Chicago Theatre

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Chicago Theatre
Chicago Theatre blend.jpg
Chicago Theater's Facade in April 2009, as viewed from State Street.
Address 175 N. State Street
City Chicago, Illinois
Country United States
Owned by The Madison Square Garden Company
Capacity 3,600
Opened 1921
Current use music venue

Balaban and Katz Chicago Theatre
Chicago Theatre is located in Chicago
Chicago Theatre
Coordinates 41°53′7″N 87°37′40″W / 41.88528°N 87.62778°W / 41.88528; -87.62778Coordinates: 41°53′7″N 87°37′40″W / 41.88528°N 87.62778°W / 41.88528; -87.62778
Area less than one acre
Architect Rapp & Rapp
Architectural style Neo-Baroque/Neoclassical (exterior);[3][4] French Baroque (Neo-Baroque)(interior)[3]
Governing body Private
NRHP Reference # 79000822[1][2]
Significant dates
Added to NRHP June 6, 1979
Designated CL January 28, 1983

The Chicago Theatre, originally known as the Balaban and Katz Chicago Theatre, is a landmark theater located on North State Street in the Loop area of Chicago, Illinois, in the United States. Built in 1921, the Chicago Theatre was the flagship for the Balaban and Katz (B&K) group of theaters run by A. J. Balaban, his brother Barney Balaban and their partner Sam Katz.[5] Along with the other B&K theaters, from 1925 to 1945 the Chicago Theatre was a dominant movie theater enterprise.[6] Now the Chicago Theatre is a performing arts venue for stage plays, magic shows, comedy, speeches, and popular music concerts. It is owned by Madison Square Garden, Inc.

The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places on June 6, 1979,[1] and it was listed as a Chicago Landmark on January 28, 1983.[7] The distinctive Chicago Theatre marquee, "an unofficial emblem of the city", appears frequently in film, television, artwork, and photography.[7]


Grand opening, growth, and decline[edit]

Marquee during the theater's 90th anniversary
The Y-shaped figure behind the horizontal word Chicago on the State Street marquee is the city's municipal badge, which symbolizes the forked Chicago River at Wolf Point.[8][9]

Abe and Barney Balaban, together with Sam and Morris Katz (founders of the Balaban and Katz theater chain), built the Chicago Theatre in 1921 with plans for it to be one of a large chain of opulent motion picture houses.[6] The theater would become the flagship for 28 theaters in the city and over 100 others in the Midwestern United States that B&K operated in conjunction with the Paramount Publix chain.[10] The building was constructed at a cost of $4 million ($52.9 million in 2014 dollars[11]) and was designed by architects Cornelius W. Rapp and George L. Rapp. The Rapp brothers also designed many other B&K properties in Chicago, including the Oriental and Uptown Theatres.[12] Preceded by the now-demolished Tivoli Theatre of Chicago and Capitol Theatre of New York City, the Chicago Theatre was the "...largest, most costly and grandest of the super deluxe movie palaces" built up to that date and thus now the oldest surviving grand movie palace.[13] The Chicago Theatre was one of the first theaters in the nation to be built in Rapp and Rapp's signature Neo-Baroque French-revival style.[3] It is the oldest surviving example of this style in Chicago.[7][14]

When it opened on October 26, 1921, the 3,880 seat theater was promoted as the "Wonder Theatre of the World".[12][14] Capacity crowds packed the theater during its opening week. The feature film was First National Pictures' The Sign on the Door starring Norma Talmadge, and other attractions included a 50-piece orchestra, famed organist Jesse Crawford at the 29-rank Wurlitzer organ, and a live stage show.[15] Poet Carl Sandburg, reporting for the Chicago Tribune, wrote that mounted police were required for crowd control.[12] The theater's strategy of enticing movie patrons with a plush environment and top notch service (including the pioneering use of air conditioning) was emulated nationwide.[6]

During its first 40 years of operation, the Chicago Theatre presented premiere films and live entertainment. Throughout its existence, many of the top performers and stars of their day made live appearances at the theater. One of its biggest draws was live jazz, which Balaban and Katz promoted as early as September 1922 in a special event they called "Syncopation Week". This proved so successful that jazz bands became a mainstay of the Chicago Theatre's programming through the 1920s and into the 1930s.[12] In preparation for the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago, the Chicago Theatre was redecorated. The building has been associated with popular culture occasions. For example, Ronald Reagan announced his engagement to Jane Wyman at the theater.[16] It was also modernized in the 1950s when stage shows were discontinued.[12]

A slow down in business at the Chicago Theatre, caused by economic and social changes during the 1970s, whilst it was owned by Plitt Theatres, affected ongoing viability. In 1984, the Chicago Theatre Preservation Group purchased the theater and adjoining Page Brothers Building for $11.5 million ($26.1 million today).[17] Attempts at using the structure as a picture theater failed to maintain that viability and the building was closed on September 19, 1985.[15]


Mayor Daley's Roger Ebert Day award

The Chicago Theatre Preservation Group commenced renovation of the buildings and both were completed in 1986 at a cost of $9 million ($19.4 million), which includes $4.3 million ($9.3 million) spent on the Theatre.[17] During the renovation, the Chicago Theatre was restored to a 1930s appearance by architects Daniel P. Coffey & Associates, Ltd and interior design consultants A.T. Heinsbergen & Co. The Chicago Theatre reopened on September 10, 1986 with a performance by Frank Sinatra.[14] This reopening marked the culmination of a four-year historic preservation effort championed by the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois,[17][18] which has left the current seating capacity of the theater at 3,600.[15] The gala reopening was also symbolic because Sinatra had performed at the theater in the 1950s.[16] The restoration of the adjoining Page Building, which is itself a Chicago Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places,[19] provided office space to support the Chicago Theatre.[20] The theater, like its neighbor (the Joffrey Tower), is an important component of the North Loop/Theatre District revitalization plan.[17] Theatre district revitalization plans go back as far as Mayor Jane Byrne's 1981 plan.[16]


On April 1, 2004 the building was purchased by TheatreDreams Chicago, LLC for $3 million.[21][22] The Balaban and Katz trademark is now the property of the Balaban and Katz Historical Foundation. On October 11, 2007 it was announced that New York's Madison Square Garden Entertainment, subsidiary of Cablevision, was buying the theater.[23]

Prior to 2008, the theater had hosted the annual opening-night film of the Chicago International Film Festival until the festivities moved to the nearby Harris Theater.[24] Mayor Richard M. Daley declared July 12, 2005 "Roger Ebert Day in Chicago" and dedicated a plaque under the marquee in his honor. The theater is featured in a new book, The Chicago Movie Palaces of Balaban and Katz, by David Balaban, grandson of the original owner.[25]


Auditorium detail showing murals, chandeliers, and gilded decorations.

The structure is seven stories tall and fills nearly one half of a city block. The 60-foot (18 m) wide by six-story tall triumphal arch motif of the State Street façade has been journalistically compared to the l'Arc de Triomphe in Paris.[16] The central arch-headed window adapts the familiar motif of Borromini's false-perspective window reveals of the top floor of Palazzo Barberini, Rome. The coat of arms of the Balaban and Katz chain—two horses holding ribbons of 35 mm film in their mouths outlined by a border of film reels—is set inside a circular Tiffany stained glass window inside the arch.[4][15] The exterior of the building is covered in off-white architectural terracotta supplied by the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company with Neo-Baroque stucco designs by the McNulty Brothers.[3]

Chicago Theatre 2.jpg

The interior shows French Baroque influence from the Second French Empire.[3] The grand lobby, five stories high and surrounded by gallery promenades at the mezzanine and balcony levels, is influence by the Royal Chapel at Versailles. The grand staircase is patterned from the grand stair of the Paris Opera House and ascends to the various balcony levels.[15] Marshall Field and Company supplied interior decorations including drapes and furniture. The crystal chandeliers and bronze light fixtures fitted with Steuben glass shades were designed and built by Victor Pearlman and Co.

The stage dimensions exceed 60 feet (18 m) in width and 30 feet (9.1 m) in depth. The orchestra pit is approximately 6 feet (1.8 m) below stage level, 54 feet (16 m) wide at the stage lip, with a depth of 15 feet (4.6 m) at center. An adjustable pit filler can be used for performances requiring other levels.[26]

At the time of the building's 1978 application for the National Register of Historic Places designation, the building had had three different marquees. The original marquee was basic and facilitated two lines of text for announcements. The 1922–23 marquee had ornate "flashing pinwheels, swirls and garlands of colored lights".[13] It also included "milk glass letter attraction boards, and CHICAGO in large letters on three sides".[13] The 1949 replacement was similar to the second marquee, but its attraction boards were larger and the oversized CHICAGO lettering only appeared on the front.[13] Until Balaban and Katz' 1969 sale to the American Broadcasting Company, their name was on the marqee.[13] The entire marquee was replaced in 1994, but retains the look of its predecessor.[3] In 2004, the original marquee was donated to the Smithsonian Institution.[17] The marquee is featured in numerous movies and TV shows set in Chicago, and its neon font was used in the title of the 2002 film Chicago.

The theatre is also known for its Grande Wurlitzer pipe organ. Crawford is attributed as the person who "was responsible for the design and choice of sounds". The organ came from Wurlitzer's North Tonawanda Barrel Organ Factory in July 1921 with "four manuals and 26 ranks of pipes-Opus 434".[13] The American Theatre Organ Society restored the organ in 1970. By 1977, the organ had 29 ranks, counting additions.[13]


  1. ^ a b "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2010-07-09. 
  2. ^ "National Register of Historical Places – Illinois (IL), Cook County". National Register of Historic Places. May 1, 2007. Retrieved 2009-08-10. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f Schulze, Franz and Kevin Harrington, Chicago's Famous Buildings, "Chicago Theatre", pg. 58-9, 2003, University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-74066-8.
  4. ^ a b Steiner, Frances, The Architecture of Chicago's Loop p. 27., 1998, Sigma Press, ISBN 0-9667259-0-5.
  5. ^ "Chicago Theatre: home of WurliTzer (opus 434 )". Chicago Area Theatre Organ Enthusiasts. Retrieved 2008-09-25. 
  6. ^ a b c Klingsporn, Geoffrey. "Balabian & Katz". Encyclopedia of Chicago. Retrieved 2007-04-19. 
  7. ^ a b c "Chicago Theatre". City of Chicago Department of Planning and Development, Landmarks Division. 2003. Retrieved March 2, 2007. [dead link]
  8. ^ "The Municipal Device". Forgotten Chicago. Retrieved 2010-11-21. 
  9. ^ "The Chicago Municipal Device (Y-Shaped Figure)". Chicago Public Library. Archived from the original on September 3, 2006. Retrieved 2007-06-20. 
  10. ^ Gomery, Douglas (May 1992). Shared pleasures: a history of movie presentation in the United States. University of Wisconsin Press. p. 57. ISBN 978-0-299-13214-9. Retrieved 2009-08-19. 
  11. ^ Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–2014. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Retrieved February 27, 2014.
  12. ^ a b c d e Scott Newman. "Jazz Age Chicago:Chicago Theatre". Archived from the original on January 22, 2008. Retrieved March 3, 2007. 
  13. ^ a b c d e f g Lampert, Donald K. and John L. Corliss (July 1978). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory — Nominaiton Form". Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. Retrieved 2013-09-06. 
  14. ^ a b c "Historic Theatres & Movie Palaces of Balaban and Katz: The Chicago Theatre — A Brief History". Uptown Chicago Resources (online). Compass Rose Cultural Crossroads, Inc. 2007. Retrieved 2007-05-01. 
  15. ^ a b c d e "The Legendary Chicago Theatre: About the Chicago Theatre". Retrieved March 2, 2007. 
  16. ^ a b c d "Dispute Over Theater Splits Chicago City Council". New York Times. May 8, 1984. Retrieved 2007-03-02. 
  17. ^ a b c d e "1986: The Chicago Theater Reopens". Chicago Public Library. February 2006. Archived from the original on February 12, 2008. Retrieved 2007-05-07. 
  18. ^ Granacki, Victoria (2006). "About Us: Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois". Landmarks Illinois. Retrieved 2007-05-04. 
  19. ^ "Page Brothers Building". City of Chicago Department of Planning and Development, Landmarks Division. 2003. Retrieved 2007-05-01. [dead link]
  20. ^ Sinkevitch, Alice (.ed), AIA Guide to Chicago, pg. 53, 2004, Harcourt Books, ISBN 0-15-602908-1.
  21. ^ "Theatre Dreams". Archived from the original on December 30, 2007. Retrieved March 2, 2007. 
  22. ^ Patner, Andrew (March 28, 2004). "Restoration drama: TheatreDreams determined to revive Chicago stage". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2009-08-11. 
  23. ^ Jones, Chris. "Chicago Theatre to be sold to major New York producer" – Theatre Loop – Chicago Tribune – October 9, 2007
  24. ^ Caro, Mark (October 17, 2008). "Fest 'Blooms' with Chicago connections". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2009-08-12. 
  25. ^ "Balaban and Katz Historical Foundation". Balaban and Katz Historical Foundation. Retrieved August 15, 2009. 
  26. ^ "The Chicago Theatre: Venue Technical Packet 2006" (PDF). Archived from the original on December 2, 2007. Retrieved 2007-05-01. 

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