Uptown Theater

4816 North Broadway
Built 1925
Architect: C.W. and George Rapp

For many years, the Uptown Theater was the premier movie theater on Chicago’s north side. Located in the city’s Uptown neighborhood, the theater attracted patrons from across the city with its novel combination of ornate architecture, deluxe customer service, top-flight entertainment, and convenient transit connections. The theater’s opening in 1925 marked the peak of new movie theater construction during the early twentieth century in Chicago. In terms of seating capacity, the Uptown was the largest single-screen movie theater ever built in the city.

The Uptown was built by the Balaban & Katz Company, a fast-growing, Chicago-based movie theater curcuit that eventually became one of the city’s largest and most profitable amusement enterprises. The firm was headed by brothers A.J. and Barney Balaban and their brother-in-law, Sam Katz. In 1917, the trio opened their first deluxe movie theater, the Central Park Theater, in Chicago’s Lawndale neighborhood. At the Central Park, Balaban & Katz catered to the area’s growing number of young, upwardly mobile residents. Many of the theater’s patrons had grown up watching movies at nickelodeons in the city’s ethnic neighborhoods and, as adults, hoped to continue their movie-going ways, but in a more refined environment. In effect, the Central Park’s elegant architecture and extraordinary customer service distanced patrons from their humble origins and affirmed their entry into the ranks of the American middle class. It was a winning business strategy that within a few years made the Balaban & Katz one of the most profitable and widely emulated entertainment businesses in the nation.

Following the opening of the Central Park, Balaban & Katz expanded rapidly, both through the construction of additional movie palaces and the acquisition of those owned and operated by other movie theater circuits. Between 1918 and 1921, the company built three new movie palaces: the Riviera Theater (opened 1918) in Chicago’s trendy Uptown neighborhood, the Tivoli Theater (1921) in the city’s upscale Woodlawn neighborhood, and the Chicago Theater (1921) in the Loop. Then, looking to command an even larger share of the city’s downtown movie exhibition business, the company acquired the Loop’s Roosevelt Theater.

The construction of additional theaters helped boost the company’s revenues. Annual profits increased steadily during the early 1920s, reaching $1.71 million in 1923 and $1.96 million in 1924. Such figures were nearly unprecedented in an industry known for its high overhead and narrow profit margins. Additional capital was raised through public stock offerings, the first of which took place in October 1923. Although wealthy investors purchased much of the stock, the company heartily encouraged their own patrons to become stockholders as well. In-theater advertisements preached the benefits of owning Balaban & Katz stock and theater managers sponsored contests that awarded prizes to the audiences that purchased the most stock over a given number of weeks. As a result, many Balaban & Katz patrons became part-owners in their local movie palace, investing in a company whose success, many believed, would bring long-term economic prosperity to their neighborhood by generating commercial growth and higher property values.

Balaban & Katz used much of the newfound revenue to fund ever more ambitious theater expansion plans, including construction of the Uptown Theater. Throughout 1923, there were rumors that the company wanted to build a second north side movie palace to augment the highly successful Riviera Theater at 4746 North Racine. Built in 1918, the Riviera had proved popular with residents of Uptown and nearby neighborhoods, drawing near-capacity crowds for many evening shows.

For its new theater, the company acquired a parcel of land at 4814 North Broadway, a site formerly occupied by an outdoor beer garden. The site was less than a block north of the Riviera Theater, leading some to predict that the company would close the Riviera upon completion of the Uptown. But company executives believed this would not be necessary, based on their experiences with the Central Park and Tivoli Theaters. These theaters, designed and operated in a manner that appealed to the aspirations of upwardly mobile Chicagoans, drew patrons not just from their immediate neighborhoods but from across the city. Company executives believed the Uptown would prove no different if designed and operated to the same—or higher—standards as the company’s other movie palaces.

Designed by architects C.W. and George L. Rapp, the Uptown surpassed all its predecessors in size and grandeur with a seating capacity of nearly 4,400 and interior decorations in Spanish Renaissance style. Everything about the theater was on a grand scale. The terra-cotta facade of the theater’s main entrance, for example, towered nearly eight stories above Broadway. Specially designed bronze chandeliers lit the main lobby. A state-of-the-art Wurlitzer organ with 10,000 pipes entertained patrons with music and a range of sound effects. And one of the world’s largest air-conditioning systems kept the theater cool during the summer months. Dozens of talented artists and craftsmen–many of them European immigrants–helped make the Rapp brothers’ plans a reality. Utilizing skills they or their fathers had learned before arriving in the United States, they produced the custom-made lighting fixtures, hand-carved marble staircases, ornamental iron grillework, and individually sculpted sprites, gargoyles, and griffins that gave the Uptown its splendid appearance.

The Uptown formally opened for business on the evening of 18 August 1925 with a showing of “The Lady Who Lied,” a film starring Lewis Stone and Virginia Valli. But much work on the theater remained unfinished. On opening night, some of the staircases had not yet been carpeted, box office windows had not been installed, and the men’s lounge remained closed. Construction activity on the theater continued for a week or two after its opening. The ongoing construction, however, did not deter Chicagoans from flocking to the new theater. Huge crowds greeted the Uptown’s opening. Thousands of patrons lined up and waited in the hot sun for hours to buy tickets. Many of the first shows sold out.

Critics praised the new theater. “Eclipsing in size, splendor and impressiveness anything that has been built in the last few years of hectic theater construction,” one Variety reviewer proclaimed, “this new house is not only beyond doubt the most gorgeous movie palace in the world, but is so far above its neighborhood that the North Side will be years before it is worthy of it.” Said another: “The Uptown theater is the city’s most sumptuous palace of cinema revelry. It even goes the Chicago one better for lavishness and the odds are two in one you hadn’t thought that possible. There is no computing the yards of draperies, the quartes of gilt or the bolts of upholstering which have entered into the decoration of this latest palatial gew-gaw.”

The spectacle was enough to overwhelm the average person. “Passing thru the main entrance on Broadway into the lofty pillared foyer,” one visitor noted, “was to be thrilled by the orgy of expenditure displayed on every side. Money seems to have been poured out like water to make the Uptown theater the last word in cinema palace gorgeousness. The architects, I am told, refer to the style of the building as ‘Spanish Mexican renaissance.’ I’ve no doubt they are right.” This visitor’s sense of bewilderment upon first entering the theater was likely quite typical. Indeed, part of the appeal of the showy, even exotic architecture of movie palaces like the Uptown was that it struck all patrons–many of them immigrants or the children of immigrants–as odd or unusual. As one historian has observed, “All felt equally welcome inside the picture palaces because all were equally out of place.” Under such circumstances, Chicagoans found it easier to transcend their ethnic and class differences and participate as equals in a shared cultural experience.

With more seats than the immediate neighborhood demanded, the Uptown’s success depended heavily upon its ability to attract patrons from across the city. For a time, the novelty of the theater was alone enough to draw crowds. But within a few months, business began to decline. In March 1926, Variety reported that the Uptown was struggling to fill many of its more than four thousand seats. “It can’t be said that this house is doing well,” read one report. “Right now there are 15,000 seats competing in the neighborhood, with more spring up almost daily. The theater needs a steady drawing attraction.” To help attract larger audiences, the theater’s managers picked up marquee bandleader Bennie Krueger in March 1926. They also instituted all-request organ concerts and free “afternoon teas” to boost afternoon attendance. By July 1926, business began to improve, in large part due to the popularity of Krueger and the jazz music his orchestra played.

Business remained strong until the onset of the Great Depression, when increasingly cash-strapped Chicagoans found it more economical to patronize smaller, less glitzy theaters in their own neighborhoods rather than bearing the extra costs–higher ticket prices and streetcar fare–associated with a visit to the Uptown. Declining attendance at the theater also hurt nearby shops and restaurants. In October 1932, seeking to reverse this trend, Balaban & Katz and other Uptown merchants launched a six-week advertising campaign composed of what one observer called a “varied program of crowd luring stunts… to educate the vanished spenders to seek the Uptown sector.” Set to conincide with the Christmas shopping season, the campaign included newspaper displays, radio advertisements, ‘window shopping’ prizes, an automobile parade, and extra nighttime illumination. Such developments revealed the extent to which local merchants saw the theater as a device for drawing shoppers to the Uptown district and thereby strengthening their grip on the north side retail market.

The Depression also affected the kind of entertainment offered at the Uptown. As a cost-cutting measure, Balaban & Katz eliminated the Uptown’s elaborate stage shows and focused exclusively on motion picture exhibition. In 1949, the firm briefly revived stage presentations at the Uptown, but they did little to stimulate additional business.

The theater, never a huge money-maker, languished during the 1950s, as the popularity of television soared and many Chicagoans lost interest in movies and the city’s aging movie palaces. As revenues fell, Balaban & Katz sold off many of theater’s furnishings, including the Wurlitzer organ and nearly one hundred original oil paintings, to keep the books in balance.

Uptown Theater, October 2000

Uptown Theater,
October 2000

The American Broadcasting Corporation purchased the theater in 1969 and was subsequently operated as part of the Plitt Cinemas theater chain. The theater closed in 1981.

Since then, the theater has stood unused. In 1986, preservationists teamed up with neighborhood activists to secure the addition of the Uptown to the National Register of Historic Places. Several plans to restore the theater, perhaps as a venue for concerts and other live performances, have been proposed, but none has thus far moved beyond the planning stages. One recent restoration campaign centered around an organization known as the Uptown Theatre and Center for the Arts. Founded in 2001, the organization received the support of prominent Chicago philanthropists, but suffered a major setback in April 2002, when the Illinois attorney general’s office charged its head with misappropriation of funds.

Sources: Billboard, 3 June 1922, 97; 20 Oct. 1923, 6; 9 Feb. 1924, 5, 115; 4 Apr. 1925, 9; 16 May 1925, 5; 6 March 1926, 48; Variety, 14 Jan. 1925, 21; 13 May 1925, 26; 10 June 1925, 27; 1 July 1925, 25; 15 July 1925, 37; 3 Feb. 1926, 31; 24 Mar. 1926, 51; 21 Apr. 1926, 38; 12 June 1929, 10; 18 Oct. 1932, 25; Motion Picture News, 9 June 1923, 2745.

Image source: Author’s collection