6325 South Cottage Grove Avenue
Built 1921, demolished 1963
Architects: C.W. and George Rapp
Having initiated the movie palace era by constructing two big-draw motion picture houses on Chicago’s West and North Sides (the Central Park Theater and the Riviera Theater), the Balaban and Katz circuit looked toward the South Side and toward the Loop for its two most extravagant projects to that time. In the Loop, Balaban and Katz launched the Chicago Theater, which opened in October of 1921. Eight months earlier, however, the company debuted its enormous South Side house, the Tivoli.
The location of the Tivoli was not an accident. Whereas motion picture theaters of the 1900s and 1910s were designed and located to appeal to neighborhood audiences only, the Tivoli, and movie palaces like it, were designed and located to draw crowds from a much larger area of the city (much as today’s largest shopping malls rely on a regional rather than neighborhood customer base to survive). For one, the Tivoli could seat over 3,400 patrons per show (the most in the city at the time) and another 1,500 in the lobby waiting for the next show. Daily gates of over 7,000 were commonplace on weekends throughout the 1920s.
The Tivoli’s location was also key to its success. Just steps away from the intersection of 63rd Street, Cottage Grove Avenue, the Jackson Park branch of the South Side ‘L’, and two busy streetcar lines, the theater received visitors from all across the South Side, especially on weekends. But it also relied upon the surrounding neighborhoods—densely filled as they were with apartment buildings and rooming houses—to provide the theater with a steady stream of customers on the weekdays.
The interior of the theater must have been very tantalizing to the senses of an average Chicagoan in the 1920s. The decor was elegant and conservative in tone, with much of the architecture and furnishings reflecting the styles popular during the reign of French King Louis XIV. (Many say the Tivoli’s lobby was patterned off the Chapel at Versailles.) On the other hand, the most modern of amenities—air conditioning and purification systems—gave Chicagoans a pleasant reprieve not only from the summer heat but also from the city’s then-notorious pall of industrial smoke and soot.
Once opened, the Tivoli was also operated in a manner quite different from earlier neighborhood movie houses, which were criticized throughout the 1910s as bastions of juvenile delinquency, sexual improprieties, and immigrant hooliganism. Movie palaces, including the Tivoli, aimed to dissociate such suspicious behavior from the motion picture industry. Policing audience behavior, therefore, became a top priority of theater management. Patrons were expected to be polite, well-mannered, tidily groomed, and non-disruptive at all times. To ensure this, Balaban and Katz recruited and rigorously trained a large squad of young male ushers. Smartly uniformed and drilled to military standards, the ushers regularly attracted crowds to watch their precise maneuvers as, like the Changing of the Guards, they went off duty at 10:30.
The Tivoli was closed for business in September of 1963, and was razed shortly thereafter.
Photograph: “Tivoli Theater and Hotel Strand at Cottage Grove Avenue and 63rd Street,” 1922 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: “Crowds standing on the street near 63rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue during a parade for Amelia Earhart,” 1928 [Library of Congress]
Image source: Illustration: “Main Foyer, Balaban & Katz Tivoli Theatre, Chicago,” postcard, Max Rigot Selling Co.: #428 (n.d.), cropped.