Friday, September 23, 2011

The Auditorium Theatre: a Tour through History

By: Lynn Y. Weiner

The opening of Chicago's Auditorium Theatre in December 1889 was a glittering affair attended by the city's elites as well as President Benjamin Harrison, the Governor of Illinois, and the Mayor of Chicago. Designed by the famed architects Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan (aided by the young draftsman Frank Lloyd Wright), the Theatre was to exemplify the best of American democracy - with an equality of sight and sound from the fanciest box seats to the most distant rows in the fourth balcony. A beautiful facility, the Auditorium was (and is) housed in a building with a massive grey granite and limestone exterior, and an interior exploding with remarkable light, art and design, including a unique proscenium expanding into a multi-arched ceiling and mosaic marble floors and walls. With seating for 4,000, at the time of its opening the Theatre housed the "most complete and costly" stage and organ in the world.

The Theatre is the heart of the Auditorium Building - the first multi-use building in the country -- that at one time also housed a 400-room hotel and floors of business offices. The construction of this building took 17 million bricks, 40,000 square feet of Italian marble, 25 miles of gas and water pipes, and 12,000 electric lights - only 10 years after the first exhibition of light bulbs by Thomas Edison.

In its long history the Theatre has hosted such arts organizations as the Chicago Symphony, Chicago Opera Company, and more recently the Joffrey Ballet. It has been the site of Presidential national conventions, world's fair events, and speakers and entertainers ranging from Booker T. Washington, John Philip Sousa, and Sarah Bernhardt, to Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, Miles Davis, and Hillary Clinton. After a period of stagnation during the depression and World War II (when a bowling alley was constructed on the theater stage, for the recreation of servicemen and women) Roosevelt University bought and restored the dilapidated and decayed Auditorium Building; the Theatre reopened in 1967 with a performance by the New York City Ballet. Since then it has hosted Broadway hits, rock concerts, and dance performances from around the world. To visit the Theater for a show is wonderful enough - but the venue is in itself a second performance and feast for the senses.

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Lynn Y. Weiner
Professor of History
Dean, College of Arts & Sciences
Roosevelt University

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