What’s That Building? Oriental Theatre Is Dead. Long Live The Nederlander | WBEZ
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What's That Building? Oriental Theatre Is Dead. Long Live The Nederlander

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Two momentous changes are coming this spring to one of downtown Chicago's most lavish movie palaces – the Oriental Theatre – a fixture on Randolph Street just west of State Street since 1926.

The first big change comes in February, when the theater, which has been called the Oriental for almost 93 years, will get a new name: the James M. Nederlander Theatre. The name honors the second-generation head of the Detroit-based family that operates numerous stage venues in New York, London, and Chicago. The current president of the organization is his son James L. Nederlander.

Changing the name to honor Nederlander moves aside a name that has been the source of discomfort for some patrons. "There's sensitivity to the name, 'Oriental,'" said Lou Raizin, president of Broadway in Chicago, which is a subsidiary of the Nederlander Organization.

Famed sign atop the marquee at the famed Oriental theater. Opened as a movie palace in 1926, the theater closed in 1981. The Oriental reopened in 1996 and is now part of the stable of Broadway in Chicago theaters. It will be renamed for James Nederlander. (Jason Marck/WBEZ)

While the original name was intended to convey an aura of exotic and mys-tical splendor, it’s not how it's perceived today Raizin said.

Instead, people often today view the term 'oriental' as a Western-centric term that defines people of Asian descent by patronizing stereotypes. The word falls somewhere between obsolete – and outright – racist, according to whom you ask.

When James M. Nederlander died in 2016, the organization looked for a way to memorialize his decades of supporting development of Chicago as what he called a "run town." Raizin explained that means a place where a show can attract audiences for an extended run, not just a short-term visit.

The interior lobby is almost as ornate as the outer lobby. This carving is approximately 5 feet high. She and several of her sisters are carved 20 feet above the floor in the interior lobby, along with other ornate pieces. (Jason Marck/WBEZ)

The Nederlanders have been bringing Broadway shows to Chicago since 1954, and have owned the Oriental since 2007. It’s one of their four Chica-go theaters. They also own the booking rights to the Auditorium Theatre at Roosevelt University.

The other major change coming at this address is on the 14th floor, where a vast empty space four stories high will be turned into the Chicago home of Teatro ZinZanni, a Seattle-based circus and dinner cabaret, opening in April.

Built as a Masonic meeting hall, the cavernous space was empty for a few decades before being converted to office space. The Cook County Sheriff was the last office tenant, and moved out a few years ago when rehab of the non-Oriental Theater floors were being rehabbed into the Cambria Ho-tel.

When the rehabbers ripped out the old drop ceiling on the 14th floor and re-vealed the soaring space topped by steel bow trusses, Raizin, of Broadway in Chicago had an idea.

"He told me he'd found what I had been trying to find for seven years," said Stan Feig, the California-based producer for Teatro ZinZanni.

Teatro ZinZanni performs in tents–specifically, antique speigeltents, which were built in the Netherlands as portable but semi-permanent dance halls–and in warmer places can set them up outdoors. For Chicago, Feig spent seven years looking for an indoor space that could accommodate a tent 35 feet tall that seats 150 diners and includes space for the performers.

In the same building as the Oriental Theater, 14 floors above street level, is a vast open space originally designed as a Masonic meeting hall. It's the future home of Teatro ZinZanni, a Seattle-based circus and dinner cabaret set to open in April. (Jason Marck/WBEZ)

"Suddenly, this one appeared out of nowhere," he said of the 14th-to-17th-story space at the Oriental. Chicago Magazine recently ran a story on the history and rediscovery of the space (LINK BELOW). What's astonishing is that a lecture hall designed to hold 1,900 people, right on Randolph Street, was essentially forgotten for decades. As configured for Teatro ZinZanni, it will hold 330 people, a complete restaurant kitchen and performance spac-es.

All this change in one show-biz building has a charming historical prece-dent: The Oriental Theatre is where Judy Garland was encouraged to change her name from Frances Gumm. In the summer of 1934, the trio called theme Gumm Sisters, including 12-year-old Frances "Baby" Gumm, per-formed at the Oriental Theatre, where the host of the revue, George Jessel, joked about the name Glumm sounding too glum for their act.

The next week, they were performing at the Uptown Theatre, now called the Garland Sisters. Stories about where that name originated vary.

Dennis Rodkin is a real estate reporter for Crain's Chicago Business and Morning Shift's "What's That Building?" contributor.

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