In October 1917, a theater opened at 3535 W. Roosevelt Road that changed the moviegoing experience, in Chicago and the nation.
In the era of the nickelodeon, a term reflecting not just the price of admission, but the surroundings, motion pictures were shown in cramped, unadorned venues, often converted storefronts. But A.J. Balaban, his brother Barney, and Sam Katz had bigger dreams — and, sharing them with audiences, gave birth to an architectural genre, the "movie palace."
Though it seated 1,780 and was the first air-conditioned movie house, Balaban & Katz's pioneering effort was prosaically named for a cross street, the Central Park Theater. But their subsequent ventures, and those of show-biz moguls they inspired, bore names worthy of royalty: the Palace, the Granada, the Paradise, the Tivoli, the Pantheon and the Regal.
Each was a steppingstone toward the silver-screen glamour of red carpets, paparazzi and the current Oscar season hoopla. At the same time, the theaters created a social and cultural phenomenon that brought together residents from diverse backgrounds, all eager to experience a bit of that elegance — and Americana — themselves. In a city of immigrants like Chicago, speech patterns brought over from Poland and Italy, Greece and Germany, were blended by hearing the posh accents of Hollywood stars like Ronald Colman and Greer Garson.
A night at the movies was a dress-up occasion — and a teenager's rite of passage. A first date might be a matinee at one of the movie palaces that dotted the neighborhoods. Then a boy and a girl would get up the courage to take the "L" downtown and feel on the threshold of adulthood for having passed beneath a six-story-high theater marquee with light bulbs proclaiming: C-H-I-C-A-G-O.
Seeing silver-screen romance emboldened adolescents to take their first, tentative steps toward transforming friendship into love. Especially because a darkened auditorium was forgiving of an awkward opening move. James T. Farrell captured such a scene in his short story, "The Hyland Family": "In the Tivoli Theater, Helen and Jimmy had held hands. When she came out of the theater, she scarcely remembered the picture she'd seen."
A new movie palace was cause for a civic celebration. In 1925, a parade of 200 floats and an army band saluted the Uptown Theatre's opening, and 12,000 people lined up for its 4,381 seats.
B&K's formula escalated from mere opulence to Roman decadence, as the Tribune reported in 1930: "A trained seal room and a small museum of wild animal and bird life will be two innovations to be incorporated in the huge new moving picture theater which the Publix-Balaban and Katz corporation will erect in Englewood shortly." And huge the movie palaces certainly were: The Chicago Theatre seated 3,800 and boasted an interior modeled on Louis XIV's Versailles. Its opening was reviewed like a high-society coming-out bash. "Yesterday at 5:30, Miss 'The Chicago Theater,' beloved child of Messrs. Balaban and Katz, made her debut," gushed the Tribune's Mae Tinee in October 1921. "... For sheer splendor, expensiveness, and display, the Chicago Theater sets a world's record."
When a B&K theater opened on Randolph Street in 1926, the Trib observed: "The designers ... wished the Oriental to live up to its name. The doorman wears a turban and long silken costume, and a pretty girl in like dress presides over the foyer."
In the golden age of movie palaces, a ticket often bought a stage show as well as a movie. In the 1930s, Red Skelton played the Palace, the Three Stooges appeared at the State Lake Theater and John Philip Sousa appeared at the Chicago.
Local talent was showcased at amateur nights in neighborhood movie theaters. Nightlife publicist Benny Dunn, the self-proclaimed King of Rush Street, recalled for the Tribune the night Al Jolson competed in one. In town for a movie opening, he asked Dunn to take him for a drive. Coming upon the marquee announcing amateur night, Jolson decided to enter and billed himself as "Sam Bass," a shoe salesman who did vocal impressions. He finished on one knee, belting out the line for which he was famous, "I'd walk a million miles for one of your smiles!"
"When the audience voted, 'Bass' lost to a 9-year-old girl who danced an Irish jig," Dunn recalled. "They never even suspected it was Jolson, and half of the seats were occupied by the kid's relatives."
From that first fantasy movie-house on Roosevelt Road, B&K's theaters were designed by brother architects, George and Cornelius Rapp. Taking their over-the-top style national, they designed hundreds of theaters, including the Paramount Theater in New York City, the Palace Theater in Cleveland and the Paramount Theater in Seattle. Just as the Abbey of St. Denis made Paris the mother city of Gothic architecture, the Rapp brothers' blueprints endowed Chicago with a small measure of similar glory.
Yet, as the poet said, glory is fleeting, and by the 1960s, television and suburbanization were taking their toll on Chicago's movie palaces. The Oriental closed in 1981; the Chicago closed in 1985. Both have since reopened, thanks to the rejuvenated Loop Theater District, but the Uptown Theatre still stands empty. After the Granada Theater in Rogers Park stopped showing movies, its architect waxed philosophical.
"The movie theaters had to submit to progress," said Edward Eichenbaum in 1976. "... The age of cinema that had produced them was gone."
Editor's note: Thanks to David Rovner of Brookfield for suggesting this Flashback.Copyright © 2015, CT Now