Chicago: Auditorium Theatre

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Well, tonight’s intimate and ornate venue is very special indeed.

The Auditorium Theatre, or to give it its proper title, the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, is housed in an immense structure designed by the famous architectural team of Adler and Sullivan, who also designed the Chicago Stock Exchange and the Schiller/Garrick Theater Building (both of which, sadly and maddeningly, have since been demolished) and other early skyscrapers (thankfully these are still standing and rightfully recognised as Historic Landmarks), such as the Wainwright Building in downtown St. Louis, Missouri and the Guaranty Building – now known as the Prudential Building – in Buffalo, New York.

At the time of the theatre’s official opening in December 1889, the Auditorium Building was the tallest, heaviest and costliest building in Chicago and the largest modern edifice in the world. With an impressive seventeen-story tower, it boasted modern technology such as electric lighting and air conditioning (made possible thanks to a daily delivery of 15 tons of ice) and unrivalled acoustics which were the envy of many.

The resident home of the Joffrey Ballet, the landmark theatre celebrated its 125th anniversary season in 2014/15, has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1970, obtained National Historic Landmark status five years later, and can be proud of another first: in 1921, the Chicago Opera Company’s performance of Madam Butterfly was broadcast live from here – Chicago’s first live radio broadcast.

Beyond the simple and bold exterior, the theatre within this Romanesque-style, fortress-like building is lavishly decorated with marble mosaics, murals, plaster casts, stencils, gold leaf, art glass and iron casts.

‘Nature, life and music’ is the unifying theme: the six arched art glass lunettes located above the doors in the main lobby are the allegorical figures of Wisdom, Oratory, Drama, Music, Poetry and Dance; there are portraits of Wagner, Haydn, Shakespeare and Demosthenes.

On the theatre’s awe-inspiring central mural, located above the proscenium arch, it is written:

“The utterance of life is a song, the symphony of nature.”

Two large side murals – the south depicting spring, the north an autumnal scene – continue the theme.

Sadly neglected for many years, bankruptcy and closure followed in 1941. In 1942, the theatre was taken over by the City of Chicago and used during the Second World War to house, feed and entertain more than 2.2 million servicemen, its stage and front rows converted into a bowling alley.

The theatre was saved from demolition by Roosevelt University in 1946, who initially lacked the considerable funds needed to return it to its former glory. It remained unused for two decades. However, restoration work did eventually take place and the theatre reopened, looking marvellous once more, in October 1967.

Just in time, as luck would have it, for the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Doors, The Who, The Kinks and all the rest from that incredible era for rock music (just have a look at this video from the theatre’s archives to see who else graced its stage in that exciting first decade since it reopened) to bring the punters streaming in. Of course, both David and Phil Manzanera have performed here already, with Pink Floyd and Roxy Music, in 1971 and 1975 respectively.

Although the theatre’s focus is mainly on ballet and opera now, it even acts as a church on Sundays.

What a spectacular place of great beauty and serenity. If you will be enjoying the Auditorium Theatre’s mosaic marble floors and grand gilded arches tonight, not to mention the music and Marc Brickman’s lighting, how very lucky you are. Have a lovely time and, as ever, we look forward to your reactions.

And if you need a little more history of the Auditorium Building and Theatre, I recommend this documentary.