The Theatre District, located in the Chicago Loop, has one of the best tours in Chicago – the legendary Chicago Theatre, whose marquee on State Street is an iconic symbol of the city. In my entire life, I had only entered this building once for a comedy show. I appreciated the grandeur of the entire building but never really knew the history of it.
Tours are offered daily at noon for US$15. They last about an hour and tickets are available at the box office. The tour begins in the lobby with a very enthusiastic employee talking about the origins of the theatre and pointing out some unique architectural features. It originally opened in 1921 primarily as a cinema, the first of its kind in America, and it’s façade is shaped like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It was very interesting to hear how the theatre operated and the innovative marketing techniques used to attract moviegoers. After several years of success, the theatre fell into disrepair but continued to serve as a cinema until it closed in 1985. The Chicago Theatre was saved from demolition in the 1980s and renovated to modern standards. Currently, the 3,600 seat theater is used for mostly musical and comedy acts.
The tour continued to the luxury boxes where we were given a view from the best seats in the house.
Next it was up to the balcony to get an incredible look at the murals of Greek gods painted on the walls and to hear about the fine details that went into the auditorium.
As we sat in the seats, the guide told us how the owners of the theatre, Balaban and Katz, used several tons of sandbags to convince the public of the safety of the balcony. She also pointed out the projector room that is mainly unused today, and explained how ushers would use a complex set of hand signals to indicate empty seats for movie patrons. Balaban and Katz boasted that they had the most efficient ushers in the world.
Next, it was down to the main floor where we had a good look at the original Wurlitzer organ that was installed with the building. It is the oldest surviving Wurlitzer in Chicago. There were actually two organs that were both played at times during silent films and the organist became celebrities, often overshadowing the films.
We walked up the stage and had a breathtaking view of all the seats in the auditorium. I could only imagine what it was like for a performer with a full house and lights blaring in their face.
The last leg of the tour took us through the backstage area and up a staircase where every single performer has autographed the walls since 1986. Frank Sinatra started the tradition when he performed for the grand re-opening of the Chicago Theatre on 15 September of that year.
The staircase led to a modest dressing room with much less grandeur than the rest of the building.
I highly recommend the tour of the Chicago Theatre to both visitors and residents. The building is a living piece of Chicago history that tells a lot about the city’s personality and culture. I also recommend seeing a show if possible.
The Chicago Theatre lies in the city’s Theatre District among a few other historic theatres built around the same time. Among them are the Majestic Theatre (1906), Goodman Theatre (1925), Palace Theatre (1926), and Oriental Theatre (1926). Broadway in Chicago offers tours of two out of the Palace, Oriental, and Majestic every Saturday at 11am.
One interesting tidbit of information is that the Oriental Theatre was built on the site of the Iroquois Theater, where 600 people died in a fire in 1903.