The Auditorium Theatre, Chicago Landmark, Celebrates 130 Years

Lisa Fielding
December 04, 2019 - 2:50 pm
Auditorium Theatre

(Lisa Fielding)

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CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- Built in 1889, The Auditorium Theatre was the city's marquis structure after the Great Chicago Fire. At the time, it was the largest building in the country with all the modern luxuries.

"It was the first building with modern electricity, with carbon filament light bulbs and it was the first building to be air conditioned," said Rich Regan, CEO of the Auditorium Theatre. "They did that with 15 tons of ice that they blew fans over to cool the air."

On Dec. 9, the historical landmark will celebrate 130 years.

"This is an amazing milestone that this theater has been here for 130 years operating in various states of the years." he said.

The theatre, which lives inside Roosevelt University, helped establish Chicago as an international city following the Great Chicago Fire, and opening night at the theater brought prominent figures such as President Benjamin Harrison, Vice President Levi Morton and many others to the city to witness the architectural innovation of Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan.

"We're standing in a spot right now that was a lake 145 years ago. This was such a significant building at the time. it was really designed and built by a dream team, a dream team of American architects," Regan said. "When you talk about American architecture, this building embodies American architecture."

Rich Regan, CEO of the Auditorium Theatre
Rich Regan, CEO of the Auditorium Theatre. (Lisa Fielding/WBBM)

'The First for the Arts in the City'

The Auditorium Theatre played a critical role in Chicago being named host for 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.

"This building was really the first for the arts in the city. We talk about the Daniel Burnham city plan. The epicenter of that plan was Buckingham Fountain. We are just a stones throw from Buckingham Fountain. Those who determined the location of the World's Fair, they said, 'Wow, Chicago can build a building as prominent and beautiful as the Auditorium building, they'll be able to handle the Columbian Exposition, no problem.'"

The six story, 3900-seat venue first opened as home to the symphony and the opera but then fell on hard time in the 1040s.

Auditorium Theatre
The Auditorium celebrates 130 years as a pioneering art space that was a home to many prominent artists and musicals. (Lisa Fielding/WBBM)

The theater went bankrupt and closed in 1941. The following year, the Auditorium was taken over by the City of Chicago to be used as a World War II servicemen's center. In 1946, Roosevelt University saved the venue.

On Oct. 31, 1967, it reopened with a gala performance of the New York City Ballet's production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and soon became the house of rock.

Regan said it became the most significant rock house in the Midwest, if not the world, at that time.

"Jimi Hendrix played here, The Who, Elton John, Prince, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young," Regan said. "This was the first building that Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young performed in and they did a show here with an opening act with a woman by the name of Joni Mitchell. This was her warm-up set and they'd go on to perform the next day at Woodstock."

Old Program
Old programs from the Auditorium represent its breadth and history of shows. (Lisa Fielding/WBBM)

He said in the '80s, some of the biggest musicals in the world were launched here, such as Les Mis, Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon. And the Joffery Ballet made the theater its home in 1998. In 2015 and 2016, it hosted the NFL Draft.

"We're in the midst of the Joffery Ballet's Nutcracker and a full schedule of other presentations and performances this year and next, but while we're doing that, we slip in restoration work throughout because it's so important to keep this building alive and vibrant," he said.

Lightbulb
(Lisa Fielding/WBBM)

How do you celebrate 130 years?

To celebrate its birthday, the venue is opening its doors to the public all day on Dec. 9 for free tours and an open house starting at 4 p.m. Although it's free, registration is encouraged. 

"We're having a toast at 6 o'clock and some quick speeches. We have self guided tours and sketching space," Regan said. "We give tours to architecture students all the time. (There is a) lot of history here; we encourage everyone to come and see it."