Feature photo by chicago_steph
During the early 20th century, moviegoers headed out to the theater not only for the opportunity to see the next glamorous star grace the silver screen, but because they wanted to feel like a star themselves. Movie palaces built primarily between the 1910’s and 1940’s were worlds of opulence and fantasy with their extravagant ornamentation. Chicago is home to several movie palaces– many of which are still in operation in various capacities. However, many are covered in years of dust and grime, and sit quietly on blocks where their bright bulbs once flashed to beckon people indoors to see the next performance or talking picture show.
Today, our movie experience typically takes place in aesthetically sterile multi-screen establishments or simply sitting in front of our flat screens, laptops, or cellphones in sweat pants. If you were going out to see a movie at a movie palace way back when, you were “going out” as in dressed up, smelling good, looking fine, and making sure your date looked equally fine. This was where you dressed to impress.
An evening at a movie palace was a night of full-sensory experiences. The average patron was made to feel grand as they strolled through a glamorous lobby, sat down in plush seats as a vaudeville act, or even orchestra played.
Below are just a few of Chicago’s famed movie palaces. Many still fill seats while others sit patiently waiting for their next opportunity to bring the public grandeur.
2117-2139 N. Milwaukee Avenue – Built in 1926 by Fridstein and Company, it was once part of a chain of movie theaters. The Congress was built using a combination of Classical Revival and Italian Renaissance style. Today, the theater packs in concertgoers for pop, punk, and Latin music shows.
5216 W. Lawrence – The Gateway was built in 1930 by legendary Chicago architectural firm Rapp and Rapp who built other famous movie palaces throughout the city and the United States. The Gateway was the first movie theater built exclusively for the “talkies,” films with sound. They were also the flagship theater for the prolific Balaban and Katz movie theater chain.
4816 N. Broadway – Also designed by Rapp and Rapp, when the Uptown opened in 1925 it had a full time orchestra on staff to entertain the largest house in the city with over 4,300 seats. In the 1980’s a water pipe burst causing extensive damage. The theater which once employed 130 people and showcased elaborate stage shows, has not had regular attendance for over thirty years.
Ford Center for the Performing Arts Oriental Theatre
24 & 32 W. Randolph – Another child of Rapp and Rapp, the Oriental Theater is actually built on the same spot as the Iroquois Theater– the location of the deadliest theater fire in history where over 600 people died. During the 1930s, movies and vaudeville acts could be seen at the theater. Famous performers included The Three Stooges, George Burns, and Cab Calloway. Today, the theater is fully renovated, restored and is host to visiting Broadway shows.