A Grand House: Exploring Chicago's Historic Auditorium Theatre

Classic Arts Features   A Grand House: Exploring Chicago's Historic Auditorium Theatre
Mara Tapp discusses the 120-year history of one of the country's most opulent and stunning performance venues.


Chicago isn't short of performing arts venues, but arguably the most visually impressive is the Auditorium Theatre. With its stunning murals and gilded arches, all bathed in a golden glow, the 4200-seat space is a testament to the bigger-is-better, make-it-shine attitude of the Gilded Age. But for all its swank, the Auditorium was envisioned as a palace of the people, not the exclusive domain of the elite.

That vision began with Ferdinand Peck, a University-of-Chicago-educated son of one of Chicago's wealthiest and most influential families, who wanted a place where all of Chicago would feel welcome. His philosophy included "Workingman" or "People's Concerts" at discounted prices. And he insisted that every seat in the house be a good one.

Designed by the firm of Adler and Sullivan (at the then-considerable sum of $3,200,000) the Auditorium was originally home to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Opera Company. "The greatest room for music and opera in the world, bar none," said a young Frank Lloyd Wright, who worked as a draftsman on the project. In its early decades, the theater also hosted African-American orator Booker T. Washington; actress Sarah Bernhardt; and presidential candidate, Theodore Roosevelt. Anna Pavlova's farewell tour brought her to the theater in 1925 and Illinois-born singer Helen Morgan appeared in Showboat in 1933. But after the musical revue Hellzapoppin played there in 1941, the stage went dark for over 20 years. The Auditorium was bankrupt.

During the war years, the theater was transformed to a servicemen's center, complete with bowling alleys on the stage. But throughout the '50s and '60s, the idle building quickly went downhill. Then, a group of civic-minded movers and shakers, led by Beatrice Spachner, raised restoration funds and well-known Chicago architect, Harry M. Weese, donated his services to repair the theater, which re-opened on October 31, 1967, with The New York City Ballet performing A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Ballet wasn't the only offering at the new-born Auditorium. In a sign of the times, the theater became a popular rock venue, presenting Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, and The Who. Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, Nina Simone, B.B. King, and Miles Davis also appeared. By 1970, the theater was also hosting large-scale musicals, including Fiddler on the Roof, Hello Dolly!, and Jesus Christ Superstar.

In November 2008, grand opera made a triumphant return to the Auditorium with a production of Margaret Garner, starring mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves. Composed by Richard Danielpour with a libretto by Toni Morrison (whose Pulitzer Prize _winning novel Beloved is based on the same true story), the opera tells the tale of an escaped slave who killed her children to save them from returning to slavery. "That production made the Auditorium more than a building to so many people in Chicago," says Brett Batterson, the theater's executive director. "We became a producing, partnering, collaborating, all-around-institution in Chicago."

When the Auditorium Theatre opened 120 years ago, President Benjamin Harrison stated: "I wish that this great building may continue to be to all your population that which it should be: opening its doors from night to night, calling your people away from cares of business to those enjoyments and entertainments which develop the souls of men and inspire those whose lives are heavy with daily toil and in this magnificent and enchanted presence, lift them for a time out of dull things into those higher things where men should live." Despite setbacks and dark days, that wish has come true. Visit any night when a show is on and you'll see. There's a palpable sense of anticipation as patrons mingle in the low-ceilinged lobby. And once they pass into the soaring space of the theater itself, one can almost hear a collective sigh of delight.

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