414 South State Street
Opened in September 1899, the Trocadero Theater at 414 South State Street was one of Chicago’s best-known burlesque theaters during the early twentieth century. It operated as the Chicago affiliate of the Eastern (Columbia) Burlesque Wheel and its shows were notorious for pushing the boundaries of public decency and social decorum.
Although the Trocadero’s shows included some vaudeville acts, it was the all-female dance troupes that the theater’s mostly male patrons paid to see. A new burlesque troupe performed every week, and their stage names—”The Fifth Avenue Belles,” “The Vassar Girls,” “The Gay Girls of Gotham,” and “The Casino Girls”—give some indication of the salacious appeal of their performances. A 1909 account of one performance told of dancers dressed in “abbreviated” costumes of “glaring red” who ended the show by tossing souvenir garters into the audience of excited, cigar-smoking, beer-drinking men. Thirsty patrons could purchase a wide variety of beers and liquors in the theater’s basement barroom, or from ushers who passed up and down the aisles.
While the theater’s customers enjoyed the theater’s shows, anti-vice crusaders and moral reformers vigorously objected to them, claiming that they were indecent and immoral. The police occasionally raided the theater in response to such complaints. In February 1916, the city’s police chief even went so far as to order the Trocadero and six other nearby theaters to close on the allegation that their shows theatened the public order. But the Trocadero’s owner, I. M. Weingarten, refused to back down. Whenever one of his dancers was arrested during a raid, Weingarten willingly bailed them out of jail and paid their fines, seeing it as a small cost of doing business.
Even after the Trocadero lost its affiliation with the Columbia Burlesque Wheel to the nearby Alhambra Theater in the summer of 1909, it remained one of the city’s most popular burlesque houses, with shows continuing into the early 1920s. During this period, the Trocadero Theater building also housed a dime museum known as the Chicago Museum, which featured an indoor zoo and, as Variety put it, “freaks and different things from all parts of the world.”
In later years, the building was occupied by various retail stores. It was demolished in the late 1970s as part of a “slum clearance” project by the city’s Urban Renewal Board. The Harold Washington Public Library currently occupies the site.
Source: Chicago Tribune, 3 Sep 1899, 4; 9 Jul 1905, B6; 16 Jul 1905, B6; 20 Aug 1905, B6; 27 Aug 1905, B8; 24 Sep 1975, 3; Variety, 9 Jan 1909, 6; 6 Feb 1909, 2; 21 Aug 1909, 6; 22 Apr 1911, 24; 13 May 1911, 21; 27 Apr 1912, 11.