BY BILL STAMETS | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA
Opera buff Ferdinand Wythe Peck built the Auditorium Theatre with an uplift agenda: offering affordable culture to the common man. In 1889 he could not see movies coming. Yet his illustrious theater at Congress and Michigan, which celebrates its 125th anniversary with a star-studded gala Tuesday, turned into the largest venue in the Loop for photo plays and moving pictures.
Peck — called “Commodore” by his yachting pals — inherited a wealth of city property and turned civic philanthropist. “Mr. Peck was very democratic in his ideas and very sympathetic towards the man who could not afford to indulge his propensities in the direction of culture without pecuniary aid from such public-spirited altruists as Mr. Peck,” observed a contemporary. Auditorium architect Louis Sullivan cited Peck’s “firm belief in democracy — whatever he meant by that.”
Early visitors to the Auditorium beheld musical pageants such as “America” that ran during the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. “The attractive force of the splendid spectacle is as irresistible as a maelstrom,” lauded the Chicago Eagle. The 1907 billing for “Advanced Vaudeville” listed “the only somersault elephant in the world.”
A 1904 lecturer at the Auditorium projected slides and 32 short films about Ireland. Jack Johnson boxed on screen there in 1908. That year saw a short-lived experiment in “talking pictures” that entailed “converting the magnificent Auditorium into a mammoth moving picture house,” as Variety reported. Unseen by the audience, a backstage cast spoke and sang in sync with the actors on the screen. This was touted as “The Apotheosis of Animated Views.”
“One after another of the so-called legitimate theaters in Chicago are joining the ranks of the ‘Movies,’ ” stated Motion Picture World in 1914. “Another big house to go to pictures is Orchestra Hall.”
Its most notable title was “The Spirit of ’76” (1917). This revolutionary war epic — inspired by D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” — got its producer-director Robert Goldstein fined and imprisoned for treason under the Espionage Act. Portraying the British inflicting cruelty on colonists was deemed pro-German propaganda.
War films drew crowds to the Auditorium: “Crashing Through to Berlin,” “Eyes of the World,” “The Italian Battle Front,” “My Four Years in Germany,” “Over the Top” and “The Unbeliever.” A Pathe ad boasted: “Chicago not only pays $10,000.00 in admission fees at the Auditorium in one day to see Official Government Pictures of the war, but declares them to be the most graphic war pictures ever shown.”
The Auditorium was spared offscreen explosions by local “dynamiters.” Some 85 Chicago movie theater operators testified about union extortion tactics. “Within recent weeks dynamite outrages committed against moving picture theatres have been almost a nightly occurrence,” reported a trade journal in May 1917.
The return of “The Birth of a Nation” for a four-week run in 1924 made headlines. Initially banned here in 1915, the notorious epic of the Civil War and Reconstruction did show after a court ruling. The Illinois legislature thereafter outlawed “any lithograph, drawing, picture, play, drama, or sketch that tends to incite race riot, or race hatred.”
A police captain, three sergeants and a judge watched most of Griffith’s film on Feb. 3, then stopped the screening and arrested two projectionists. A second screening was stopped with more arrests the next night. Another judge let the film continue at the Auditorium.
The Chicago Examiner reported a far different response to the film’s 1915 run: “Two hundred co-eds of the University of Chicago last night cast aside their intellectual dignity and, clad in the grotesque uniforms of the Ku Klux Klan, staged a Hallowe’en party,” complete with apple-bobbing.
The Auditorium screened fewer films as the sound era approached. It never evolved into a full-fledged cinema after the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Opera Company moved out to their own buildings.
Two headlines proved wrong: “Auditorium Theatre May Be Torn Out and Great Structure Remodeled at Cost of $3,000,000” (Real Estate and Building Journal, 1908) and “Plan to Raze the Auditorium as Obsolete” (Chicago Tribune, 1923). Nor did a 1946 item in the Film Daily come true: “Two large theater circuits are interested in acquiring the Chicago Auditorium theater, now owned by Roosevelt College [now Roosevelt University], for films.”
Graced with architectural restorations over the years, the 110,000-ton edifice once dubbed “The Eighth Wonder of the World” lost no luster with Gov. Pat Quinn’s 2012 pronouncement: “Lower Wacker Drive is the 8th wonder of the world.”