A History of the Uptown Theatre

Introduction: Uptown, Chicago

A vintage view of the palacial front of the Uptown Theatre, Chicago

The Uptown Theatre shortly before its opening in 1925. Image donated by Troy Ylitalo of Period Paper; CRCC collection.

Giant movie houses and other industries furnish a gaudy glow upon the intersection of the impressive streets, Lawrence Avenue and Broadway. —Henry Justin Smith, Chicago: A Portrait, 1931.

A 20-minute train ride north from the Loop takes you to Uptown, one of Chicago’s most diverse neighborhoods. Originally settled by German and Swedish immigrant farmers, by the 1920s Uptown had become the premiere retail and entertainment center of the Windy City—rivaled only by the Downtown district. It boasted the very fashionable Loren Miller department store, the Edgewater Beach Hotel, Essanay Studios, several public beaches, and dozens of luxury apartments and hotels. Uptown was known for its cafes, vaudeville theatres, restaurants, music venues, dance halls, ballrooms, and movie houses. As one author wrote, “Here is a community complete in itself...it has every accessory of a city—delightful places in which to live, dozens of smart and utilitarian shops, great churches and strong banks, and every imaginable form of entertainment.”

The Uptown neighborhood was a place to see and be seen and attracted thousands of young single adults. A number of famous entertainers performed here early in their careers including Judy Garland (when she was still known as Frances Ethel Gumm), Hoagy Carmichael, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Ruth Etting, Gloria Swanson, the Andrew Sisters, Larry Fine of The Three Stooges, and Charlie Chaplin.

And it was in this north side neighborhood, in 1925, that the Uptown Theatre opened its doors for the first time.

The Uptown holds a special place in the history of twentieth-century architecture. It is, perhaps, the largest freestanding movie palace ever constructed. Designed by famed architects Rapp & Rapp and built by the Balaban and Katz corporation, the Uptown was the crown jewel of Chicago entertainment venues.

While some of Uptown’s historic architecture has been lost over the years, a surprising amount still stands. Three of the biggest venues remain—the Riviera Theatre, the Aragon Ballroom, and the Uptown Theatre. The Uptown is the only one not currently in use.

“(It was a time of) more and more ambitious movie palaces, their fronts streaming with flashing arches or traveling placards; their interior an awesome mixture of all the architectures; their stages set with spectacles enriched by new inventions of electricians; their orchestras playing amid color shading from sunrise golden to sunset purple and back again.”— Lloyd Lewis and Henry Justin Smith, Chicago: The History of Its Reputation, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1929

The Uptown Theatre pages that follow chronicle the history of this most amazing venue and the current preservation efforts underway to promote, save, and restore it. Although no immediate prospect has stepped up to the challenge of preserving the theatre, it is our wish to keep local residents and interested parties updated with current news and events regarding the Uptown

It is our hope that a philanthropist or an adventurous businessperson with the means and a solid business plan can one day restore this great movie palace. The Uptown neighborhood is gentrifying at a rapid rate, and other historic venues in the neighborhood are being preserved for future generations.

We hope you enjoy the following Uptown History pages. While you are here, be sure to sign the Uptown Theatre Petition to let the powers-that-be know how important it is to save our heritage.

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