Downtown Chicago Theater Walking Tour
Starting at the iconic Chicago Theater, this tour explores both the former and current theaters in downtown Chicago that are south of the river.
The Chicago Theatre is one of the city’s most iconic landmarks and provides the “unofficial” emblem of the city. Designed by Rapp and Rapp in their famous Neo-Baroque French Revival style, the theatre served as the flagship for the Balaban and Katz theatre group. The famous marquee is one of the most famous and recognized in the world. Meticulously designed with every emphasis placed on luxury, for the next 40 years, the Chicago Theatre served as the premier entertainment venue for the city. As with most historic theatres, the rise of duplex theatres during the 1970s and 1980s resulted in the decline of the Chicago Theatre. In the mid-80s, the Chicago Theatre Restoration Associates purchased and commenced a multi-million dollar renovation on the building, reopening the venue on September 10, 1986. The Chicago Theatre was added to the National Register of Historic Places on June 6, 1979 and designated as a Chicago Landmark on January 28, 1983.
The Iroquois Theatre opened at this location on November 27, 1903. Less than one month later, the theater was the site of the most fatal single-building fire in United States history. During a matinee performance on December 30, 1903, a spark from a stage light started a fire that spread quickly throughout the structure. In the resulting inferno, over 600 people perished, mostly women and children who had been enjoying a holiday break. The staggering loss of life was largely blamed on fire code violations such as locked exits, hidden exit signs, and no fire alarm or sprinkler system. The Iroquois Theatre fire was a nation-wide wake-up call to the importance of fire safety. The Iroquois Theatre fire resulted in new regulations and inventions such as “panic bar” doors that exist today to prevent a similar tragedy. The Iroquois Theatre was replaced by the Oriental Theatre in 1926 which now operates as the Nederlander Theater.
The James M. Nederlander Theatre originally opened as the Oriental Theatre in 1926. Owned by Balaban and Katz, the theatre was one of Chicago’s grand movie palaces of the Roaring ‘20s. It was designed by Rapp and Rapp, an architectural firm known for outlandish, almost gaudy designs; the interior was inspired by an East Asian theme, with mosaics, exotic animals, and golden figures. The Oriental Theatre showed movies and hosted live performances until it closed in 1981. The building remained largely vacant for several years, finally undergoing an extensive renovation project in the mid-1990s. The theatre reopened in 1998 as the Ford Center for Performing Arts. In 2019, it was renamed the James M. Nederlander Theatre.
The Oliver Building enjoys its own historical distinction as the home to the Oliver Typewriter Company, which profoundly transformed the typewriting industry. However, in 1997, The Oriental Theater (now known as the James M. Nederlander Theatre) gutted the Oliver Building and connected the its theater to it for the purposes of using it as its backstage area. The only remaining feature of the Oliver Building is its front facade, which still displays the Oliver Typewriter Company name.
The Goodman Theater operates as Chicago's oldest not for profit theater company. Since 2000, its home has been located within the heart of Chicago's theater district. However, its history dates back to 1922 when it opened in the back of the Art Institute. The history of the theater involves a mix of professional, student, or combined student and professional productions. The Goodman won a Regional Theatre Tony Award in 1992, one of five Chicago-based companies to win the award, giving Chicago the most Tony awards for the Regional Theatre category. The current DePaul University School of Drama owes its history to the Goodman School created in 1922, which served as an integral part of the Goodman until the 1970s and still enjoys a connection.
The Cadillac Palace Theatre is a testament to the elegance and grandeur of old theaters and movie palaces. The interior, which was inspired by the Palaces of Versailles and Fontainebleau, is filled with red carpeting, gilded walls, and six glittering chandeliers. The theatre first opened its doors in in 1926 as the home theater for a vaudeville group called the Orpheum Circuit. However, by the 1930s, vaudeville fell out of fashion and the theater transformed itself into a movie palace, then back into a performance stage by the 1950s, and serving as a concert venue and banquet hall during the 1970s. The Cadillac Palace Theatre was restored in 1999 and continues to offer Broadway style theatrical performances.
The Civic Opera House, also referred to as the Lyric Opera House, opened fully in November of 1929. The structure includes a main tower and two wings; a forty-five-story office tower connected to twenty-two story wings on both sides. The building includes the 3,563-seat, Ardis Krainik auditorium, which is the second-largest opera space in North America behind the Metropolitan Opera House. The hall operates as the permanent home of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
The CIBC Theatre opened in 1906 under the name Majestic Theatre as Chicago's first $1 million venue and home to legendary vaudeville acts. The CIBC currently seats 1,800 and routinely presents Broadway shows, notably since a substantial renovation in 2006; its most recent claim to fame involves producing the smash hit, "Hamilton." The Majestic name comes from the twenty-one floor skyscraper for which it resides. When the building opened in 1905, it stood as the city's tallest building. Today, the CIBC and the Hampton Inn Majestic Hotel occupy the tower. Over the years, the theater has operated under several names such as the PrivateBank Theatre, Bank of America Theatre, LaSalle Bank Theatre, and, from 1945 - 2005, the Sam Shubert Theatre.