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SEE HISTORIC CHICAGO
By Joseph R. DuciBella and James A. Pierce
The Uptown Theatre, 4816 N. Broadway, in Chicago, was designed by architects C.W. and Geo. L. Rapp, of Chicago, for the Balaban and Katz Corp., also of Chicago. This amazing corporation started as a family business in the late nickelodeon era and by the early 1920s had control of most film markets in Chicago. The flagship of Balaban and Katz, the Chicago Theatre, opened downtown on State Street in 1921. The Tivoli, which they also built that year, was similar in size and located on the far south side. Their first theater, the Central Park on the west side, was surrounded by competition, as was their second, the Riviera, on the north side. All were designed by Rapp and Rapp and all but the Tivoli remain today.
A financial analysis Balaban and Katz completed in 1923 suggested that their best interests were served by building a theater as large and lavish as they could manage near Broadway and Lawrence in the busy Uptown Square commercial district. And so, the Uptown was planned.
According to the press of the time, all of these theatre buildings were built for substantial cost and quality in order to be "for all time." When the Uptown opened in August 1925, the phrase "an acre of seats in a magic city" was coined to describe the wonders of more than 4,300 seats in a theater that covered 46,000 square feet of land. At the time, it was the third largest in terms of seating. But it was the largest, by far, in land area and cubic volume, due in part to the three vast lobby areas.
Many of the details we associate today with a movie palace had not yet been codified by the time the Uptown opened. [A working definition of a movie palace, courtesy of Theatre Historical Society of America executive direct Richard Sklenar is: “Multiple thousands of seats under one roof with a full, working stage and a lobby like a train station.”] The Uptown’s stage shows were planned in consideration of the feature. Music was customized for the large orchestra, as well as for the Uptown's Wurlitzer organ, the second largest one in operation at the time. Stars of national fame played regularly. Even the posters in the display cases were custom artwork with new items every week.
By the end of the 1920s, more than 20 million people had already attended the Uptown. It is interesting to note that some of the nation’s greatest theaters, such as Radio City Music Hall in New York, were not even on the drawing boards yet.
Initially, sound film and Depression economics did not affect the Uptown, because of the uniqueness and quality of the entertainment, and because its competition had been eliminated through the policies of Balaban and Katz. Eventually, with the availability of 1930s musicals and the like, film became the mainstay. The stage was used only on rare occasions through the 1940s. By the end of the decade, Balaban and Katz reinstituted their traveling shows, booking first the Chicago and then traveling weekly to the Uptown in the north, the Marbro in the west, and the Tivoli in the south. This system quickly proved unsuccessful. Competing distractions such as radio and television, and an increase in the number of working housewives limited both evening and matinee audiences.
Thereafter, through the 1950s and early 1960s, film became the mainstay again with occasional use of the stage for rentals. The most notable rented use of the stage was for the television show "Queen for a Day," which televised one week every year in the theater. The Uptown was also used as a large hall, particularly for corporate meetings, such as those held here by Standard Oil of New Jersey for its shareholders. These uses created revenue. But later, with declining film revenue, furnishings were sold on occasion, starting with the organ in 1962. Soon, because of high insurance costs and vandalism, all extraneous artwork was sold, including more than 90 major oil paintings and 18 major marble groups. These sales yielded several million dollars.
In the early 1970s, a campaign of interested volunteers petitioned the corporate successor to Balaban and Katz to investigate other uses for the theater beyond just movies. This was an attempt to ensure sufficient revenue and interest was generated to maintain the viability of the structure. At this time, rock concert promoters booked occasionally to great success and profit. The musical acts of Bruce Springsteen & the E-Street Band, Charlie Daniels Band, Dire Straits, ELO, Elvis Costello, Frank Zappa, Genesis, Grateful Dead, Rick James, Bob Marley, Prince, Santana, Rod Stewart and others performed at the theater.
However, with deferred maintenance in the 1960s and 1970s, when revenues were failing, the building at more than 50 years had reached a point of much-needed repairs. Rather than manage the building, it was marketed, sold, and reverted back to the successor, Plitt Theatres. With no ability to manage such a complex facility, Plitt boarded up the building and awaited further ideas.
Most of the damage to the building occurred when the building was unheated in the early 1980s, making it unusable without restoration. Subsequently, even with the assistance primarily of volunteers, the building remained in the hands of a notorious tax-sale buyer and continued to deteriorate. During this time volunteers managed to have the theater designated a Chicago Landmark and recorded on the National Register of Historic Places. Friends of the Uptown, organized in 1998, is a group of volunteers that works in concert with local leaders and the building’s owners. Friends of the Uptown and Compass Rose Cultural Crossroads www.compassrose.org coordinate activities to connect people who share an interest in the Uptown.
The building was purchased in 2008 by a limited liability corporation including professionals from an experienced concert promotion and venue management company headquartered in Chicago. Aware of how much of a jewel the building really is from their personal history of promoting rock shows at the theatre, the owners have stated in local media that they are interested in coordinating a restoration project so that the Uptown may serve again some large entertainment use.
All material copyright 1998 - 2006, Friends of the Uptown