Many Chicago neighborhoods have lost their movie palaces, theaters, and ballrooms to the wrecking ball. Uptown suffered some losses, but the crown jewels of its entertainment district still stand. Some bring joy to thousands, while others are waiting to be reborn.
The Uptown Theatre
4816 N Broadway
Designed by C.W. and Geo. L. Rapp for the Balaban and Katz Theatre Corporation of Chicago, the Uptown Theatre was designed to echo the style of an old Spanish castle. Opened in 1925, it was Balaban & Katz’ largest, most extravagant movie palace, covering almost a city block and featuring amenities such as air conditioning, cosmetic rooms, lounges, and even a children’s playroom. It also had the most expensive Wurlitzer organ built at the time and was billed as “An Acre of Seats in a Magic City.”
After declining for many years, it was left unheated in 1980, which caused pipes to burst, and made the building unusable without significant restoration. To block possible demolition, the City of Chicago landmarked its interior and exterior in 1991. Since 1998, the volunteer-run Friends of The Uptown Theatre have taken many steps to rehab and stabilize the structure. JAM Productions purchased the theater in 2008. It is estimated that full restoration of the Uptown will cost upwards of $70-$100 million.
4746 N Racine Ave
Also designed by Rapp and Rapp, the Riviera was built in 1917 and originally seated more than 2,500 people. Built in the style of French Renaissance Revival architecture, the Riviera featured movies accompanied by an orchestra as well as high-caliber musical acts. Since the mid-1980s it has been used primarily as a concert venue. In 2006 JAM Productions purchased The Riviera Theatre.
1106 W Lawrence Ave
Built by brothers William and Andrew Karzas in 1926, the Aragon Ballroom features lavish Moorish terra cotta ornament inside and out. Its massive dance floor sits on springs to accommodate over a thousand dancers. In 1973, under the ownership of Latino promoters Willy Miranda and José Palomar, the Aragon began to recapture its earlier glory as the new owners worked to restore it while hosting rock and Latin concerts. Live Nation is the current owner and continues to invest in the building. The Aragon remains one of Chicago’s top music venues.
Wilson Avenue Theatre
1050 W Wilson Ave
Opened as a vaudeville theater in 1909, the Wilson Avenue Theatre was converted into a bank in 1919 and served as such until 2011. It was recently acquired by developer Cedar Street Companies who is seeking to secure a creative tenant for the building. In the meantime, Cedar Street has partnered with local arts organizations like Pivot Arts to activate the space.
4730 N Sheridan Rd
This vaudeville theater opened in 1915 and offered programming specifically for Uptown’s many single working women—the era’s flappers. The theater closed in 1966 and was bought by Columbia College for its Dance Center. In 2000 the space was taken over by Alternatives, Inc., a 30-year-old youth development organization.
1333 W Argyle St
Hollywood may be known as the “dream factory,” but once, some of those dreams were being filmed right here in Chicago. Uptown served as a back lot and production center for Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, founded by early film pioneers George K. Spoor and Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson.
Essanay’s stable of actors included Gloria Swanson and in 1914, Essanay landed the biggest name of them all: Charlie Chaplin, who signed for the then-record salary of $1,250 per week. Chaplin, though, only shot one movie here. After Chaplin starred in “His New Job” in 1925, much of the film industry moved west. Essanay closed its doors in 1917. Today, the building houses the bilingual St. Augustine College. The site was designated a Chicago landmark in 1996 and St. Augustine continues to care for the site and its history.