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Architecture Thu Sep 16 2010
Approaching the marquee at 175 North State Street at noon, 2500 light bulbs await dusk to emblazon the façade of The Chicago Theatre. A group of tourists pauses for pictures. The iconic structure, once home to silent films and impressive organ concerts, persists as one of Chicago's most-recognized landmarks, continuing to draw crowds, even during hours when the stage is quiet.
A few steps into the main lobby quickly begins to confirm for visitors why this iconic building was dubbed "the Wonder Theatre of the World" upon its opening on Oct. 26, 1921. The lavish marble interior, intricate moldings, and grand chandelier provide the air of a luxurious and bygone era. The windows above the doorway boast the coat of arms of theatre builders Balaban and Katz in Tiffany stained glass. Visitors of the 1920s would have been greeted by professional ushers, trained at the Balaban and Katz School for Ushers, as well as local beauties, costumed in white coifs and elaborate gowns matching the French Baroque interior. Standing at the bottom of the grand staircase today, these details are not difficult to imagine.
The Lake Street lobby is similarly impressive, with exceptional detail adorning the concave ceilings and wall of mirrors mimicking those displayed at the front entrance. Here, it may be difficult to imagine that a dropped ceiling had been added to disguise these features during the 1950s, in favor of a simpler, modernist interior. Those visiting today will likely be grateful that the temporary addition has since been removed, revealing the opulent ceiling in all its glory.
Of course, the lobbies merely provide a taste of The Chicago Theatre: stepping into the house is the real treat. Plush red velvet seats fill the main floor, mezzanine, and balcony. Intimate booths line the mezzanine area, while expansive views distinguish the balcony seating. Artwork accentuates the circumference of the theatre, with each piece stretching upward onto the gilded ceiling. While the original paintings had featured French pastoral scenes, artists altered the theme of the artwork in 1932, anticipation of the 1933 World's Fair. The new paintings depicted Greek gods and goddesses hailing from clouds, with Apollo and his chariot adorning the proscenium arch of the stage. After its 1986 Restoration, the Greek theme was preserved, and balcony visitors today will still find themselves sitting among the gods.
One of the most famous features of the house is Wurlitzer pipe organ once played by famous organist Jesse Crawford. This instrument, the second organ installed in the theatre, was primarily played by Crawford's wife, Helen, during rousing organ duets during the 1920s. The 29-rank organ, was the first instrument ever to be recorded using a microphone, and it has been assigned its own historical landmark status.
Behind the keys of the famed Wurlitzer sits a stage that has featured some of the greatest celebrities in American entertainment. Climbing the stairs to the dressing rooms backstage, the stories of such performers from years gone by explode from the walls. Scrawls of signatures, well-wishes, and elaborate drawings compete for space on once stark white walls. Frank Sinatra's signature remains highly visible from his celebratory concert marking the 1986 completion of $25 million renovations to the theatre.
The Chicago Theatre, now owned by Madison Square Garden, LP, continues to house performers of all types, season after season. Celebrities such as Alicia Keys, David Letterman, Ellen DeGeneres, Van Morrison, and Aretha Franklin have graced the stage in recent years. Of course, during the quiet hours, when the theatre isn't bursting with activity, The Chicago Theatre is a sight to behold all on its own.
Visitors can learn about this landmark and its rich history on one of The Chicago Theatre's weekly tours. Tours through September 30 are available at 12 pm, Monday through Thursday, as well as Saturdays at 11 am and 12:30 pm. For October, November, and December hours, please click here. Tickets are $12, or $10 for children 12 and under, and may be purchased on The Chicago Theatre website, at the box office, or by calling 1-800-745-3000. The Chicago Theatre is located at 175 N. State St.