In 1921, together with Sam and Morris Katz, Abe and Barney Balaban constructed the Chicago Theater. The group had plans to make the theater a part of a larger group of chain motion picture houses. Chicago Theater would become the flagship for 28 other theaters located in the city, as well as more than 100 others located in the Midwestern United States.
The facility was built at a cost of $4 million and was designed by architects Cornelius W. Rapp and George L. Rapp. The brothers also designed many other properties, including both the Oriental and Uptown Theaters.
When the Chicago Theater opened on October 26th, 1921, the theater seated 3,880 and was touted as the "Wonder Theater of the World.'' The facility was packed during opening week and the film featured was First National Pictures, The Sign on the Door, starring Norma Talmadge. Other features included a 50-piece orchestra, and famed organist Jesse Crawford playing the 29-rank Wurlitzer Organ. The mission of the theater was to provide guests with a plush environment and top notch services to guests.
During the first 40 years of operation, the theater presented both feature films and live entertainment. Many top performers and stars of the day made live appearances at the Chicago Theater. One of the most popular draws was live jazz, which Balaban and Katz promoted beginning in September of 1922, in an event called "Syncopation Week.'' The venue proved to be so successful, that jazz bands became a mainstay in the Chicago Theaters programming, which continued well into the 1930's.
The Chicago Theater Preservation Group purchased the Chicago Theater and the adjoining Page Brothers Building for $11.5 million, in 1984. The group had renovations done to the Chicago Theater, which included restoring the structure to its 1930's appearance, which done by architects Daniel P. Coffey & Associates Ltd., and interior designers from A.T. Heinsbergen & Company.
The Chicago Theater was officially reopened to the public on September 10th, 1986 and featured a performance by Frank Sinatra to commemorate the occasion. The reopening marked a 4-year historical preservation effort which was championed by the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois.
The Chicago Theater is 7-stories tall and almost fills up an entire city block. The exterior fazade is covered in off white terra-cotta and neo-baroque plaster designs done by the McNulty Brothers. The interior of the building features French Baroque styles reminiscent of the Second French Empire, and the grand lobby is 5-stories tall and done in a style influenced by the Royal Chapel at Versailles.
The stage dimensions are more than 60 feet long and 30 feet in depth. The orchestra pit is more than 6 feet below stage level and 54 feet wide at the lip of the stage and 15 feet deep at the center. The entire marquee was replaced in 1994, and a substantial piece of the old one was then donated to the Smithsonian Museum.
The Chicago Theater is an important part of history and is associated with the popular culture of bygone days. The facility hosts screenings for the Chicago International Film Festival and hosts National Press Club events as well. The theater was added to the National Register of Historic Places on June 6th, 1979, and is the leading venue in Chicago for stage plays, comedy, magic shows, speeches and popular music concerts.
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