Esquire Theater, Chicago
by: chicago designslinger
[Esquire Theater, Chicago (1938) Pereira & Pereira, architects /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
In 1938 Harry and Elmer Balaban opened the Esquire Theater in Chicago's Gold Coast neighborhood. The 1,400-seat house with its Streamline details and elegant appointments was dubbed the city's "classiest" movie house. Unlike other theaters around town, the Esquire candy counter would only offer patrons imported sweets from Belgium and France, and not serve any popcorn. It would be the only theater in Chicago, if not the world, that would contain an art gallery within its sweeping two-story lobby, featuring local artists in a rotation of exhibits. The Esquire would also only have one movie playing on its large screen, rather than the standard double feature. It was a formula that worked successfully for the next 35 years.
[Esquire Theater, Chicago, 58 E. Oak Street, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
The Balabans were the younger brothers of Abe & Barney, two men who transformed the movie going experience in Chicago, the Midwest and beyond. Abe & Barney Balaban, along with Sam & Morris Katz, built the Central Park in 1916, the city's first movie palace, and in the next 10 years built some of the country's most spectacular movie palaces. In 1925, B&K merged with Paramount Pictures, and in 1936 Barney became the president of the studio and Abe retired. When their younger brothers decided to open their own theater in 1937, Barney told Abe to come out of retirement and give the boys a hand.
[Esquire Theater, Chicago, Near North Side, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
By the time the brothers hired architect William Pereira and his brother Hal to design their Esquire theater building, the days of the extravagantly decorated, over-the-top, 4,000-seat movie house had drawn to a close. It was a different time and elegance was defined in a much more subtle and sublime way. The late 1930s Streamline version of 1920s Art Deco fit the bill, and the Pereira brothers delivered a theater that fit the times and the Balaban's definition of refinement and culture. Soon after the theater was completed, William headed out to LA, where in a long and profitable career produced a number of iconic buildings like LA's original County Museum of Art, the and San Francisco's TransAmerica Pyramid.
[Esquire Theater, Chicago, Oak Street, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
The Balaban boys opened a few more theaters around town but none were considered in the Esquire's league. By 1956 Harry and Elmer were ready to move on to other entertainment ventures and sold their small chain to Paramount Pictures, where older brother Barney still served as president. Elmer had been buying up radio and tv stations and was looking to expand. The Balabans actually installed a "television salon" in the Esquire in 1952, offering patrons the opportunity to watch news and sporting events before seeing the featured film. Over the intervening years the theater changed owners a number of times, and in 1988 the building itself underwent a huge change. The entire interior was demolished and a 6 screen multi-plex was constructed in the space that had once housed the single 1,400-seat auditorium. The theater closed for good in 2006 after 70 years in operation, and is currently being converted into a retail mall, removing about half of the Pereira facade while preserving the vertical Esquire sign.