The Chicago Theater Turns 92, Still The Belle of the Ball

Chicago Theatre-8

Imagine a gaggle of tourists fresh off the MegaBus from Des Moines. They hit Garrett’s for some salty-sugary sustenance, do a little shopping at Macy’s and walk north on State Street. Just to the north of the Walgreen’s they raise their smartphones to photograph NOT the Chicago Theatre, but instead a drab modern office building.

Chicago TheaterIt very nearly happened.

There was a very real effort to demolish the grand old theatre in the 1980’s. The owners of the theatre led a stealth effort to replace it with an office tower. The owners denied the plan existed, but a photograph of the proposed new structure was leaked to the Chicago Tribune. A groundswell of community support to preserve the theatre followed, and the plans were shelved.

Chicago TheaterLet’s face it: most modern movie theaters have all the charm of a shopping mall. That wasn’t always the case. In the early 1900’s, films were shown in grand old palaces. Most are long gone. The survivors that escaped the wrecking ball have beaten the odds. Those that are still going strong are now celebrated architectural gems. The Chicago Theatre is one of them.

On Saturday, October 26, 2013, the iconic State Street theatre celebrated its 92nd birthday. Instead of 25-cent movies, it’s now a venue for musicians and comedians. But whatever is playing on the stage, the theatre itself commands a visitor’s attention. The lobby, main theatre hall, even the ceiling decorations, all harken back to a time when theatre design was an art.

The George Rapp-designed French Baroque Chicago Theatre was built a decade after the infamous fire at another theatre where the Oriental now stands. That fire resulted in 600 deaths because it was so difficult to get out. That’s because the exit doors opened IN. Building codes quickly changed, which is why the Chicago Theatre’s exit doors open OUT.

Chicago TheaterOver the last 92 years, the Chicago Theatre has had a facelift or two, and its original 3,800 seats have been reduced to 3,600 (in part because the theatre-going public needs a little extra space to fit their avoirdupois).

Some things haven’t changed much.

  • The marble floor and pillars in the lobby today were there in 1921.
  • There’s a “ghost light” at center stage, always burning when the rest of the theatre is dark (in theatre lore, it’s necessary to prevent a ghost from taking up residence).
  • The “green room” under the stage, where performers wait to go on, is truly green. It’s another theatre tradition, from a time when stage lighting used lime, emitting a green hue. The green walls of the prep room helped acclimate performers to the light they’d see on stage.
Glen Tallar, Chicago Theater organist

Glen Tallar, Chicago Theater organist

Then there’s the blower in the basement that once powered the central vacuum system. It still works, but it blows out instead of sucking air in. It’s used to drive the massive pipe organ that sits down below the left side of the stage.

The Mighty Wurlitzer Organ, also a Chicago Theatre original, has 29 sets of pipes and four keyboards. The stops and tabs resemble the cockpit of a 747. The instrument is being rejuvenated, under the watchful eye of organist/organ technician Glen Tallar, who ended a special tour last Saturday, fittingly, by playing a roaring rendition of “Happy Birthday To You.”

 

Author: Bill Motchan

Bill Motchan is a writer and photographer, and a former resident of the West Loop. He can be reached at bill@ChicagoArchitecture.org.

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