A History of the Uptown Theatre

Art & Architecture of the Uptown

A vintage view of the auditorium of Chicago’s deluxe theatre, the Uptown

A vintage view of the auditorium of Chicago’s deluxe theatre, the Uptown. Image donated by Troy Ylitalo of Period Paper; CRCC collection.

Many theatre historians consider the Uptown to be the finest movie palace ever built. No expense was spared in its creation. It covers 46,000 square feet of land, making it the largest free-standing theatre in the country—bigger, even, than New York City’s Radio City Music Hall! It once employed over 130 people, including firemen, a nurse, and 34 orchestral musicians. The elaborate terra-cotta façade of the Uptown’s front entrance is 104 feet high, and the main entrance rises six stories to a domed ceiling. The grand lobby can handle a flow of 9000 people between shows. It has 4381 seats in the auditorium, making it the largest theatre venue in Chicago, exceeding the capacity of the Auditorium Theatre, the Oriental, the Arie Crown, the Civic Opera House, and the Chicago Theatre. The Uptown has a seventy-foot stage, an elevated platform for musicians, and was outfitted with a 10000-pipe Wurlitzer organ that was among the most expensive ever built. There were tea rooms, rest rooms, smoking rooms, cosmetic rooms, and even a children’s playroom. The ladies lounge had its own screen where, through the use of a series of mirrors, women could watch the movie—a perfect escape for when you needed to remove a crying baby from the auditorium! There was even a live radio broadcast room located behind the stage.

Organist Don Isham at the Uptown console

Organist Don Isham is shown at the Uptown console in 1927. Don Isham was a popular Northwest organist who also toured nationally. Image courtesy of Tom Blackwell and PSTOS.

The Uptown Theatre shared radio airwaves with the Edgewater Beach Hotel and operated under the call letters WEBH. Opulent details were everywhere—rich cloth drapes, fancy grille work, detailed murals, and magnificent imported chandeliers. Individually carved gargoyles, griffins, and nymphs dazzled the crowds. But behind all this wonderful décor were the real marvels of the Uptown. The theatre stood for all that was promising about American ingenuity and was a showplace of early twentieth-century technology. The theatre had a very sophisticated lighting system with approximately 10,000 stage lights. Its climate control was state of the art and could heat, cool, dehumidify, and even perfume the air with the adjustment of a few switches. The Balaban and Katz patron would never lack for comfort.

“Eclipsing in size, splendor and impressiveness anything that has been built in the last few years of hectic theatre construction, this new house is not only beyond doubt the most gorgeous movie palace in the world, but is so far above its neighborhood that the North Side will be years before it is worthy of it... ”— Variety Magazine, September 26th, 1925

Its gorgeous Baroque design led newsmen to call it, “a castle worthy of old Spain” and its opening night was much anticipated. Thousands of people lined up for hours under the hot August sun to be the first admitted into the theatre. Its first show—reviewed for the Chicago Tribune by none other than local poet Carl Sandburg—was The Lady Who Lied, a film starring Virginia Valli and Lewis Stone.

H. Campbell-Duncan, a reporter for the Chicago Evening Post who attended the final dress rehearsal for the opening show, beautifully sums up the grandeur of this impressive venue better than any modern historian can:

“Before settling down to enjoy the show I made the rounds of the gilded corridors, passed in and out of the gracious salons and lofty foyers, and generally gave the magnificent new shrine to the silent drama the professional once-over. At each corner and turn I encountered crimson uniformed ushers and attendants ready to give me courteous directions and information. They were everywhere and at a distance appeared like flaming hibiscus blossoms splashed against the deeper tones of rich hangings and mural decorations.

“Passing thru the main entrance on Broadway into the lofty pillared foyer was to be thrilled by the orgy of expenditure displayed on every side. Money seems to have been poured out like water to make the Uptown Theatre the last word in cinema palace gorgeousness. The architects, I am told, refer to the style of building as 'Spanish Mexican Renaissance.' I've no doubt they are right.

“Passing over an acre or so of oriental rugs with a depth of pile that gave the effect of walking upon moss, and following the sweeping curve of the grand staircase to the mezzanine floor, and so up another wide and gracious flight of broad steps thru a richly decorated hall, I found myself in one of the entrances to the vast balcony. Below me lay the spacious auditorium while on my right, climbing away up to the gilded ceiling, rose tier upon tier of seats, any one of which, I was told, assured perfect vision and hearing.”

So what is the current status of this worthy castle?

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