The Uptown - Waiting in the Wings
By: S. A. Remis
It was noon on Tuesday, August 18, 1925, when the first anxious moviegoers entered the Uptown Theatre under a marquee that read: “ONE OF THE GREAT ART BUILDINGS OF THE WORLD - AN ACRE OF SEATS.” By two o’clock, 60 policemen were called to duty to handle the crowd of 12,000 waiting for the second show at the largest theater in the nation.
“The Uptown Theatre,” its owners Balaban & Katz enthused in their special magazine, “is beyond human dreams of loveliness… Entering it you pass into another world. The streets, the clangor of iron on cement, the harsh outlines of the steel thickets we call the city, all disappear. Your spirit rises and soars along the climbing pillars that ascend six stories to the dome ceiling of the colossal lobby. It becomes gay and light under the spell of the warm coloring that plays across heavily carved and ornamented walls… The Uptown Theatre is like a castle in Old Spain upon which countless artists and sculptors have lavished their talents… In all the house, stand where you will, your eye can rest on nothing but beauty.”
Balaban & Katz did not lie - the theater WAS a “palace of enchantment,” built as another link in the B&K world-famous chain of houses that included the Tivoli, the Riviera and the Chicago. Unlike the others, the Uptown was Spanish Renaissance in design. Its inventory of furniture, paintings, sculpture and artifacts read like a museum catalog.
It was erected at Broadway, Lawrence and Magnolia Avenues at a cost of over $4,000,000, covering a city block of land where an old beer garden once stood. It was built in an L-shape, with the grande lobby fronting 60 feet on Broadway. An amazing amount of heraldry was used in the decor.
The pinnacled towers of the terra cotta entrance rose 104 feet, the equal of an eight-story building. The main auditorium was 213 feet in length and 170 feet wide with a 92-foot ceiling. The main floor, mezzanine and balcony accommodated nearly 4,400 seats. Each seat was scientifically located to place its holder in perfect eye-and-ear shot of all activity on stage, screen or orchestra platform.
All light on the auditorium ceiling was from coves and hidden grilles and was controlled by an immense dimmer-board backstage. The dimmer-board permitted the mixing of colors to any degree or in any hue anywhere in the entire house. Approximately 17,000 electric light bulbs were used in the theater.
The largest and most modern “freezing and air-washing” plant in the world (at that time) was located deep under the theater. Engines changed the air in the theater every two minutes. According to Balaban & Katz’s magazine, physicians all over Chicago used to send convalescents to B&K houses “for the beneficial effects of the dry pure air that pervades the interiors as on mountain tops.”
The orchestra pit held 60 musicians and was on a huge elevator platform which permitted the entire host of musicians to be raised or lowered as the program demanded. The Uptown also claimed the most expensive Wurlitzer grande organ built at the time. 10,000 pipes strong, the organ was capable of reproducing a symphony orchestra, a military band, a jazz band, a cathedral organ, a choir of female and male voices and, per Balaban & Katz, “effects of the sublimest beauty or most humorous imitation of the animal kingdom.”
A $65,000 radio broadcasting room was situated backstage. It was connected with Station WEBH at the Edgewater Beach Hotel, over whose control Uptown Theatre programs went out to the world.
The Uptown was once one of 136 movie theaters having 2,800 seats or more across the nation, according to Joseph Duci Bella of the Theatre Historical Society.
The lavish “palaces” were also more than just places one went to see a film. Usually, for one admission price, people could see eight vaudeville shows, two short features, a cartoon, a main feature and a newsreel. Three separate orchestras, including the Edgewater Beach Hotel Oriole Orchestra, took part in the Uptown’s inaugural program in August of 1925. Besides all that, the sumptuous theaters functioned like “secular cathedrals” - walking around inside was entertainment in itself.
In a Chicago Tribune article, William McLenahan, director of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, stated: “The Uptown Theatre is a premier example of the movie palace, a unique American architectural type in which the fantasy experience of watching a moving picture was augmented by seeing it in a fantasy environment.”
Stage shows were featured weekly at the Uptown well into the late ’30s, whereas most other palaces were used this extensively only in the late ’20s. A full scale revival of this policy was attempted for the winter 1949-50 season. But, in the 1950s and 1960s, attendance at movie palaces waned as the popularity of television grew.
True, Standard Oil of New Jersey held many stockholder meetings in the Uptown until the early ’60s and the popular television program, “Queen for a Day,” visited annually until 1963 and was televised across the U.S.A. But the Uptown’s death knell had been sounded. By 1981, after a short stint as a Spanish-language cinema, the Uptown was closed. The years had not been kind. There was talk of turning it into a flea market and, worse, talk of tearing it down.
The theater was built to last a very long time. Balaban & Katz demanded that one-third more steel be put into their buildings than was necessary. They wanted to be doubly sure their theaters would be monuments for future generations of Chicagoans to look at and revel in. And, if theater restorationist L. Curt Mangel has his way, the Uptown, currently owned by the infamous Lou Wolf and Ken Goldberg, will survive as intended.
Though the Uptown is now unused and boarded up, for the last eight years Mangel has been patiently “waiting in the wings” for the right deal to surface so he could begin work in earnest. He estimates the first-rate restoration would take a year and cost anywhere between $8 million and $15 million.
While waiting for appropriate financing to be worked out, Curt hasn’t exactly been twiddling his thumbs. An initial deal was struck with the owners which has allowed some work to he done. Mangel and his Uptown Productions associates drained the flooded basement and installed a new roof over the 46,000 square foot main floor three years ago to prevent further interior damage.
Experts lovingly cleaned chandeliers and floor-to-ceiling “test patches” on terra cotta, Travertine marble columns, brass rails and aluminum leaf surfaces that reveal the extraordinary beauty hidden beneath decades of grime. A concert organ with a pedigree from New York State was secured for the lobby.
The plan is to renovate the structure as a cornerstone of an entertainment district that would attract top-flight acts and theatergoers from city and suburbs. The Riviera Theater, Green Mill Lounge and Aragon Ballroom are all within a block of the Uptown.
Ald. Mary Ann Smith (48th) views the Uptown as an important key to the restoration of the neighborhood’s commercial strip and was a strong supporter of obtaining landmark status for the building. That status, which protects the Uptown from being torn down or used for a non-theater purpose, was secured in September, 1991. The plan has the complete backing of Mayor Daley, although major issues such as parking have yet to be worked out.
Despite the theater’s present condition, people have already contacted Mr. Mangel, wanting to use it. The Edgewater Historical Society was elated at the opportunity to host a tour of the Uptown in June of 1991. We wish to again thank Curt for directing more than 100 people through the massive space while discussing the building’s history and uses. Visitors were more than just pleased to see the beginning of restoration as well as locations where scenes in recent movies such as “Backdraft” were filmed.
Between tours, guests were treated to piano music by Gerald Rizzer of The Chicago Ensemble and a tempting buffet of food from Uptown and Edgewater restaurants including Le Bistro, the Mekong, Ha Mien, Nhu Hoa, Wing Hoe, Ann Sather and Wikstrom. Flowers by Anna Held Florist and wines from Foremost Liquors added a touch of elegance. All above services and items were generously donated to EHS by the benefactors mentioned.
Once reopened, the Uptown would regain its stature as the largest theater in the nation in terms of square feet and would rank second, after Radio City Music Hall in New York City, in number of seats.
Architects and brothers C.W. and George L. Rapp, who designed the Balaban & Katz theaters, were especially proud of the Uptown, the largest commission of their career. In 1925, C.W. Rapp wrote that the Uptown was built “Not for TODAY - but for ALL TIME.”
Today, Curt Mangel waits in the wings. We sincerely hope it will not be a long wait. Only time will tell.