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Randolph Street, Chicago’s theater row

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Playbill magazine in June 2009.

If you took a stroll down Randolph Street in Chicago’s Loop in the early 1900s, chances were pretty good that you’d rub elbows with an actor. The sidewalks were crammed with thespians almost every afternoon on Randolph, a street with so many theaters that it was nicknamed “Chicago’s Rialto.” In 1907, the Chicago Tribune reported, “The people of the stage flock to the Rialto as bees swarm to their hives.”

The people of Chicago flocked there, too. For most of the 20th Century, the area around Randolph Street was the city’s top destination for entertainment. It was the place to go for stage shows, films, fancy restaurants and jazzy nightclubs. But then the North Loop fell into decline. By 1980, all that remained were a few crumbling cinemas showing skin flicks. Not today. Now, the street is aglow with marquees announcing some of the best live entertainment the city has to offer.

Three of the area’s theaters are ornate jewels originally built in the 1920s: the Chicago Theatre, the Oriental Theatre (now the Ford Center for the Performing Arts), and the New Palace Theatre (now the Cadillac Palace). And all three were designed by brother architects Cornelius and George Rapp. George Rapp once said a theater is “a shrine to democracy where there are no privileged patrons.” He wanted to transport audiences into a magical place with his architectural details, creating, he said,  a “cavern of many-colored jewels, where iridescent lights and luxurious fittings heighten the expectations of pleasure.”

The oldest of these shrines is the Chicago Theatre, near Randolph at 175 North State Street, which the Rapp brothers designed in 1921 as a movie palace for Balaban and Katz, a national theater chain based in Chicago. The Rapps clearly had France on their mind when they drew up the blueprints. The building’s terra-cotta front looks like the Arc de Triomphe, while the lobby resembles the Royal Chapel of Versailles, with the Paris Opera House’s grand staircase thrown in for good measure.

In 1926, Balaban and Katz unveiled the Oriental Theatre at 4 West Randolph Street. This time, the Rapp brothers turned to India for their architectural inspiration, with elephant throne chairs and Buddhas. The ushers wore turbans, and on opening night, a jazz band played a song called “Insultin’ the Sultan.” Later that same year, the Rapps used the palaces of Fontainebleau and Versailles as their model for the 2,500-seat New Palace Theatre, a vaudeville house run by the Orpheum Circuit at 151 Wes Randolph.

The decades that followed were the heyday for entertainment along Randolph Street. Duke Ellington, Jack Benny, Benny Goodman and Danny Kaye performed at the Chicago Theatre. The Three Stooges, Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday appeared at the Oriental. Jimmy Durante, Mae West and Bob Hope played the New Palace. And just off Randolph on Dearborn, the Harris and Selwyn Theaters (designed by C. Howard Crane and H. Kenneth Franzheim) produced shows with Helen Hayes, Charles Laughton, Boris Karloff, Audrey Hepburn and Noel Coward.

As time went on, stage shows gave way to movies and seeing a picture in a Loop theater was a big deal. Neal Samors, co-author of Downtown Chicago in Transition, remembers going downtown to see The Bridge On the River Kwai. “You didn’t go downtown without getting dressed up,” he says. “My grandfather was wearing his hat and top coat.”

But then movie attendance fell. Restaurants closed. The Loop started to seem like a ghost town after business hours. And the area began to lose its theaters. The Garrick, 64 W. Randolph St., a beauty of a building designed by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, was demolished in 1960. By the 1970s, Loop theaters were showing kung-fu flicks and black exploitation movies. Cinestage, the former Selwyn Theatre, played X-rated movies like Lovers Convention. In 1980, Tribune critic Richard Christensen saw some high school couples all dressed up for graduation, buying tickets for a martial-arts movie. “It was a sad sight, for this ugly theater with its crummy movie was the best that the North Loop had to offer these kids,” he wrote at the time.

After the Oriental’s balcony was damaged in a 1978 fire, the theater continued showing movies with the balcony closed. A year later, the city discovered piles of beer cans, whisky bottles and popcorn bags upstairs. “A rat certainly wouldn’t have trouble finding plenty to eat, would he?” one inspector remarked. As if that weren’t bad enough, rival gangs fought inside the Oriental, marking the walls with graffiti. Shortly before the Oriental shut down in 1981, Tim Samuelson (now the city’s cultural historian) visited the theater as a martial-arts movie was playing. “Some guy had snuck into the balcony, and he was practicing his kung-fu kicks—kicking in the ornamental grilles,” he recalls.

In 1982, Plitt Theaters filed for a permit to demolish the Chicago Theatre. The city refused and Plitt sued. The lawsuit ended in 1984, when the newly formed Chicago Theater Preservation Group bought the theater and the city settled out of court with Plitt. After a year of renovations, it reopened in 1986. Mayor Harold Washington cut the ribbon, remarking: “It would have died a quiet death, unnoticed and unmourned. Now it marks a new chapter in the life of the city.” And Frank Sinatra strolled out onto the stage, snapping his fingers and launching right into his famous song about Chicago, “My Kind of Town,” adding at the end of the tune: “And I mean it!”

Meanwhile, some neighboring theaters fell to the wrecking ball. The Roosevelt Theatre, on State Street south of Randolph, came down in 1980. The United Artists Theatre and the Woods Theatre, both on Randolph near Dearborn, were demolished in 1989. The State-Lake Theatre went out of business in 1985, but the building survived; in 2006, it became the new studio for WLS-TV. Yet, thanks to a combination of private investment, donations and government funding, other theaters were reborn, looking as grand as ever. In 1984, Mayor Washington created a tax-increment financing district covering 15 blocks in the North Loop. Taxes from increased property values were diverted to pay for development—including an estimated $60 million for theater renovations. Expanded by Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1997 to cover much of the Loop, the TIF zone expired at the end of 2008. The Chicago Reader’s Ben Joravsky called this Loop TIF district “a barely overseen slush fund that sucks tax dollars away from schools and other public services,” but city officials have said it succeeded in creating a lively entertainment district, boosting all sorts of downtown businesses.

The Oriental reopened as the Ford Center for the Performing Arts in 1998. The New Palace reopened as the Cadillac Palace in 1999. And in 2000, the Goodman Theatre moved into the space formerly occupied by the Harris and Selwyn. (The interiors of the two theaters were in unsalvageable condition, but their still handsome facades were saved by the Chicago Landmarks Commission.) Other theaters on Randolph include three run by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, as well as the Harris Theater for Music and Dance at Millennium Park, 205 East Randolph Street.

Movies are no longer the main reason people go downtown; the only Loop venue showing films these days is the Gene Siskel Film Center on State Street. Instead, what draws people from all over the Chicago area and beyond are Broadway musicals, big-name concerts and a wide range of drama and comedy. And while the sidewalks might not be as packed with theatrical folks as they were back in 1907, you never know—you might just bump into an actor.