December 04, 2018

Photo Essay: The Majesty of Chicago's Namesake Movie Palace

"Has anyone here ever been to the Chicago Theatre before?" our tour guide asked us.

I, of course, raised my hand.

After my fellow tourists in our group talked of the movies they'd seen when they were kids, or the live shows of more recent times, it was my turn.

"The Smooth Jazz Awards in the early 2000s," I offered, to which our guide responded, "OK!" (It was probably the year 2000 or 2001.)

In fact I used to stay at a hotel around the corner from the Chicago Theatre all the time when I'd have to travel to the Windy City for work. So I would see it all the time. But only ever at night.

So, when I had to go back to Chicago for work again for the first time in a decade or so, I decided to go back for a daytime tour. That's when I first realized that its terra cotta exterior was modeled after L'Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

I've been to so many historic theatres without having committed their details to memory. You get spoiled, living in New York City, with all the Broadway shows in historic venues and the Times Square AMC being a bona fide movie palace.

I hadn't remembered how the grand lobby ceiling would cycle from blue to pink or that there used to be two chandeliers instead of just one.

Maybe I just never noticed. There was no one to explain it to me there and then.

I had to wait nearly 20 years to figure out that the five-story lobby was meant to evoke The Royal Chapel at the Palace of Versailles.

My favorite times in theatres are those between the shows, when you don't have to worry about the curtain call or the house lights flickering to beckon you to your seat.

So, during our tour, I could just absorb the lobby, the daylight shining through the stained-glass the coat-of-arms of the theatre co-owners (Abe Balaban and Sam and Morris Katz)—two horses holding ribbons of 35-mm film in their mouths...

...and illuminating the staircase modeled after the Paris opera house, the Palais Garnier.

Much of the theatre has been restored since this "Wonder Theatre" first opened.

Other parts have not.

The ushers no longer use the control panel that once showed where still-empty seats were located. Now we choose our own seats ahead of time and simply ask the ushers to point us in the right direction.

Some of the historical renovations of the Chicago Theatre have thankfully be reversed, like when it was redecorated for the 1933 World’s Fair and again in the 1950s.

That's when the plasterwork was deemed "old-fashioned" and covered up and everything else was painted an oh-so-modern white.

Fortunately, it's been returned to its original French Baroque splendor...

...right down to the ATM machine, contributed by presenting sponsor Chase.

The original crystal chandeliers were provided by the premiere lighting fixture company of the time, Victor Pearlman and Co.

Plaster details were created by McNulty Brothers Company, which had made a name for itself having done much of the interior plasterwork for the 1893 Columbian Exposition.

And the architects who brought all that talent together were Cornelius W. and George L. Rapp (known also for their work on the Loew's Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, New York).

The Neo-Baroque French-Revival of the Chicago Theatre became Rapp and Rapp's signature style—and this theatre is the oldest remaining example of it in Chicago.

I seriously could've spent all day starig down at the lobby from its gallery promenades...

...but although I wasn;t there to see a show that day...

...I had to get another look at the auditorium.

The ceilings and surrounding walls are adorned with murals painted by Louis Grell (who once taught Walt Disney at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts).

Michelangelo Studios had provided all the statues at the 1893 Chicago World's Exposition, and it supplied the two identical statues that flank the house of the Chicago Theatre as well.

But the real star of the auditorium is the 26- (now 29-)rank "Mighty Wurlitzer" pipe organ, which came out of Wurlitzer's North Tonawanda Barrel Organ Factory and has called the Chicago Theatre home since 1921.

There are actually two consoles at opposite ends of the stage, for those "dueling" organ concerts between Jesse Crawford and his wife.

A monster of an auditorium capacity-wise, especially compared to Manhattan and Downtown LA historic palaces, the Chicago Theatre seats 3553 from orchestra to balcony...

...and takes up about a half a city block, both wide and long.

The stage is 70 feet wide and 32 feet deep, from the back wall to the lip of the stage.

But backstage is really where it's at...

...where the walls outside the dressing rooms have been signed by the likes of Prince, Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli, Julie Andrews, Johnny Mathis, Kenny Rogers...

...Englebert Humperdinck, Carol Burnett, and hundreds of other performers that time has not been quite so kind to.

These are all the reasons why the Chicago Theatre letters on its marquee—and the "Y" symbol behind it (representing where the Chicago River forks at Wolf Point)—have come to represent the city itself, throughout the world.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Last Chance Look at The Tower Theatre (Lobby, House & Balcony)
Photo Essay: The San Diego Theatre Built By A Sugar Fortune

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