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Sinatra and Black-Tie Celebration : Restored Chicago Theater Feeds White Way Visions

Times Staff Writer

With a formal party and a Frank Sinatra concert, the Windy City celebrated the rebirth of one of its entertainment crown jewels Wednesday night, reopening the refurbished Chicago theater.

At the black-tie opening, Sinatra returned to the theater’s stage for the first time in 40 years.

The ornate 3,800-seat theater, on State Street at the gateway to the city’s Loop shopping strip, has been restored to its 1921 movie palace splendor at a cost of $4 million, in the hope that it will serve as the anchor for a new downtown theater district to draw suburban residents into the central city. Several smaller movie houses nearby are expected to become legitimate theaters in the near future with corporate and foundation backing.

Survives Wrecker’s Ball

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“This marks the rebirth of America’s second great White Way,” declared Ira Kaufman, chairman of Rodman & Renshaw Capital Group, which waged an 11th-hour campaign to raise $10 million to save both the theater and the adjoining cast-iron Page Building from the wrecker’s ball.

The 65-year-old theater, second in size to New York’s Radio City Music Hall, is considered one of the best examples of the extravagance the entertainment industry lavished on its showcases. Once the flagship of the Balaban & Katz entertainment empire, it endured two insensitive “remodelings” and has withstood infestations of mice, cockroaches and pickpockets, who filled its ventilation shafts with empty wallets and discarded purses.

The restoration of The Chicago theater is the latest example of a trend that has already saved old movie palaces in places as diverse as Cleveland and Joliet, Ill.; Oakland, Calif., and Louisville, Ky.

Monument to Hollywood

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The theater, a marble, terra cotta, plaster and mirrored monument to Hollywood, was designed by Chicago architects Cornelius and George Rapp, who later became designers-in-residence for both Balaban & Katz and the Paramount-Publix circuit. The State Street facade is based on the Arch of Triumph in Paris. The interior is a miniature Palace of Versailles with a few Moorish details thrown in for understatement.

The ceiling and walls are decorated with floral designs, cherubs and mythical creatures of every kind. Apollo stands guard in a giant oval mural over the stage.

Jack Benny, Gloria Swanson, Cab Calloway, George Burns and Gracie Allen, the Marx Brothers, John Philip Sousa, Sally Rand, Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians are among those who entertained at the theater in its early years.

Scheduled Bookings

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Bookings now scheduled through January include four Broadway musicals and performances by Andy Williams, Red Skelton, Bill Cosby and Liza Minnelli.

Minnelli will make it kind of a family homecoming. Her father, Vincente Minnelli, worked in the theater’s costume department before moving on to New York and fame as a director.


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