175 North State Street
Architects: C.W. and George Rapp
For several decades, the Chicago
Theater was the city's premier movie palace. Located on the east
side of State Street between Randolph and Lake Streets, the
theater's combination of first-run movies, light vaudeville, and
musical performances drew patrons from across the city. The
Chicago was also a popular destination for out-of-town visitors,
businesspersons, and conventioneers. The theater, like many of
its counterparts in nearby blocks, helped enliven the city's
district by catering, in large part, to wealthier
Chicagoans—women especially—who might otherwise have been
reluctant to venture downtown alone by day or visit the area
with friends or family after dark.
Opened in 1921, the Chicago served as the flagship for the
Balaban & Katz Company, a fast-growing Chicago theater
circuit destined to become one of the city's largest and most
profitable amusement enterprises. Balaban & Katz first made
a name for itself in the city's outlying neighborhoods by
opening large movie palaces in predominately middle-class
residential areas. With the Chicago, the company gained its
first toehold in the Loop. It expected the new theater to garner
huge profits, not only because of its location in the heart of
the city, but also by offering exclusive engagements of newly
released motion pictures in an exceptionally elegant setting.
Theater, ca. 1930
As a result, Balaban & Katz
spared no expense in building the Chicago. The cost of the
entire project—land and construction—topped $4 million.
Prior to that, the city's most expensive theater construction
project had been the State-Lake
vaudeville theater, located across the street from the Chicago
site. Completed in 1919—the same year that plans for the
Chicago were announced—the cost of the State-Lake was only
$2.5 million, an amount that covered construction not only of
the theater, but also nine floors of office space above it.
To design the theater along lines that would distinguish it
from the area's less highly regarded movie houses, Balaban and
Katz hired the famed theater architects C.W. and George Rapp.
The Rapp brothers modeled the Chicago after seventeenth-century
European palaces that had been built to help the aristocratic
classes of Europe use architecture and culture to set themselves
apart from an upstart merchant class. The new theater's lobby,
for instance, sported marble columns, glass chandeliers, and
red-carpeted stairways that led to the upper balconies.
Likewise, the theater's auditorium offered 5,000 upholstered
seats beneath a well-lit, sculptured ceiling. As in the palaces
of the seventeenth century, so in the Chicago Theater of the
1920s was high-class architecture used to broker social
differences, only this time between the city's native-born,
middle-class whites and growing numbers of working-class
immigrants and African-Americans. Indeed, the final design of
the theater and its carefully selected interior decorations
reflected the Rapp brothers' and Balaban and Katz's belief that
wealthier Chicagoans would be more willing to partake in
low-brow amusements, such as movie-watching, if they could do so
in a setting that upheld their high-class cultural pretensions.
The new Chicago Theater formally opened
Wednesday evening, 26 October 1921. The opening attraction was "The
Sign on the Door," a film starring Norma Talmadge. A
capacity crowd greeted the new theater. Among the notables on
hand opening night was poet Carl Sandburg, reporting on the
event for the Chicago Tribune. "At 8 o'clock,"
wrote Sandburg, "the sidewalks were crowded with folks
waiting to get in. Not until after the main picture run at 10:30
was over did the sidewalks get clear and the police, mounted and
afoot, breathe easy."
Stage and Orchestra Pit,
Chicago Theater, ca. 1930
Entrance and Main Foyer,
Chicago Theater, ca. 1930
The Chicago Theater remained a big draw throughout the
1920s. It is debatable, however, just how many Chicagoans
visited the theater just to see the latest films. After all,
this could be accomplished much less expensively by waiting a
week until the same pictures showed in a theater closer to one's
own neighborhood. Rather, it appears that much of the Chicago's
popularity lay in the blockbuster "presentations"—
dance troupes, beauty pageants, comedy routines—that
accompanied each week's feature film. In many cases, these
presentations were little more than "cleaned-up"
versions of classic vaudeville routines. Other presentations,
such as those that explored aspects of Chicago's history or
showcased the talents of local school children, were promoted as
serving civic or educational needs.
The most popular presentations, however, were those
featuring jazz bands. Jazz came to the Chicago for the first
time in September 1922, when Balaban and Katz launched their
first "Syncopation Week" in an attempt to bolster the
theater's sagging attendance figures and push profits to
all-time highs. The plan worked. Jazz played by white-only bands
quickly became the theater's top attraction, drawing huge crowds
to the Chicago regardless of the quality of the movie being
shown. Indeed, the Chicago quickly became one of the best places
for more conservative white Chicagoans—those who avoided dance
halls, night clubs, speakeasies, and other "dives"
because of their unsavory reputations—to hear and enjoy live
jazz. The fact that the jazz was performed by white rather than
African-American musicians within the apparently respectable
confines of the elegant Chicago Theater made the music itself
seem less threatening, more artistic—at least to the theater's
predominantly white audiences. For Balaban and Katz, jazz meant
the difference between barely breaking even and turning a large
profit. During the 1920s, weekly gross revenues at the Chicago
were typically fifty percent higher when jazz was included as
part of the show.
The Depression posed new challenges to the Chicago and the
city's many other large movie palaces. To keep patrons coming to
the theater during the tough economic times of the 1930s,
Balaban and Katz continued to rely heavily on jazz performances,
offering engagements by some of the nation's best-known big
bands. Other promotions, such as free giveaways, were also used.
During 1933 and 1934, the city's Century of Progress World's Fair and the thousands of visitors it attracted to the city
helped fill seats as well.
The Chicago Theater's fortunes began to slip in the 1950s.
Law suits filed by the city's neighborhood theaters against the
major film studios brought an end to the highly profitable
practice of releasing new movies in Loop theaters first,
neighborhood theaters a few weeks later. The growing popularity
of television no doubt took its toll as well. Far more
devastating, however, were new government housing and highway
programs that encouraged the city's white, middle-class
residents to sell their homes in the city and move to the
suburbs. Few returned to the city to partake in the same
amusements they and their parents had patronized so faithfully
during the 1930s and 1940s. Hoping to shore up the Chicago's
position as the city's leading movie theater, Balaban and Katz
undertook a remodeling of the theater in the 1950s, replacing or
covering up its more ornate architectural features with "modern"
lighting fixtures and false ceilings. As a cost-cutting measure,
stage shows and other live performances were also dropped from
the program. Given the shrinking size of the theater's
traditional customer base, however, such efforts were doomed to
failure even before they were conceived.
During the 1970s, under the ownership of Plitt Theaters,
many of the Loop's movie palaces, including the Chicago,
gradually adapted to the city's changing demographic
characteristics. Just as the city's white, middle-class
population had shrank during the 1960s, its black and
Latino population had grown. At the same time, urban renewal
programs had demolished many of the older movie houses that had
once done business in the city's black and Latino
neighborhoods. These developments encouraged many
African-American and Latino residents to patronize Loop retail
and entertainment establishments more than they had in the past.
Eager to keep their theaters open and profitable, Plitt
willingly catered to their newfound patrons, showing "blaxploitation"
and similar films that were especially popular with minority
Such policies did not, however, sit
well with City Hall and Loop businessmen, neither of which
welcomed the increased presence of black and Latino Americans
in the central business district. As a result, Mayor Richard H.
Daley and his successors cooperated with downtown business
organizations to have much of the downtown theater district,
including the Chicago, designated a "blighted" area
subject to government-backed redevelopment. According to plans,
the city would buy out Plitt, bulldoze the Chicago and several
other nearby theaters and retail establishments, and subsidize
the construction of new office towers on the cleared land.
Chicago Theater, June 2003
Preservationists fought the city's plans, however. Although
they were unable to save some of the area's other historic structures,
their efforts to prevent the demolition of the Chicago were
successful. In 1986, with the financial assistance of the city,
Plitt sold the Chicago to an organization of preservationists
who oversaw a nine-month, $25 million restoration of the
The last movie at the Chicago was shown on 10 September
1985. Since its restoration, the theater has hosted Broadway
musicals, concerts, comedians, and other live performances.
Related News Articles
Film Palace Opening Draws Great Throngs," Billboard,
5 November 1921.
Theater, exterior view, 1923 [Library of Congress]
standing on State Street, Chicago Theater on right side of
image, 1926 [Library of Congress]
· George D. Bushnell, "Chicago's Magnificent
Movie Palaces," Chicago History 6 (Summer 1977),
· Ben Hall, Best Remaining Seats: The Story of the
Golden Age of the Movie Palace (DaCapo Press, 1988).
· Lary May,
Out the Past: The Birth of Mass Culture and the Motion Picture
Industry (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1983).
· Ralph Pugh, "Chicago's Theatre," Chicago
History 30 (Fall 2001), 37-59.
· Michael Putnam,
Screens: The Decline and Transformation of the American Movie
Theater (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2000).
· Robert Sklar,
America: A Cultural History of American Movies
· Maggie Valentine,
Show Starts on the Sidewalk: An Architectural History of the
Movie Theater (Yale Univ. Press, 1996).
Illustrations: "Chicago Theatre, Chicago," postcard, Max Rigot: #223 (n.d.),
cropped; "Stage and Orchestra Pit, Chicago Theatre," postcard, n.p. (n.d.), cropped;
"Entrance to Main Foyer--Chicago Theatre," postcard, n.p. (n.d.), cropped.
Sources: Chicago Tribune, 26 Oct 1921, 34; 27 Oct 1921, 29; Variety, 28 Mar 1919, 33;
22 Aug 1919, 81; 22 Sept 1922, 1; 29 Sept. 1922, 27; 30 Aug 1918, 28; 29 Nov 1918, 39;
5 Mar 1924, 18; and Ross Miller, Here's the Deal: The Buying and Selling of a Great
American City (New York: Knopf, 1996).
Page authored: 9 May 2000