Thursday, February 26, 2015

Oriental Theatre, Chicago
 by: chicago designslinger

 [Oriental Theatre, Chicago (1926) Rapp & Rapp, architects; (1998) Renovation/Restoration: Daniel P. Coffey & Associates Ltd. architects; interior restoration, Conrad Schmitt Studios /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

In the United States the 1920s roared. The stock market, flappers, bootleg liquor, and immense movie palaces were all the rage. The partnership of film exhibitors Barney & A.J. Balaban, Sam & Morris Marx, along with architects C.W. & George L. Rapp, produced some of the most elaborate architectural wonders in the movie palace firmament during those heady times, and helped set the bar in the "over-the-top movie going experience" category.

  [Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph Street, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

The Balaban brothers were the oldest of Israel and Goldie Balaban's seven children. In 1908 the sons of the pushcart/grocery store owners rented a small 100-seat theater on Chicago's west side where many Jewish immigrants from the city's Maxwell Street neighborhood were moving to. Their Kedzie Theater was a little "classier" than similar storefront movie houses because the Balaban's included a violinist as accompaniment.

[Oriental Theatre, National Register of Historic Places, Chicago /Image & Arwtwork: chicago designslinger]

A few years later, and with the money rolling in, the boys teamed with their sister Ida's husband Sam Katz and his father Morris to create Balaban & Katz. In 1917 the team hired architect C.W. Rapp and his brother George L. to design an unheard of 2,000-seat theater for Chicago's expanding, west side Jewish enclave. The Central Park Theater was the first in a string of ever more elaborate movie theaters, and the first to offer audiences air conditioning while watching a film.

   [Oriental Theatre /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

By 1925 B&K had not only opened their spectacular Rapp & Rapp designed Chicago, Tivioli and Uptown Theatres, but had acquired a series of existing movie houses and chains. That same year the local branch of the Masons decided to move from their Randolph and State Street building to a site just down the block on Randolph. The new United Masonic Temple building included a large open span for a future theater. A deal was struck between the fraternal organization and B&K who would pay to build-out the space and pay a nice amount of rent for the privilege. Architects Rapp & Rapp designed not only the new stucture but chose the Mason's ancient Middle and Far Eastern rites as inspiration for the 3,200-seat "Oriental" theater.

   [Ford Center for the Performing Arts - Oriental Theatre /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

The Oriental would not only show films but was also built to feature the hot, popular, jazzy sounds of the Paul Ash Orchestra. A 45-minute broadcast of live music from the "auditorium of Chicago's Oriental Theatre featuring the Paul Ash Orchestra" as the announcer proclaimed each and every week, was carried across the nation by the WGN radio network. The movie palace era didn't last long. It was hard to fill 3 to 4,000-seat auditoriums, especially when people could sit at home and listen to the radio for free. Theaters were packed during the Second World War and right after, but with the advent of television, these enormous auditoriums were expensive to maintain and often had 100 people sitting in a vast sea of empty seats.
The last patrons entered the aging Oriental as 1981 came to a close. For years, an electronics store was located in the former entry lobby, with its dropped acoustical tile ceiling and missing marquee. But in 1995 when the City of Chicago began a plan to revitalize the old Randolph Street Rialto, architect Daniel Coffey approached theater and Livent owner Garth Drabinsky with a proposal to revive the Oriental as a live theatrical venue. An extensive and sensitive $32 million renovation and rehabilitation program was undertaken, and today the Ford Center for the Performing Arts and Broadway in Chicago once again packs-em-in at Balaban & Katz's dream palace.

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