Chicago's Historic Loop Playhouses

by J. M. Pressley
First published: July 2, 2013

An overview of some of Chicago's most historic surviving playhouses.

Chicago theater is rich in history and tradition. Part of that history includes the grand showcase playhouses built in the early twentieth century. Although the names may have changed throughout the decades, some of the most storied venues have survived time, changing tastes, and a variety of owners and renovations to host new Chicago productions to this day.

Auditorium Theatre

The Auditorium is the elder statesman of Chicago's Loop, residing at Michigan and Congress since its opening in 1889. Designed by the renowned Adler and Sullivan architectural firm, the overall building included a 4,300-seat theater, a 400-room hotel, and space for 136 commercial offices. In theory, the Auditorium was an integrated venture where the commercial interests were meant to subsidize the artistic endeavors. In practice, the offices and hotel both proved unprofitable from the onset.

The Great Depression and the move of opera to the Civic Opera House in 1929 spelled an inevitable end for the Auditorium, which filed for bankruptcy in 1941. It then became a serviceman's center during World War II; in 1946, Roosevelt University took over the building as their main campus, but the theater remained dark and in disrepair until 1967.

In the 1970s, the Auditorium again began serving as an important venue in Chicago, hosting everything from premier rock acts to top Broadway tours. In 1989, a century after its doors first opened, the Auditorium experienced a renaissance as host to the touring production of Broadway's Les Miserables. Other notable tours such as Miss Saigon and Phantom of the Opera provided more impetus for a major restoration effort beginning in 2001.

Today, the Auditorium (known officially as the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University) is a National Historic Landmark and continues to be a premier venue for major theatrical and musical productions.

Bank of America Theatre

The Majestic Theatre opened at 18 W. Monroe in 1906 as one of the premier vaudeville venues in Chicago. In the wake of the Iroquois Theatre fire of 1903, the new building was as much an ode to safety as it was to opulence. As with many businesses, the Majestic fell prey to the Great Depression in 1932. The theater remained dark for over a decade until purchased and remodeled by the Shubert Organization in 1945.

The Sam Shubert Theatre went on to host many notable productions, from pre-Broadyway trials to world premiers and national tours. In 2006, the Shubert went through another series of renovations and changed its name to the LaSalle Bank Theatre. With the corporate acquisition of LaSalle Bank, the venue became known as Bank of America Theatre in 2008. Notable productions in the last decade have included Movin' Out, Spamalot, Jersey Boys, and The Book of Mormon.

Cadillac Palace Theatre

The Cadillac Palace opened in 1926 as the New Palace Theatre. This lushly designed jewel of the vaudeville circuit was inspired in part by the royal palace of Versailles, and it tells in the grand baroque styling of the lobby. The fading popularity of vaudeville and the Great Depression led to the conversion of the New Palace into a movie cinema in 1931. The auditorium again began hosting occasional Broadway show tours in the 1950s. The ensuing decades saw the owners convert the auditorium into first a banquet hall and then a rock concert venue (as the Bismarck Theatre). Finally, in 1999, the venue was restored and renovated to its previous splendor and renamed the Cadillac Palace Theatre. Notable productions have included Aida, The Producers, and Mama Mia!

Chicago Theatre

As with many venues of the 1920s, the Chicago Theatre was originally conceived as a movie palace. It opened in 1921, and for the first four decades presented motion pictures, stage shows, and musical concerts. Although the venue managed to stay open through the Great Depression, it declined precipitously in the 1970s and eventually closed in 1985. The Chicago Theatre Preservation Group, however, purchased the property, not only saving it from the wrecking ball but restoring it to its earlier grandeur. Today the Chicago is a National Historic Landmark and hosts primarily music and comedy acts.

Ford Oriental Theatre

The Oriental Theatre was built in 1926 on the site of the ill-fated Iroquois Theatre. One of the many 1920s movie palaces constructed in Chicago, the Oriental was a lavish tribute to the Far East. The Oriental presented mainly first-run films along with occasional stage and musical productions. In the 1970s, however, the theater declined in attendance until closing in 1981.

Livent, a Canadian production company purchased the venue in 1996 and set on a two-year, multi-million-dollar restoration that succeeded in the renovations but bankrupted the company. The Oriental was sold to SFX Entertainment, who eventually sold to the Nederlander Organization in 2007. The theater hosted the smash hit Wicked from 2005-2009. The Oriental was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1978 and continues as an anchor of the Broadway in Chicago consortium.

Merle Reskin Theatre

In 1910, the Blackstone Theatre opened on Hubbard Court (today's Balbo Drive). In its early years, the venue generally played host to touring productions from New York, mostly winners of the Tony Award or Pulitzer Prize. Like many playhouses, the Blackstone struggled during the Great Depression, but was able to stay open with a variety of leaseholders and help from the Federal Theatre Project.

Following World War II, the Shubert Organization bought the Blackstone. Among the highlights was the 1959 Chicago premiere of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. Still, the venue's usage continued to decline until the late 1980s, when the Shubert Organization decided to sell off the Blackstone (along with most of its other Chicago venues). However, chairman Gerald Schoenfeld offered the theater to DePaul University's Theatre School. The university accepted, put $1,000,000 worth of renovations into the building, and opened its inaugural season in 1989 with a production of The Misanthrope.

In 1992, Harold and Merle Reskin made a generous gift to the Theatre School, which rechristened the Blackstone as the Merle Reskin Theatre. It remains home to the Theatre School's Showcase and Chicago Playworks series of productions and hosts many other performing arts groups and events throughout the year.

Sources

Broadway in Chicago, DePaul University, The Chicago Theatre, The Encyclopedia of Chicago