Some key moments in The Auditorium Theatre’s 125-year history
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BY SELENA FRAGASSI | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA
It’s the oldest theater in Chicago, and on Dec. 9 the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University will again be the talk about town as it celebrates the 125th anniversary with an all-star lineup reliving its unparalleled history. Musical performers Patti LuPone and Jim Peterik, actor John Mahoney and companies including the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Joffrey Ballet and Lyric Opera of Chicago will pay homage to the once “eighth wonder of the world.”
LIVING THE HISTORY – 125 YEARS
OF THE AUDITORIUM THEATRE
When: 6 p.m., Dec. 9
Where: Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University,
50 E. Congress
Info: (312) 341.2357; ticketmaster.com
As an original design of Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler, the theater’s nobility helped bring the Columbian Exposition of 1893 to the city, and in 2015 it will fulfill another legacy as the host site of the NFL Draft in Chicago for the first time. But in the years between, there have been a number of key moments, says Executive Director Brett Batterson, that have fulfilled the theater’s ongoing mission to be “Chicago’s first choice for entertainment.”
Here are the Top 10:
June 19-25, 1888: A year before the theater officially opens, the Republican National Convention is held in the partially finished building. The weeklong program features a speech by abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the first African-American to have his name included in a presidential nomination.
Dec. 9, 1889: Auditorium Theatre officially opens. In attendance at the dedication is President Harrison and Vice President Levi P. Morton — “The first time in the history of the U.S. that both left Washington at same time when congress was in session,” says Batterson. “That’s how important they thought it was.” The night also features a performance by leading soprano Adelina Patti, Patti LuPone’s great-grand-aunt.
Oct. 16, 1891: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra debuts on this night, led by the renowned American conductor, Maestro Theodore Thomas. CSO stays here until 1904 when it moves to its current home at Orchestra Hall located in Symphony Center.
Unlisted date, 1900: Booker T. Washington appears in front of a sold-out crowd just five years after his famous Atlanta Address of 1895. He continues to advocate for the education of the black community after establishing Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
Nov. 11, 1921: It’s the day Chicago radio goes on air. A performance of “Madame Butterfly” by the Chicago Opera Company becomes the city’s inaugural live broadcast on call letters KYW. It’s estimated that 50,000 people tune in.
1942-1945: After the theater closes in 1941 during The Great Depression, the building is assumed by the city and transforms into a World War II Servicemen’s Center to house and entertain local soldiers and sailors when they return home. “They even put bowling alleys [in],” says Batterson.
1946-1967: The theater goes through another dark time with lights out on programming for 20 years; during this time, Roosevelt University buys the property and moves operations on-site. Today the theater aims to upkeep Roosevelt’s social justice mission with programs like the Hands Together, Heart to Art camp launched in 2005.
1968-1989: After reopening, the Auditorium Theatre becomes Chicago’s premier rock house with rare performances by Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Janis Joplin and The Grateful Dead. Today a piece of that legacy continues, with Jack White and Bjork performing in recent years.
Unlisted date, 1989: In the theater’s 100th year, “Les Miserables” opens and brings new life with Broadway shows on stage. In later years, the theatre has also become a center of major dance as the resident home of the Joffrey Ballet. “We’re still the only theater in the Loop that does a little bit of everything,” says Batterson. That includes hosting Sunday services for Willow Creek Church.
March 12, 2012: The theater unveiled its first-ever elevator that services all six floors; from 1889 to 2012, it was only handicap accessible on the main floor.
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.