Kalamazoo Gazette (Michigan)
Sunday February 13, 2011
1 AND 2 AND 3 AND 4 EDITIONS
TRAVEL; Pg. C5
Chicago’s picture palaces: Majestic shrines steal show
By GAZETTE NEWS SERVICE, — Randy Mink freelance writer in the Chicago area.
Some of us are old enough to remember when entering a movie theater — striding across the grand mirrored lobby and bounding up the marble staircases — was a magic carpet ride into a world of enchantment, alone worth the price of admission.
With their crystal chandeliers, plush decor, murals, statuary, gold-leaf plasterwork and “mighty Wurlitzer” pipe organs, these monumental edifices transported us to another place and time.
The sumptuous auditoriums of yesteryear, many of them fashioned after European or Asian palaces, were as escapist as the motion pictures shown on their big silver screens. Though critics considered these temples of modern culture garish and extravagant, theater architects reveled in the artistic freedom.
Sadly, many of the palatial downtown movie houses from Hollywood’s heyday in the 1920s and ’30s have been razed to make way for parking lots and office buildings. But some have survived and been turned into performing arts centers.
Take the tour
I recently took the weekly Historic Theatre Tour offered by Broadway in Chicago. The 75-minute walking tour of two Loop theaters ($10) is offered every Saturday at 11 a.m., but it can be arranged for a group at any time. The theaters visited — the Oriental and Cadillac Palace — are down Randolph Street from each other. Sometimes the Bank of America Theatre (formerly the Shubert and LaSalle Bank theaters) is substituted, and it’s three blocks from the other two.
On my tour of the Oriental and Cadillac Palace, our guide pointed out architectural flourishes, shared staging and seating secrets and regaled us with celebrity lore. We were not taken on or behind the stage.
The Oriental Theatre, officially the Ford Center for the Performing Arts since its 1998 renovation funded by Ford Motor Co., opened in 1926 as a movie house operated by the Balaban & Katz chain. Decorated in Asian motifs — with lantern-like chandeliers, stained glass, lotus blossoms intricately carved figures of goddesses, slaves and Buddha — the cavernous space was designed by George and Cornelius Rapp, who built other grand movie theaters. Most of the walls and ceilings are covered in gold-painted reliefs.
The theater was built for 3,300 people and boasted an average daily attendance of 7,800. During a program that would last two or three hours, patrons would see cartoons, a newsreel, movie shorts, a song and dance revue and a feature film.
In summer, many found the the venues a cool refuge, as movie theaters were among the first public places to offer air conditioning.
Our guide, Richard, noted that the columns and walls resembling antique marble were done in scagliola, a plasterwork technique using pigmented gypsum. Some of the lighting fixtures are original, but others were added in the $28 million renovation.
The Cadillac Palace Theatre, born as the New Palace Theatre in 1926, also was a movie house for many years but started as a vaudeville venue, attracting such stars as Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante, Mae West and Jack Benny. It, too, was designed by the Rapp Brothers. But instead of Asian splendor, they went for a lavish French Renaissance and Baroque look, taking features from the palaces of Versailles and Fontainebleau. The marble here, imported from Italy, is real.
In the late 1950s, the Palace was the only theater in the Midwest set up for Cinerama (like the IMAX of its day). In the 1970s, the theater (known as the Bismarck) was used for banquets and conferences and became a concert venue in 1984. (The attached Bismarck Hotel is now the Hotel Allegro.)
After a $30 million makeover, the grand auditorium reopened in 1999 with the world premiere of Elton John’s and Tim Rice’s “Aida.”