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The Uptown Theatre is one of the top five largest movie palaces still in existence in the US.[1] The theatre is remarkable for both its size and its ornately decorated interior. Covering over 46,000 square feet, it could originally seat 4,320 patrons.[2] The Chicago Daily News dubbed the theatre “an acre of seats in a magic city”, a catchphrase that ended up on the marquee.[3] It opened for its first show on August 17, 1925.

  • The Uptown Theatre
  • Uptown Theatre on opening day, 1925
  • The grand lobby
  • The auditorium
  • The Uptown Theatre today. Notice that the towers have been removed for safety and preservation.

The Uptown Theatre was a project that combined the talents of two of Chicago’s most well-known companies associated with the movie industry: the successful theatre management corporation Balaban & Katz and the prestigious architectural firm Rapp & Rapp. Balaban & Katz owned dozens of Chicago’s most popular movie palaces, and they frequently hired Rapp & Rapp for their opulent designs. Rapp & Rapp used a unique blend of Tudor, Spanish, and Norman architectural styles in their layout of the Uptown Theatre.[4]

Three towers loomed over eight stories high over the main entrance.[5] Balaban & Katz were unable to buy out the buildings on either side of the building, and so the theatre was constructed in an L-shape, with the main lobby running perpendicular to the auditorium.[6] Inside, passing through the ticket lobby, visitors would enter the magnificent main lobby. The grand lobby had six columns and a frescoed ceiling. Granite floors and marble floors led from the grand lobby to a double-curved stairway. The main auditorium’s had a 92-foot ceiling and covered an area of over 36,000 square feet.[7] The auditorium featured wider aisles and more seated legroom than other theatres of the era.[8] In order to accommodate the sheer number of visitors exiting and entering between showings, Rapp & Rapp designed a side wing of exit lobbies. In total, the Uptown had eight lobbies.[9]

The Uptown Theatre is a grand example of the excessive and frivolous spending of the Roaring 1920s. No expense was spared in furnishing the luxurious theatre. Balaban & Katz spent $30,000 on three chandeliers, $65,000 on drapes and the main stage curtain, and over $50,000 on seating.[10] The theatre featured the world’s largest and most technologically-advanced systems for both air-conditioning and for stage lighting.[11] The total construction cost came to about $4 million at the time[12] (or $59 million adjusted for inflation in 2020).

When the theatre opened at noon on August 17, 1925, a crowd of 12,000 showed up and police had to be called in to maintain order.[13] The first cinematic showing was The Lady Who Lied, featuring silent film stars Nita Naldi and Lewis Stone.[14] The film was accompanied by an orchestra and a massive Wurlitzer organ, the most expensive in the world.[15] Tickets would cost 75 cents for Saturday night performances and 25 cents for other shows.[16]

The Uptown Theatre struggled to maintain large crowds, even in the first few decades after its construction. Attendance at shows declined with the rise of television in the 1950s and 1960s. The theatre hosted live rock performances through the 1970s, but concert attendees experienced a venue with crumbling plaster, no heat, and barely functioning bathrooms.[17] The theatre finally closed after its last concert on December 19, 1981.[18]

The theatre remained shuttered for decades. In 1986, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Multiple attempts have been made to gain funding to fix years of water and animal damage as well as vandalism. An estimated $75 million is needed to restore the theatre to its former glory. In 2018, a property incentive was approved for the theatre, and the project was taken on by property owner Jam Productions along with developer partner Farpoint Development.[19] Fundraising efforts were still ongoing as of early 2020.[20]

[1] Lampert, Donald K. and Leonard D. Williams. “Balaban & Katz Uptown Theatre.” National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination Form (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, prepared May 16, 1986), 2. Accessed April 4, 2020.  

[2] DuciBella, Joseph R. and James A. Pierce. “Uptown Theatre: History of the Unknown.” Oct. 15, 2008. Accessed April 2, 2020. For the number of seats, see Balaban, David. The Chicago Movie Palaces of Balaban and Katz. (Mount Pleasant, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2006), 74. Accessed April 4, 2020.

[3] Schiecke, Konrad. Historic Movie Theatres in Illinois, 1883-1960. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc, 2015), 182. Accessed April 4, 2020.

[4] Lampert and Williams, “Balaban & Katz Uptown Theatre”, 3.

[5] Schiecke, Historic Movie Theatres, 183.

[6] Balaban, Chicago Movie Palaces, 74.

[7] Remis, S. A. “The Uptown - Waiting in the Wings.” The Edgewater Scrapbook: Newsletter of the Edgewater Historical Society, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Spring/Summer 1993), 2. Accessed April 4, 2020.

[8] Lampert and Williams, “Balaban & Katz Uptown Theatre”, 3.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid. See also, Schiecke, Historic Movie Theatres, 183.

[12] Lampert and Williams, “Balaban & Katz Uptown Theatre”, 3.

[13] Remis, “The Uptown”, 1.

[14] Schiecke, Historic Movie Theatres, 182.

[15] Remis, “The Uptown”, 3.

[16] Lampert and Williams, “Balaban & Katz Uptown Theatre”, 4.

[17] Caro, Mark. “Uptown Theatre: Polishing an old jewel.” Chicago Tribune. October 11, 2011. Accessed April 4, 2020.

[18] Jones, Chris. “Uptown Theatre's $75 million restoration will begin next summer.” Chicago Tribune. November 13, 2018. Accessed April 4, 2020.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Rugani, Lou. “Uptown Theatre: Recent Comments.” Cinema Treasures, LLC Website. February 8, 2020. Accessed April 4, 2020.

Image Sources(Click to expand)

Chicago Tribune:

Chicago Tribune:

Eric Holubow:

Eric Holubow:

Steve Minor: