A History of the Uptown Theatre


The Grand Opening of the Uptown Theatre

Uptown Theatre opening day advertisment from the Chicago Herald Examiner, August 18th, 1925 (Click to enlarge.)

Uptown Theatre opening day advertisment from the Chicago Herald Examiner, August 18th, 1925. (Click to enlarge.) Image courtesy CRCC collection.

In late August of 1925 the Uptown Theatre threw open its doors to the people of Chicago under a marquee that proclaimed, “one of the great art buildings of the world—an acre of seats!” It was the crowning achievement of Balaban and Katz, the foremost theatre owners and managers of the early twentieth century. The company was headed by brothers A.J. and Barney Balaban and their brother-in-law Sam Katz. What started out as a family-owned nickelodeon business quickly grew to become one of the city’s largest and most successful entertainment companies.

In 1917 B&K built their first deluxe movie house, the Central Park (which now holds the House of Prayer, Church of God in Christ congregation) in the Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago. According to the Theatre Historical Society of America, the success of this theatre “gave rise to the beginnings of an entertainment empire which culminated in multiple movie palaces, market domination, and the successor organizations of Publix and Paramount.” The Central Park catered to Lawndale’s young, single, upwardly mobile residents and went far in dispelling the seedy element often associated with vaudeville, nickelodeons, and similar-style entertainments. The motion picture house became a venue the entire family could attend.

Following their success with the Central Park, Balaban and Katz quickly went on to acquire movie palaces owned and operated by their competitors while at the same time commissioning several new ones to be built. Between 1918 and 1921 they built the Riviera Theatre, also located in Uptown, the Tivoli, and the Chicago Theatre. But it is the Uptown Theatre for which B&K will best be remembered.

Uptown Theatre opening day advertisment (detail) from the Chicago Herald Examiner, August 18th, 1925.

Uptown Theatre opening day advertisment (detail) from the Chicago Herald Examiner, August 18th, 1925. Image courtesy CRCC collection.

The Uptown Theatre was designed by Chicago-based architects C.W. Rapp and George Rapp, a highly respected team who designed more than 400 theatres across the country and who are perhaps single-handedly responsible for popularizing the “movie palace” phenomenon. Balaban and Katz purchased a parcel of land just to the north of the intersection of Lawrence and Broadway and less than a block away from their popular Riviera Theatre. The land was part of the Green Mill Gardens, an upscale nightclub, restaurant, and beer garden. Today, the Uptown Theatre shares this same city block with the world famous Green Mill Jazz Club.


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