In the latest installment in our series What’s That Building? Dennis Rodkin of Crain’s Chicago Business gives us the backstory on the iconic Chicago Theatre, with its elaborate marquee and 76-foot-tall vertical “Chicago” sign.
The theater was built in 1921 by the Balaban and Katz company, and was one of the nation’s largest movie palaces at the time. It was eventually transformed into a performance theater that’s hosted musical acts, comedians, plays and musicals.
Here are some things you might not have known about the iconic theatre:
The marquee is 76 feet tall. It’s also not the original marquee. It’s a reproduction of the 1949 marquee, which replaced the original 1920 marquee. The second “original” is on display at the Smithsonian Institution.It was one of the first movie theatres to have air conditioning. The Balaban and Katz Company started out in 1917 with the Central Park Theater on Roosevelt Road in North Lawndale. That 1,800-seat theater was the nation’s first to have air conditioning. It became such a hit that, with financial backers — including Julius Rosenwald, the head of Sears; John Hertz, who started both Yellow Cab and the Hertz car rental company’ and William Wrigley, Jr., the gum king — they built a theatre empire that stretched out over 100 theaters in the Midwest.
The Chicago Theatre cost about $4 million to build in 1921. That’s the equivalent of up to about $97 million today.
It was a candidate for demolition in the early 1980s, when the North Loop was being revitalized. It closed in 1985, but re-opened in 1986 after new owners, Chicago Theater Restoration Associates, did a $4.3 million restoration that removed all aesthetic changes that mostly had been made in the 1950s.
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