Regal Theater, Chicago
Crowd exiting the Regal Theater in 1941
|Location||47th and Grand Boulevard (renamed South Parkway that year, renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in 1968)|
Chicago, Illinois, USA
Rhythm and blues
Part of the Balaban and Katz chain, the lavishly decorated venue, with plush carpeting and velvet drapes, featured some of the most celebrated black entertainers in America. It was on the Chitlin' circuit.
The Regal also featured motion pictures and live stage shows. Demolished in 1973, it is now the site of the Harold Washington Cultural Center.
Nat "King" Cole, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Lena Horne, Dinah Washington, Miles Davis, Sammy Davis Jr., Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington performed frequently. In the 1960s, during a performance at the Regal, Aretha Franklin was crowned, "the Queen of Soul".
Other acts who have performed at the Regal over the years have included such icons as Sam Cooke (who moved to Chicago in 1933 from his native Clarksdale, Mississippi), Jackie Wilson, The Supremes, Wayne Cochran, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Herbie Hancock, Della Reese, Les Paul, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Lola Falana, Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five, Solomon Burke, International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Dionne Warwick, James Brown & The Famous Flames, The Isley Brothers, John Coltrane, Dorothy Dandridge, Revella Hughes, Five Stairsteps, Peg Leg Bates, Dave Peyton and Martha and the Vandellas.
"Little" Stevie Wonder recorded his famous live version of the number-one hit single "Fingertips" at a Motortown Revue there in June 1962 that included Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Mary Wells, and The Marvelettes. B.B. King recorded his famous live album Live at the Regal there in November 1964. Gene Chandler appeared many times at the Regal, and recorded a live album there in 1965 (variously titled Live at the Regal and Live On Stage In '65). From August 12–27, 1968, The Jackson 5 opened for Motown acts Gladys Knight & The Pips and Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers.
The Regal was a major complex that featured films, dance, music, and comedy. The theater was a prominent entertainment venue for over four decades in Chicago, Illinois. This theater opened on February 4, 1928 and was located in the “Bronzeville” area of Chicago. The theater was designed by Levy and Klein and was influenced by the Harlem Savoy Ballroom located in New York City and was owned by a white business association in Chicago. This complex was able to seat about 3,000 people and had several big names come through to perform. The theater was one of the first entertainment complexes that was available for black audiences and also employed black staff members (other than the musical acts). This theater featured silent films, musicians of all types of genres—mainly jazz and blues, and some of the biggest names throughout music history.
With the ability to see black performers, films, and shows, African Americans were immediately drawn to the theater. Several big names were brought in to perform the popular music of that era. Some of the performers that were brought in included: Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder, Ella Fitzgerald, The Temptations, Miles Davis, Nat “King” Cole, Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson, the Jackson Five, and several others. Typically the shows featured at the Regal consisted of an opening musical act followed by a silent film—which was accompanied with music for dramatic effects. The owner strategically placed the theater in the area because of the Savoy Ballroom and South Center Department store that were both up the street—which was a nightclub and shopping center for blacks, respectively.
The feel of the theater was elegant and formal. Velvet seating, large pillars, and beautifully decorated—the Regal was definitely a site to see. Costing $1.5 million to construct, the Regal opened new doors for African Americans in the entertainment business. Before the Regal, blacks (in Chicago) were usually not able to find jobs other than the typical low-income jobs, but new employment opportunities were beginning to come about. The Regal eventually had a black manager, hired black entertainment, ushers, dancers (only light-skinned women), and coat checkers which at the time was highly unheard of.
One of the house bands that got recruited for the Regal was Fess Williams and his Royal Flush Orchestra. They had been an opening act at the Savoy Ballroom and had begun to gain a following. Aware of their increased popularity, Balaban and Katz hired Fess Williams and his Royal Flush Orchestra to act as a house band for the theater. The Regal Theater and the nearby Savoy Ballroom created an atmosphere for families to go out and have a good time in the city—which was a helpful business factor.
With the great influx of people coming into the theater, more and more complexes began to open in big cities. The Regal Theater has been often compared to the Apollo Theater in Harlem when considering the best quality of entertainment for an African-American audience. However, the Regal opened six years before the Apollo came into running (which opened in 1934). In addition, the Regal was designed in the first place to be the very best in African American entertainment, unlike the Apollo, and had double the seating capacity. Both theaters were able to attract several big names, but there were a greater amount of big names that performed at the Regal.
Prior to the opening of the Regal, Chicago endured The Great Migration, which brought a large number of blacks from the south into the city looking for a new life and work. After the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, blacks began to slowly move from their southern homes. Once blacks had the ability to move away from their slave owners and find industrial jobs, the north was able to provide this “new life” for them. Over a 20-30 year period, waves of thousands of blacks left the south and entered major cities like Chicago, New York City, Detroit, and so on.
For most of its time, the Regal thrived with business by bringing in musical talents from across the country. People had some of the best times at the theater which helped spread the word about it and bring in more business. Eventually, with developments in technology like with the radio and cable TV, business began to decline. With the repercussions of all these factors, the Regal began losing more and more business which eventually led to the owner having to file bankruptcy and close down the theater in 1968. The building was later demolished in 1973. The site is now occupied by the Harold Washington Cultural Center.
- Best, Wallace The Encyclopedia of Chicago
- Regal Theater Cinema Treasures
- Clark, Dartunorro (August 16, 2018). "This is the moment Aretha Franklin became the 'Queen of Soul'". NBC News. Retrieved August 21, 2018.
Moore, D. "CineWiki - Regal Theater and African-American Exhibition in Chicago, the." CineWiki - Regal Theater and African-American Exhibition in Chicago, The. N.p., 14 Dec. 2008. Web. 23 Apr. 2013.
- Ottley, Roy. "Regal Theater, Frayed but Imposing, Tailored for the Community", Chicago Tribune, February 27, 1955.
- "Once Majestic Regal Awaits Wrecker", Chicago Tribune, September 6, 1973.