By Adam Prestigiacomo
News last month regarding plans to restore the Uptown Theatre came as a welcome surprise to Chicagoans and cinema lovers nationwide. It was hailed by theater enthusiasts as the crown jewel of the former Balaban & Katz theater chain. Until it was closed in 1981, the Uptown Theatre entranced the moviegoers who came through its doors because of its opulent decor and sheer size.
As was the case with many other movie palaces that once graced the city streets throughout Chicago, the Uptown Theatre fell victim to changing owners, failing ticket sales, and general neglect. These factors and the difficulty in securing financial support led many to believe the theater and those like it were to live their remaining years in crumbling obscurity or be doomed to demolition.
And yet, despite these obstacles and the passage of time, palaces like the Uptown Theatre have remained close to the hearts of loyal theater patrons, historians, and cinema lovers alike. More so than any other city in the country, Chicago was a critical player in the founding of the United States film industry, making the theaters left standing all the more significant. The early decline of Chicago film studios and movie palaces has largely erased this history from the public consciousness.
The Film Pioneers of Chicago
The early days of the film industry are unsurprisingly as melodramatic as today. The initial novelty of Edison’s early single viewer “peephole” kinetoscope, developed by his employee William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, was quickly improved by more innovative inventors. By 1894 film projectors like the Lumière Cinématographe or the phantoscope invented by Walter Jenkins allowed large audiences to view a film projected onto a screen. Jenkins, thought to have staged the first public film screening in a field in Richmond, Indiana, in 1894, unfortunately fell in with fellow inventor Thomas Armat to improve the phantoscope design. After breaking their partnership, Armat sold the new design of Jenkin’s projector, the vitascope, to the Edison Company. It was then streamlined and distributed and the movie theater was born.
It was around this time that magician and vaudeville theatrical troupe manager, William Selig, began making and exhibiting a series of shorts, industrial films and travelogues for small storefront theaters called nickelodeons under the Selig Polyscope Company out of Chicago. Selig’s was one of the first motion picture studios in the country. His decision to start his own company came around 1894, when visiting an exhibition in Dallas, he came across the kinetoscope and decided to find a way to profit from the idea without having to pay Edison a patent fee.
As luck would have it, Selig was able to create and market his own film camera technology after meeting a metalworker who had repaired the Lumière brothers’ film cameras, furthering the muddled and underhanded origins of early film technology as it grew more profitable. The production facility was located at Irving Park Road and Western Avenue, covering three acres of land and employing well over 200 people at its peak.
The Selig Polyscope Company, however, wasn’t the only studio in Chicago for very long. Soon came the American Vitagraph Company in 1896 and in 1907, inventor George Spoor and his business partner Gilbert “Bronco Billy” Anderson, an actor best known for his western films, partnered to open Peerless Film Manufacturing Studios, soon changed to Essanay. The company was originally situated at what is today 1300 N. Wells. Their first film starred the building’s janitor on roller skates and was an extremely profitable success. Within a year the studio was prosperous enough to move into its larger, permanent home at 1345 W. Argyle, and became the largest and most prolific studio in the United States.
Essanay and its subsidiary studios around Chicagoland produced nearly 1400 films in its 10-year history, most famously 14 short comedies by breakout British star Charlie Chaplin in 1915 and the very first screen appearance of Sherlock Holmes in 1916, adapted and played by William Gillette. This was based on Gillette’s already popularized stage play, produced with the blessing of author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This film was thought to be lost for decades until a print was discovered in France in 2014. It has now been screened in the very room where it was shot at 1345 W. Argyle.
In a shocking turn of events, Chaplin left Chicago after a year due to its unpredictable weather. He made his way out to the burgeoning studios in California and was followed by Spoor and Anderson for the same reason when the Chicago studio closed in 1920.
Chicago’s Film Industry Expands
With Chicago-based studios like Essanay and the Selig Polyscope Company gaining traction and distributing films nationwide, the city soon became the home of the film exchange, or film rental house. These “houses” gave exhibitors the opportunity to rent films for use in their theaters, allowing businesses to change films more frequently. By 1907, Chicago had more than 15 film exchanges, which in effect controlled roughly 80 percent of the film distribution market for the entire United States.
At the time of this dominance over the market, Chicago was also the home of the largest theater chain, Balaban & Katz. In business from 1919 to 1952, Balaban & Katz built increasingly elaborate “movie palaces” in which theater patrons were able to watch films on massive screens with thousands of seats available, cementing the transition of film from sideshow novelty to mainstream entertainment. While in business, Balaban & Katz built around two dozen of their majestic movie palaces across Chicago, and later throughout the Midwest.
Movie Palaces Reign Supreme
Movie palaces soon dominated the entertainment industry. Films were easily replicated and distributed, and even the opulent theaters were affordable and thus accessible to low income Americans. Balaban & Katz employed a number of methods to ensure their theaters were the most popular. First and foremost was the grand and gilded interior architecture, based on the grand opera halls of Europe. On the exterior of most palaces were story-long vertical signs lighted so brightly that Chicagoans couldn’t help but turn their attention towards the theater. The buildings themselves were equally alluring thanks to their striking and exotic architecture, employing Spanish, Italian and French-inspired facades.
Inside, troops of ushers uniformed in red velvet coats and white gloves stood ready to help guide patrons from the lobby into the main theater, where a number of concessions and entertainment venues were showcased, including performances by live orchestras, organists, and of course the newest feature-films and shorts.
The palaces in Chicago were legendary and eventually their look and atmosphere were imitated by other businesses throughout the country, though rarely as opulently as Chicago’s. The sensation of sitting in these historic palaces in the city that gave the American film industry its start is a feeling that only Chicagoans can know. When they were constructed, they were meant to remain iconic for generations to come, but this unfortunately was not the case.
The Decline and Redemption
Eventually, as the California studios grew and flourished, many studios made the same shocking decision as Chaplin. Producers and their talent moved their studios to the sunny west coast, away from Chicago’s harsh winters and unpredictable weather patterns. Movie palaces followed suit as industry in the city slowed.
By the mid to late 20th century, the great movie palaces that once graced the city streets and acted as focal points of their neighborhoods began to disappear one by one.
The Montclare Theatre on the far northwest side, a high-end destination of its time, spent its final years in complete disrepair, becoming a popular spot for squatters, gangs and vandals. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the once beloved theater was torn down and the lot converted to storefronts and residential properties, a common fate for once thriving and beautiful structures. Just to name a few, the Drury Lane Theatre in Lakeview, the Granada and Adelphi Theatres in Rogers Park, the Brighton of Brighton Park, the Terminal Theatre in Albany Park, the Shore, the Hamilton and the Jeffrey Theatres in South Shore and Beverly, and the Englewood are gone without a trace.
Many others have been gutted and refurbished to varying degrees, such as the Calo in Andersonville, now home to The Brown Elephant resale shop, or the the Admiral in Albany Park, infamously converted to an adult entertainment venue. Walking through most Chicago neighborhoods, those who know to look will see former palace facades now converted to commercial storefronts.
Fortunately and improbably, some of these beautiful movie palaces of the roaring ‘20s have managed to survive. The Portage Theatre and the art deco masterpiece in Park Ridge, the Pickwick Theatre, screen films for audiences daily. Broadway musicals and other live entertainment now fill the marquees and the auditoriums of the Oriental, Cadillac and Chicago theaters in the loop, in the previously illustrious Theatre District, which younger residents might not remember were neglected for decades.
Movie palaces aside, some cozy neighborhood theaters from the era remain as well. A prime example is the Music Box Theatre, an institution that continues to enthrall guests. Operating in the Lakeview neighborhood since 1929, the Music Box Theatre keeps the spirit of old movie theaters alive thanks to features like a live organist accompanying silent film screenings, a red velvet curtain rising to introduce films in the main theater, and a ceiling filled with stars, allowing audiences to watch films in a calm and atmospheric environment. Perhaps an even better means of interacting with the past would be in meeting “Whitey,” the theater’s resident friendly ghost. Thought to be the spirit of the Music Box’s former manager, moviegoers can typically find Whitey around Aisle 4.
The Balaban & Katz Chicago Theatre, the flagship of the Balaban & Katz chain, changed hands numerous times but failed to secure the necessary support for renovation. It was saved partially due to Roger Ebert’s fervent plea to save it. Now owned by the Madison Square Garden Company, the Chicago Theatre is a concert and performance venue restored to its original splendor. Only Chicagoans know and remember its true history as a cinema while many believe it was built as an opera house. It wasn’t.
While Chicago’s pioneering film industry couldn’t be sustained, it has picked up in recent years due to arts initiatives bringing television and movie projects to Chicago from Hollywood studios. The past, though gone, echoes in the standing survivors of the ‘20s and ‘30s. These palaces and neighborhood landmarks continue to be the shining beacons of their community, lighting up the streetscape, and offering escape and enchantment that begins the moment you set foot through their doors.
We hope you enjoyed this feature about Chicago’s history as a center for film production and the home of the movie palace. If you did, please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by becoming a patron. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!