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Historic Theatres & Movie Palaces of Balaban and Katz

The Oriental Theatre — A Brief History

Historic Theatres of Balaban and Katz: Oriental Theatre

Randolph Street with the Oriental Theatre at right, circa 1950s. Image courtesy Chuckman’s Collection.

Built the year following the grand opening of the Uptown Theatre, Balaban and Katz opened the Oriental Theatre at 24-28 Randolph Street in the Loop. It was built on the site of the former Iroquois Theater, which had suffered a tragic fire in 1906, claiming 602 lives. The exterior of the Iroquois was mostly intact, however, and the theatre was later reopened as the Colonial. The Colonial was torn down to make room for the Oriental.

Although it did not have as many seats at the Uptown, it is still one of the largest theatres in Chicago. It was the first theatre Balaban and Katz had built in the Loop since the opening of the Chicago Theatre in 1921. It was designed by Rapp and Rapp, the same architectural firm that created the Uptown and Chicago theatres. Its over-the-top Asian-influenced decor has never been matched.

Historic Theatres of Balaban and Katz: Oriental Theatre

Oriental Theatre circa 1920s. Image courtesy Chuckman’s Collection.

As with many Loop theatres, the Oriental struggled to survive throughout the seventies. People no longer considered the downtown area a premiere entertainment destination. In an effort to preserve the theatre for future generations, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Eventually, the Oriental was forced to close in 1981. An electronics store opened in the lobby and operated for many years, but the auditorium was not used.

In 1996, after being closed for 15 years, the Oriental was restored to its original appearance and reopened in 1998 as the Ford Center for the Performing Arts Oriental Theatre with the Chicago premiere of Ragtime. Conrad Schmitt Studios worked with architect Daniel P. Coffey and associates and consultant Roger Morgan and Associates to outline the restoration process. Schmitt Studios used an estimated 4,000 gallons of paint, 12,500 square feet of gold leaf, and an astounding 62,500 square feet of aluminum leaf to complete the project. The Oriental was acquired in 1999 by SFX Theatrical Group, which launched its presentation of Fosse.

Today, the theatre is owned by Broadway in Chicago, a joint venture of Clear Channel Entertainment (formerly SFX) and the Nederlander Organization. The Oriental is currently hosting Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz.

Additional Images of the Oriental Theatre:

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