Showbiz Chicago Live At Auditorium Theatre Media Tour & Lunch

May 22, 2014, Inside the Auditorium Theatre; Walking Tour, Photo by Michael J. Roberts

Celebrating 125 years in operation we take you behind the curtain for a walking tour of the magnificent Auditorium Theatre. 

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE

In 1885, wealthy Chicago-based businessman and philanthropist Ferdinand Wythe Peck began ambitious plans for the building that would house the Auditorium Theatre. At the time, Chicago was still recovering from the 1871 Great Chicago Fire and was rife with the contentious labor/management issues that would lead to the 1886 Haymarket Square bombing. Peck was committed to building a state-of-the-art performance venue that would make high culture available to the general public, while also helping to bolster Chicago’s sullied reputation. To subsidize the cost of performances, Peck envisioned a new concept in design: a multi-use structure that would encompass the theatre, as well as a luxury hotel and office space; proceeds from the hotel and offices would fund performances and keep ticket prices affordable.

The architecture firm Adler & Sullivan was retained to design the landmark building in the Richardson Romanesque style at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Congress Street. In order to fund the undertaking, Peck enlisted the support of some of the most prominent names in Chicago history, including Marshall Field and George Pullman. On October 5, 1887, President Grover Cleveland came to Chicago to lay the cornerstone of what would become the most important building in Chicago of its era; an edifice that would garner international attention and play a key role in making Chicago the city it is today.

“The Eighth Wonder of the World”

At the time of its opening on December 9, 1889, the Auditorium Building was the epitome of modern design. No building was more innovative. The largest structure in the United States and the tallest in Chicago, it housed not only the glorious Auditorium Theatre, but also a luxurious 400-room hotel and 136 offices. Weighing 110,000 tons, the Auditorium was also one of the heaviest constructions in the world, necessitating a creation of a massive “raft” of railroad ties, steel rails, pitch and concrete to provide a strong foundation. The building was often referred to as “the eighth wonder of the world.”

The theatre itself was a marvel of cutting-edge technology, featuring the prominent display of an astounding 3,500 bare carbon filament light bulbs (only publicly seen for the first time in 1879), unrivalled acoustics, air conditioning (which called for the delivery of 15 tons of ice daily), 26 hydraulic lifts that could easily raise and lower sections of the stage, and an expansive 95-foot loft above the stage for flown scenic elements.

The gala opening night performance was the social event of the year, perhaps even the event of the decade. In attendance were President Benjamin Harrison, Vice President Levi Morton, Illinois Governor Joseph Wilson Fifer, Chicago Mayor DeWitt Clinton Cregier, the theatre’s financial backers and the city’s elite. President Harrison (who had visited the Auditorium in 1888, when the theatre, still a construction site, housed 9000 Republican National Convention attendees) was evidently so impressed that he was rumored to have whispered to Vice President Levi P. Morton, “New York surrenders, eh?” Crowds of people lined the streets waiting to get a glimpse of the famous and wealthy guests. A highlight of the evening was American opera star Madame Adelina Patti’s rendition of John Howard Payne’s “Home Sweet Home.”

The Auditorium Theatre played a key role in Chicago’s honor to host the 1893 Columbian Exposition, which, in turn, helped to make Chicago the city it is today. Local civic leaders in Chicago were vying with those in St. Louis, New York City and Washington DC to host a fair that could reestablish Chicago as a solid destination for travel and commerce.   The international sensation brought about by the opening of the Auditorium was seen by Congress as an indication that the people of Chicago possessed the vision, forethought, work ethic, and financing to successfully produce a world-class fair.

During its early decades, the Auditorium stage played host to the leading entertainers of the era, including John Phillip Sousa, Sarah Bernhardt, the Ziegfeld Follies, Anna Pavlova and Helen Morgan, as well as political figures including Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington. It was also the home to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Grand Opera Company, and even featured indoor baseball games.

Distinctly American in Design

Key to Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan’s vision for the theatre was to create a space that was distinctly American, not an imitation of the types of theatres that were typically found in Europe, where social class structure informed architecture, dictating that the best seat be reserved the wealthiest. As such, Adler and Sullivan relocated the box seats (historically held for the elite in Europe) to the sides, with an expansive main floor and generous balconies offering optimal sightlines to the general public. Ornamentation did not glorify noble figure or mimic baroque palaces but rather featured the artful interpretations of natural elements including flowers and vines, and bucolic murals.

With its relatively low ceilings and spare decoration, the lobby of the Auditorium Theatre also represents a distinctly American style of design called “compression and release.” Adler and Sullivan felt that when patrons departed “compressed” lobby spaces, the impact of “releasing” into the towering six story auditorium, with its grand gilded arches and glittering ceiling, would be all-the-more dramatic. Sullivan’s compression and release technique became a key element of the designs of his protégé Frank Lloyd Wright, who, at age 21, had worked as a draftsman on the Auditorium Theatre.

 

Decline and Closing

Peck’s hope that the revenue from the hotel and offices would subsidize the cost of presenting performances ultimately proved unsustainable, particularly as more modern hotels (featuring private bathrooms) came about. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra moved to Orchestra Hall in 1904, and the Grand Opera relocated to the Civic Opera House in 1929. In the early 1930s, estimates were taken to demolish the building, but the cost of the demolition was more than the land was worth. Following a run of the comedic musical revue “Helzapoppin,” the Auditorium Theatre went bankrupt and closed in 1941.

In 1942, the Auditorium was taken over by the City of Chicago to be used as a World War II servicemen’s center. The stage and front rows of the theatre were converted to a bowling alley and much of the ornate stenciling, plasterwork and art glass was covered over. At the Auditorium Building, more than 2.2 million servicemen were housed, fed, and entertained between 1941 and 1945. In 1946, Roosevelt University saved the venue from the wrecking ball by acquiring the building, but lacking the money required to renovate the theatre, kept it dormant for two decades.

A New Beginning

In 1963, Mrs. Beatrice Spachner, with the approval of Roosevelt University, created the Auditorium Theatre Council and undertook a campaign to restore and reopen the theatre, raising nearly $3 million to renovate the structure. Architect Harry Weese oversaw the refurbishment of the theatre, and on Oct. 31, 1967, the Auditorium Theatre reopened with a gala performance of the New York City Ballet’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Beginning in the late 1960s through today, a host of rock and pop performers took to the stage, including Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Aretha Franklin, James Taylor and Bette Midler, among others. The venue also began to host some of the world’s premier dance companies, including The Joffrey Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Bolshoi Ballet and American Ballet Theatre (all of which still grace the stage regularly to this day). Broadway musicals also have found appreciative audiences at the Auditorium Theatre, with long-running engagements of “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Les Misérables,” “Miss Saigon,” “Show Boat,” “Hello Dolly!,” “The King and I,” “The Who’s Tommy” and many more. In 1975 the U.S. Department of the Interior declared the Auditorium Theatre a National Historic Landmark. A second phase of renovations was undertaken in 2001 led by architects Laurence Booth and Daniel P. Coffey.

To this day, the management of the Auditorium Theatre (now called the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University) continues to maintain and restore Adler & Sullivan’s masterpiece, while delicately updating various areas to meet the demands of contemporary artists and audiences. Recent innovations include the introduction of the theatre’s first public elevator as well as the Katten/Landau Studio housed in the Roosevelt University Wabash Building. Typically, more than 200 performances and events—ranging from dance and theatre to music, educational programs and religious services—attract more than a quarter of a million people every year to Chicago’s landmark theatre making it a true staple in Chicago and the rest of the world.

 

illustration, The Interior of the Chicago Auditorium from Harper's Weekly

illustration, The Interior of the Chicago Auditorium from Harper’s Weekly

 

The National Historic Landmark Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, led by Executive Director Brett Batterson and Board Chairman Melvin L. Katten, celebrates the milestone 125th Anniversary and announces programming for 2014 – 15 Season.

Built in 1889 by the pioneering genius of Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, along with their young draftsman Frank Lloyd Wright, the Auditorium Theatre, often referred to as “the eighth wonder of the world,” would catapult Chicago onto the world’s stage driving both culture and tourism to the Windy City.

In honor of the momentous anniversary, the Auditorium Theatre is thrilled to announce First Lady of the United States, Mrs. Michelle Obama, as the Honorary Chair for this historic season-long celebration; Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Amy Rule will serve as Honorary Co-chairs. Co-chairs for the 125th Anniversary Season include Norm and Virginia Bobins, Steve and Nancy Crown, Jorge and Catrina Ramirez, Jim and Sandy Reynolds, Jack and Carole Sandner, Ed and Dia Weil and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy with wife Sue Miller.

“On behalf of all Chicagoans, we are thrilled to celebrate the Auditorium Theatre’s 125th birthday,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel. “This national historic landmark is representative of our rich history in the arts as well as the unique Chicago architecture styles that have influenced American building structures for generations. The Auditorium Theatre continues to make Chicago a leader in the arts and culture today, and I wish the Theatre nothing but good fortunes in the coming years.”

At the time of its opening in 1889, the Auditorium Building was the epitome of modern design, the largest structure in the United States and the tallest in Chicago. It housed not only the glorious Auditorium Theatre, but also a luxurious 400-room hotel and 136 offices. The theatre itself was a marvel of cutting-edge technology, featuring the prominent display of an astounding 3,500 bare carbon filament light bulbs (only publicly seen for the first time in 1879), unrivalled acoustics, air conditioning (which called for the delivery of 15 tons of ice daily), 26 hydraulic lifts that could easily raise and lower sections of the stage, and an expansive 95-foot loft above the stage for flown scenic elements. During the grand opening night of the theatre, attendee President Benjamin Harrison was evidently so impressed that he was rumored to have whispered to Vice President Levi P. Morton, “New York surrenders, eh?”

The Auditorium Theatre played a key role in Chicago’s honor to host the 1893 Columbian Exposition, which, in turn, helped to make Chicago the city it is today.  Local civic leaders in Chicago were vying with those in St. Louis, New York City and Washington DC to host a fair that could reestablish Chicago as a solid destination for travel and commerce. The international sensation brought about by the opening of the Auditorium was seen by Congress as an indication that the people of Chicago possessed the vision, forethought, work ethic, and financing to successfully produce a world-renowned fair. These factors also led to the Auditorium Theatre becoming one of the finest venues in the world to present first-class entertainment and was the first home to some of the greatest performance institutions including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Grand Opera Company.

B&W reproduction of: Engraving; ICHi-00609; Season opening of the Auditorium Theatre; ; Chicago (Ill.); Dec. 9, 1889; Publisher—Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.

B&W reproduction of: Engraving; ICHi-00609; Season opening of the Auditorium Theatre; ; Chicago (Ill.); Dec. 9, 1889; Publisher—Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.

The Anniversary Season pays homage to the extraordinary caliber of dance over the past 125 years with the return of The Royal Ballet to Chicago after a 37-year absence from Chicago. Led by Director Kevin O’Hare, the company will present Carlos Acosta‘s production of “Don Quixote” and a triple bill of Wayne McGregor‘s “The Art of Fugue,” Christopher Wheeldon‘s “Aeternum”—which premiered at the Royal Opera House in February 2013 and was nominated for an Olivier Award—and an as yet, un-choreographed piece by Liam Scarlett which will premiere at the Royal Opera House in February 2015.The company will make their Auditorium debut during a three-city tour of the U.S. that includes The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

illustration, The Interior of the Chicago Auditorium from Harper's Weekly

illustration, The Interior of the Chicago Auditorium from Harper’s Weekly

“I am delighted to bring The Royal Ballet back to Chicago as part of our US Tour in 2015,” said O’Hare. “The Company has a long history of performing in North America and we’ve always been made to feel very welcome by our American audiences. The Royal Ballet hasn’t visited Chicago since 1978 so the two programs we plan to bring are designed to showcase the depth of the company’s repertory and the talent of our dancers led by our world-class roster of principals. We are honored to be part of such a special season at the Auditorium Theatre.”

In November 2014, Dance Theatre of Harlem makes a triumphant return to the Auditorium Theatre after 16 years, bringing innovative and bold new forms of artistic expression with a mixed repertoire performance.

“The Auditorium Theatre was one of my favorite places to perform when I was a dancer with Dance Theatre of Harlem,” said Artistic Director Virginia Johnson. “Now, as Artistic Director, it is a thrill and honor to bring the new Dance Theatre of Harlem to Chicago and the Auditorium, particularly as part of its 125th Anniversary celebration.”

“The Auditorium’s 125th Anniversary Season showcases the incredible diversity and scope that has graced this historic landmark stage for 125 years,” said Auditorium Theatre Executive Director Brett Batterson. “When the doors of the Auditorium Theatre opened in 1889, the world was not expecting the grandeur that came along with Adler and Sullivan’s pioneering design and insightful forward-thinking. What the people of Chicago as well as the rest of the world received, was a historic space where anything could happen. From National Conventions to stunning theatrical performances, breathtaking ballet to the most heart-pounding rock concerts, this building has seen a little bit of everything and true history lives within the intricate walls that are sure to house another 125 years of extraordinary talent and mesmerizing performances.”

Highlighting the Anniversary celebration is a special Gala performance on December 9, 2014, exactly 125 years from when the Auditorium Theatre’s doors opened in 1889. The evening will host Chicago’s premiere cultural institutions including members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, singers from the Lyric Opera of Chicago, as well as The Apollo Chorus – who participated in the opening night of the theatre 125 years ago. These world-renowned organizations including surprise celebrity guests (to be announced soon), celebrate the rich history and opening night that put Chicago on the world’s stage. The evening’s program will include a tribute to the diverse entertainment that has been and continues to be presented at the theatre including Broadway, Pop, Rock, Dance and a special salute to the Military, which made its home at the Auditorium during wartime. The Gala performance will be followed by a celebrity dinner at the Palmer House.

2014 – 15 Season Programming

Highlighting both International and Chicago talent, the Anniversary season features the International Dance Series with six announced world-class dance companies including The Royal Ballet and Dance Theatre of Harlem; the “Made in Chicago Dance Series, presenting Chicago’s premiere dance companies; the “Made in Chicago Variety Series including comedy acts and music performances (some still to be announced); and a free Made in Chicago Film Series dedicated to Chicago films including movies filmed at the Auditorium Theatre. The theatre will also present Special Community Outreach programming including the Preservation Snapshots Lecture Series, an in-depth architectural lecture series in collaboration with Landmarks Illinois; and many more collaborations with Chicago’s premiere cultural institutions throughout the season.

International Dance Series 

In addition to The Royal Ballet Theatre and Dance Theatre of Harlem, the Auditorium Theatre’s 2014 – 15 Season includes the return of American Ballet Theatre. Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie brings an eclectic mixed repertoire to the Auditorium stage including “Bach Partida” by Twyla Tharp, “Fancy Free” by Jerome Robbins, and two Pas de Deux’s still to be announced.January gets a heat-wave when Tango Buenos Aires makes a one-night-only stop in the Windy City. Georgina Vargas and Oscar Mandagaran, recognized as one of the best tango couples on the international level,bring their sensual passion to the Auditorium stage.Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, a perennial Chicago favorite, returns to the Auditorium in March 2015. “America’s cultural ambassador to the world,” celebrates the uniqueness of the African-American cultural experience and the preservation and enrichment of American modern dance while bringing audiences to their feet at every performance. After unveiling their innovative, jarring portrayal of “Rodin” during the Auditorium’s 2012 – 13 Season, The Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg returns to debut the American premiere of a new ballet currently being created. Led by visionary choreographer Boris Eifman, the company continues to push the limits of contemporary ballet and is hailed by the “The Financial Times” as “the dance equivalent of a guilty pleasure.” More exceptional International Dance presentations will be announced at a later date 

“Made in Chicago” Dance Series

Paying tribute to the abundant amount of talent within the Chicago dance community, the Auditorium Theatre announces the “Made in Chicago Dance Series. Performing a special ode to the Windy City, Thodos Dance Chicago performs an innovative rendition of “Devil in the White City” in addition to a mixed repertoire program. Returning to the Auditorium stage after their “jolting” performance during the Auditorium’s Music and Movement Festival, Giordano Dance Chicago brings a program of mixed repertoire including their critically acclaimed “Moving Sidewalks,” a piece about Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. After stunning audiences with the world premiere of “Havana Blue” in 2013, River North Dance Chicago returns to the Auditorium to showcase their athletic, sensual and dynamic repertoire. Additional Chicago companies will be announced as part of the “Made in Chicago” Dance Series at a later date.

“Made in Chicago” Variety Series

To highlight the wide-range of entertainment that is presented at the Auditorium, the theatre celebrates the diversity and scope with the “Made in Chicago Variety Series. Also celebrating a significant anniversary, “Too Hot to Handel: The Jazz-Gospel Messiah, returns for its 10th year, once again paying tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The joyful, exuberant and all-American version of Handel’s beloved oratorio takes the stage with Chicago’s own Rodrick Dixon, Alfreda Burke and Karen Marie Richardson in January 2015. Auditorium Theatre audiences get a treat when the United States Army Band makes its debut appearance on the Auditorium’s landmark stage for a free performance in support of Soldiers and their families. Susan Werner, an Auditorium Theatre favorite, will return for an intimate “On Stage With” performance allowing audiences to experience a performance while sitting on the actual landmark stage. An exciting line-up of some of Chicago’s greatest comedians and musicians will be announced at a later date.

“Made in Chicago” Film Series

Paying homage to the classic movies that have been filmed in Chicago, and in many cases in the historic theatre (“The Untouchables” and “Public Enemies”), the Auditorium presents the free Made in ChicagoFilm Series. Chicagoans will have the chance to select the chosen films by voting on their favorites including “Risky Business,” “Blues Brothers,” “High Fidelity,” “The Fugitive,” and many more. Voting details and a full list of film choices will be available at a later date.

Auditorium Theatre’s 125th Anniversary Creative Engagement Programming

The Auditorium Theatre’s Department of Creative Engagement will launch a collection of free or low cost family and community programming for the city to enjoy throughout the 125th Anniversary Season celebration. Kicking off the educational programming, theAuditorium Theatre and Landmarks Illinois partner to present a free year-long series of lectures celebrating the architectural landscape of 1889 in Roosevelt University’s Murray-Green Library (430 S Michigan).  Other highlights include afree Family Fun Day when the theatre open its doors for a day filled with arts activities and performances for the entire family. Celebrating Honorary Chair of the 125th Anniversary Season First Lady Michelle Obama’sfitness agenda “Let’s Move!,” the Auditoriumpresents Dance Fit Day urging and inspiring Chicagoans to get moving with dance focused fitness classes featuring Chicago based dance companies. Event dates to be announced.

Roosevelt University

Roosevelt University, which acquired the Auditorium Building in 1947, will celebrate three anniversaries in 2014 – 15: the 125th Anniversary of the building and theatre, the 70th Anniversary of the University and the 60th Anniversary of the University’s merger with the Chicago Musical College, now known as the Chicago College of Performing Arts (CCPA). 

The University will celebrate with a lecture series commemorating Roosevelt’s restoration of the building and its founding faculty and students. Throughout its 2014-15 Season, CCPA will explore ways to reflect upon the Auditorium’s history in programming by its theatre and music conservatories.  In addition, its annual musical highlight, “Vivid”, in April 2015, will feature music that has played an important part in the history of the Auditorium Theatre.  “The Auditorium is clearly one of Chicago’s treasures and we are pleased to join with them in celebrating this milestone,” said CCPA Dean Henry Fogel.

125th Anniversary Season Sponsors

The Auditorium Theatre is also proud to announce two of the 125th Anniversary Season Sponsors: Lead Foundation Sponsor The Robert R. McCormick Foundation and David D. Hiller, and International Dance Series Sponsor NIB Foundation.

The theatre will be making additional announcements over the next six months with exciting programming and various fundraising initiatives to continue the renovation and refurbishment of this National Landmark to ensure another 125 years as a centerpiece of Chicago.

Fundraising and Restoration Initiatives

Now in its 125th year, the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University celebrates its historic landmark status as a true symbol of the City of Chicago. With vast improvements already made, the Theatre continues to build upon the incredible framework that Adler and Sullivan designed 125 years ago.  In order to maintain both the structure of the theatre as well as the commitment to the community both educationally and theatrically, a strong fundraising campaign has been set forth to celebrate the 125th Anniversary with a goal of $2 million, which will be split between programming and capital improvements. To date, over $1 million has already been raised!

Ticket and Subscription Information

Subscriptions will go on sale to current Auditorium Theatre Subscribers in February/March of 2014.  New subscriptions will go on sale in April of 2014.  Tickets to individual performances will be announced later this summer.

For more information, visit AuditoriumTheatre.org/125

About the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University

The Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, located at 50 E Congress Pkwy, is an Illinois, not-for-profit organization committed to presenting the finest in international, cultural, community and educational programming to Chicago, and to the continued restoration and preservation of the National Historic Landmark Auditorium Theatre. The Auditorium Theatre is generously supported by the MacArthur Foundation, the NIB Foundation, the Illinois Arts Council and the Palmer House Hilton. For more information about programming, volunteer and donor opportunities or theatre tours, call (312) 341 – 2310 or visit AuditoriumTheatre.org.