The Central Park Theater: Chicago's first movie palace

November 7, 2011

Before TV or videogames or the Internet, everyone went to the movies--all the time. Theaters became opulent showplaces. Though now put to another use, the most historic of the Chicago movie palaces still stands on the West Side.

The Balabans were a Russian Jewish family who settled in the North Lawndale neighborhood. In 1907 one of the teenage sons got a job singing in a tiny vaudeville theater on Kedzie Avenue. The place also featured the primitive 15-minute movies of the time.

One day the boy's mother came to the theater. Mrs. Balaban was impressed by the business model. "People pay on the way in--nobody can owe us money!" she said. So the Balabans rounded up $400 and rented the theater. They had their own nickelodeon.

Nickelodeon--since admission was five cents, that's what early movie theaters were called. Like the little place on Kedzie, they were a store-front operation, with a few folding chairs and a bed sheet for a screen. That was acceptable in 1907.

But as movies became more popular, the Balabans adapted to the times. Something grander was needed. In 1917 they opened the Central Park Theater at 3535 W. 12th Street (Roosevelt Road).

The 1780-seat theater was designed by the firm of Rapp and Rapp. With a large center stage flanked by two smaller stages, the versatile auditorium could be used for either movies or live entertainment. The spacious, overhanging balcony gave the audience the feeling they were right up front among the performers.

As a bonus, the Central Park was air-conditioned. In 1917 few public buildings had this feature. During the dog-days of summer, people flocked to the theater just to cool off. The doors opened at 9:30 most mornings and didn't close until midnight. If you had a dime and you had the time, you could take a mini-vacation at the Central Park.

By now the family business was known as Balaban & Katz. When the Central Park proved a success, they built other movie palaces. Eventually B&K operated 36 theaters in the city and suburbs, including such Loop landmarks as the Chicago, the Oriental, the United Artists, the Roosevelt, and the McVickers.

Today most of the B&K theaters are gone. The Central Park was converted into a church in 1971. In recognition of its pioneer status, the building has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.