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. Opened in 1921, it was among the earliest theaters in the nation to be built in a lavish, opulent style, setting a precedent for the American movie palace. The theater’s history and architectural significance make it one of the most iconic and enduring venues in the United States.
History and Architecture:
Opening: The Chicago Theatre was designed by architects Cornelius W. Rapp and George L. Rapp and was the flagship for the Balaban and Katz (B&K) group of theaters. It opened on October 26, 1921, with the silent film “The Sign on the Door” starring Norma Talmadge.
Design: The building’s exterior has a miniature replica of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, reflecting the Rapp brothers’ affinity for French Baroque architecture. The grand lobby is modeled after the Royal Chapel at Versailles, and the grand staircase might remind you of the Paris Opera House.
Auditorium: The auditorium itself was designed in a neoclassical style with a Rococo flair. It can seat over 3,500 people and originally included an orchestra pit with space for a large theater organ, essential for accompanying silent films.
Movie Palace Era: The Chicago Theatre was part of the movie palace boom of the 1920s and was a major entertainment destination, showing first-run movies, hosting live performances, and serving as a luxurious escape for the people of Chicago.
Decline and Restoration: Like many grand theaters of its era, The Chicago Theatre fell into disrepair with the rise of television and suburban multiplexes. It was threatened with demolition in the 1970s but was saved and restored, reopening in 1986 with a performance by Frank Sinatra. The restoration was seen as a catalyst for the revitalization of the North Loop area.
Landmark Status: The theater was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and was designated a Chicago Landmark in 1983, ensuring its preservation for future generations.
Today, The Chicago Theatre is no longer a movie palace but serves as a venue for a wide range of live performances, including concerts, stage plays, magic shows, comedy, and more. Its iconic marquee, with “The Chicago Theatre” written in distinctive script, is a widely recognized symbol of the city and its rich entertainment history.
The Chicago Theatre continues to be a vital part of Chicago’s cultural landscape, drawing both locals and tourists to its grand auditorium for a diverse array of performances. Its story is one of both grandeur and resilience, emblematic of the broader narrative of urban America’s 20th-century entertainment palaces.