 1916, 3; 10 Nov 1916, 37; 28 Sept 1917, 48; 30 Aug 1918, 28; 20 Sept 1918, 49; 11 Oct 1918, 47;Chicago Tribune 8 Apr 1917, pt. 2, p. 5; 5 Oct 1918, 15.

Image source: Riviera Theater advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, 2 Oct. 1918, 15.