Making Words Come Alive
Some notes about Chicago theater
See Illinois (unpublished)
A brief summary of the history of theater in Chicago, originally written for a guide to history and culture to be titled See Illinois. (See Publications for more about that project.) Informative rather than analytical, some readers might find it interesting.
There are two kinds of theater in Chicago—theater in Chicago and Chicago theater. Theater in Chicago is much the older of the two, dating to the 1840s. It offered the same fare served in cities across the country by traveling troupes consisting of a headliner—legendary names such as Booth and Keane—whose supporting cast was made up in part of local amateurs. As the city grew, it was able to support its own resident companies.
In 1847 the first Chicago Theatre opened on the second floor of a building at 33 W. Randolph near Dearborn, thus establishing that intersection as the heart of the Chicago theater district for the next 150 years; that burned down in 1850—theaters burning as regular an occurrence in 19th century as theater companies going broke would be in the 20th—and rebuilt only to be lost again, in the Great Fire. (The present Chicago Theater on State Street dates to 1921; one of the popular entertainment palaces designed by the firm of Rapp & Rapp, it was restored in 1983.) John H. McVicker, a popular actor, built the third theater in Chicago in 1857 on the south side of Madison between state and Dearborn and named it after himself. (Other theaters of that name followed on that spot, the last built in 1922.) Crosby’s Opera House, famed throughout the Midwest, was built in 1865 at a cost of $600,000. Other well-known theaters were Wood’s Museum, North’s Amphitheater, Aiken’s, the Academy of Music, the Globe, and the Dearborn.
Between 1871 and 1894 dozens more theaters rose in Chicago. Most of them sheltered touring companies doing one-night stands, and stars of national repute, offering burlesque and minstrel shows. Occasionally the boards would creak under the weight of Shakespeare in varying degrees of inauthenticity or lectures by such platform artistes as Robert Ingersoll “the Great Church Disturber,” who spoke to a packed McVicker’s (“Fear is the dungeon of the mind . . . ”) in 1880.
By then Chicago was an important theater town. Its population alone made it a rival to New York City in the number of productions and the size of its audiences. Just as important, Chicago—because it was then conveniently located for traveling artists—was a national center of agents, bookers, producers, and traveling performers.
As for those audiences: When it comes to an evening of theater, “real” Chicagoans have always preferred melodramas and kitsch. As the 20th century neared, local stock companies put on bowdlerized classics, melodramas that would cause a schoolgirl to sneer, comedies that weren’t. Art wasn’t the aim, but entertainment of an old-fashioned kind.
Then as now the most popular fare was light comedy, melodramas, and vehicles that sometimes creaked from age even more than the limbs of the stars. The musicals of Victor Herbert and the D’Oyly Carte productions of Gilbert and Sullivan found a ready audience. The Follies (impresario Florenz Ziegfield, Jr. father of the Follies, was born in Chicago), George White’s Scandals and Earl Carroll’s Vanities, Beatrice Lillie, Gertrude Lawrence, Fannie Brice, W. C. Fields, Al Jolson, Bert Lahr, Ed Wynn, and Paul Robeson Eddie Cantor were among the names who made their fortunes, if not their reps, in Chicago. The longest-running show in a proper Loop theater was Good Night Ladies, a knockabout sex farce based on the chestnut Ladies’ Night in a Turkish Bath; it ran for a hundred weeks from 1942 to 1944 at the Blackstone.
A J. Liebling in the late 1940s found that, as a theatrical center, Chicago “is outclassed by Oslo, which has a population of four hundred thousand.” He explained:
Plays at Chicago theatres, for example, are always locally assumed to be inferior versions of the New York productions, or, if they are the New York productions, with original casts intact, the actors are presumed to be giving inferior performances....Chicagoans with the price of airplane tickets do their theatre-going here in New York, where, along with people from Boise, Chillicothe, and Winnemucca, they pay such exorbitant premiums for tickets to hits that most of the natives never see them. It is not considered smart to admit having seen any play in Chicago, because this implies either (a) that you haven’t seen the real play or (b) that you haven’t the airplane fare or (c), and possibly worst of all, that you are indifferent to nuances and might, therefore, Just as well go back to Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, where you went to high school.
The popular theaters were music hall, movie house, concert stage, and lecture platform all in one. When the New McVicker's opened in 1922, the films on the bill were augmented by performances from members of a local ballet troupe. At the Chicago’s opening, the playing of the "Star-Spangled Banner" by a fifty-piece orchestra was followed by the Rossini overture, "Capriccio Italienne," a reenactment of a from "From Dawn to Dusk in Egypt," an excerpt from Gunoud’s “Faust,” followed by renditions of popular hits on the pipe organ, a comedy bit, then a pageant of Chicago, a version of the old tableaux vivant. After that, Gone with the Wind would have seemed anti-climatic.
Such extravagant bills were a fruit of short-lived post-World War I prosperity and the desperate desire of impresarios in an overbuilt industry to steal audience from each other. The result was near-hysterical expressions in the Hollywood Baroque style. Each new house was of course pronounced more lavish than the predecessors in every detail.
The great movie exhibitor Balaban & Katz in 1921 spent $4.5 million to build their flagship palace, the 5000-seat Chicago Theatre on State in the Loop. Its stage, stage, which is 70 feet wide and 40 feet deep was then huge; although it offered first-run movies, light vaudeville, and musical performances. Until it closed in 1955 it all the top acts (all the top white acts anyway). Live theater did not return to the Chicago until 1986 when, completely refurbished, it played host to Frank Sinatra.
“No maharaja ever saw anything like the Oriental,” sang the Daily News, no doubt accurately, when Balaban & Katz opened that theater on the site of the old Iroquois on Randolph Street in 1926. The Oriental also was unmatched for the “flattering servility in ushers and doormen.” David Lowe in his preface to Lost Chicago recalls repairing there as a boy in the 1940s on shopping expeditions with his aunt:
Sometimes, in the afternoon, we entered the exotic fantasy of the Oriental Theatre, and there amid the curious chinoiserie of its auditorium I sat entranced while, on the stage, the Mills Brothers sang “Paper Doll.” Of all the city’s richly varied movie palaces, the Oriental held first place in my heart, though it had stiff competition from the Paradise out west on Crawford Avenue, where Lorado Taft’s statue of Apollo in his chariot raced tirelessly across a star-filled sky.
Writer Richard Bissell visited the Loop as a boy, his uncle would treat him to a show. “He would take me to the Palace Theatre for a matinee of vaudeville featuring Buck and Bubbles, Fanchon and Marco, and Stan Kavanaugh the great juggler,” Bissell would write. “Or perhaps we would go to Balaban and Katz’s opulent pleasure dome, the Oriental Theatre.” And there was of course the Chicago, whose marquee the ten year old Bissell recalled was “probably say a half a mile high.”
Many of the great Loop popular theaters suffered the fate of the Apollo. It was intended for plays and other live stage performances but opened just about the time movies began to erode the audience for such fare. It operated for only five years as a legitimate playhouse before its owners converted it into a movie theater. It thrived for a time as the debut venue in Chicago for all major United Artists releases— hence the change of name to the United Artists Theater. By the 1980s, astonishingly, there was only one commercial movie house left in the Loop, the Fine Arts, which found a new audience in an era when bohemianism became a weekend recreation by specializing in mostly foreign “art” films.
The movie houses lasted longer in the neighborhoods. What was inevitably called "the finest theatre in the world"—and may have been, for a few minutes, until a new one opened up down the street—was unveiled in 1921 at 63rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, eight miles south of the Loop. Balaban & Katz’s Tivoli sat 4,500 and supposedly cost more than $2,000,000—the equivalent of twenty million in 2002. Balaban and Katz opened the Uptown at 4814 Broadway; designed by Rapp and Rapp, it accommodated as many as 12,000 vaudeville and film fans a day.
The Regal at Forty-seventh Street and South Parkway (now Martin Luther King Drive), opened in 1928 in the heart of what was then known as the black belt. Owners Lubliner & Trinz booked the range of entertainments that were common to all the big, general purpose theaters of the day. Their color was different, however. Over the years, the Regal showcased at one time or another almost all of the nation's greatest African American entertainers, including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne—everyone who was anyone in black entertainment. Historians of the neighborhood now call it, with scant exaggeration, the musical and comedic soul of black Chicago. The only venue like it was Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater. The Depression, alas, did in the Regal, and it had to be closed and eventually torn down.
Joseph Epstein recalled his boyhood in Rogers Park in the 1930s.
Because air conditioning was not yet available, on steamy summer nights my parents and I sometimes went to the movies....The neighborhood was rich in movie theaters: there were The Coed, The 400, The Northshore, The Howard, and, easily most impressive of the lot, The Granada, which, in its rococo exterior and Aladdinish decoration, was out of the Arabian Nights sired by San Simeon.
The ‘burbs had their palaces of popular entertainment too, usually serving whole cities rather than city neighborhoods, but were otherwise scarcely distinguishable in terms of size or opulence from Chicago’s best. Waukegan’s Genesee Theater offered “an acre of seats” when it opened in 1927, which some enterprising publicist calculated was the area required to accommodate precisely 1,799 patrons. Marble floors, a crystal chandelier in the lobby, tapestries on the walls took care of the décor; the working bits included the usual accouterments—a movie screen in front of a stage for live performances (the Darling Twins and Rosini and his accordion were among the treats on opening night), an orchestra pit and a Barton pipe organ. Local boy made-good Jack Benny premiered many of his movies there.
Down in Joliet, the 1,920-seat Rialto Theater, the "Jewel of Joliet," opened in 1926. It too was designed by the indefatigable Rapp brothers, who also created the Chicago and the State-Lake in the Loop. The Rialto opened in 1926. It boasted a rotunda modeled after Rome's Pantheon and an inner lobby based on Versailles' Hall of Mirrors; the flamboyant pianist Liberace, upon seeing it, is said to have quipped, “Finally—a theater to match my wardrobe!” In its prime one of America's premier vaudeville/movie palaces, back in the days when Joliet was not considered a suburb but was a regular stop on the entertainment circuit.
To the history-minded tourist, Chicago’s landmarks are its iconic skyscrapers, its lakefront. To the local, however, memory accretes around its theaters. the years bracketing 1900 saw a dozen new theatres open in downtown Chicago alone. Among the handsomest was the Princess on Clark Street which reminded English visitors of London’s Haymarket. The grandest of all, though, was the Beaux Arts-style Illinois on Jackson Boulevard between Michigan and Wabash avenues, which opened in 1900; its proscenium was decorated with mother-of-pearl, each of its four grand boxes honored an Illinois famous son; Stephen A. Douglas, Union generals Ulysses S. Grant and John A. Logan each had a box as did Abraham Lincoln.
The Ethnic Theater
As with so much else in early Chicago high culture, some of the best of local theater was German. Immigrants from that country were staging works by playwrights such as Schiller as early as 1849; such productions outdid the bumpkinish show put on by locals in craft and content. By the late 1890s, when Chicago had become one of the larger German cities in the world, Chicago had no fewer than 11 German theaters.
Immigrants no less than natives looked to the theater for entertainment more than enlightenment, and ethnic companies happy to oblige with all manner of entertainments, from pageants to farces to nostalgic weepies. However, one could occasionally get one’s teeth into meatier fare. Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, remarkably, was given its world premiere in 1882 in Chicago, where it was performed in Norwegian, part of a larger effort during the latter 1800s by Norwegian immigrants to keep the land and culture of the homeland alive in the new home.
In Pilsen, Praugue’s Ludvik Dramatic Players presented plays and operettas in the Czech language in the two-thousand-seat Thalia Hall (which still stands.) Maxwell Street’s Eastern European Jews were avid theater-goers and supported for a half-century a number of theaters. (The accomplished stage and film actor Paul Muni learned his craft as Muni Weisenfreund in the Yiddish theater on Roosevelt Road near Halsted Street run by his father.) In 1905, the Pekin Stock Company staged musical works in the 900-seat Pekin at 2700 South State Street; sometimes described as the first black-owned permanent theater building in the U.S., the place is recalled in the 1904 tune, the Pekin Rag by ragtime’s Gershwin, Joe Jordan. In the 1920s, African American cultural revitalization spawned numerous small theaters in cities across the country, including the Skyloft Players and the Ethiopian Art Theatre in Chicago, the latter part of the flowering of arts in Bronzeville.
Randolph Street by then counted several: Powers’ Theatre; Adler and Sullivan’s fiat-topped Schiller Theatre Building, and the Sherman House—site of today’s JRT Center—which was popular with visiting show people. Harris and Selwyn theaters built on Dearborn steps off Randolph in 1922 were designed for stage productions, and between them hosted such luminaries of the modern era as Ethel Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Charles Laughton, Tallulah Bankhead, Mae West, Boris Karloff, and Audrey Hepburn.
The Loop in its heyday was paradise for lovers of theater. In the 1920s there were 29 theaters in the Loop alone. Lewis Manilow, the Chicago philanthropist, has explained his commitment to create today’s North Loop Theater District as a way to recreate the Loop of his youth, when downtown theaters offered more than 10,000 seats to Chicagoans in need of adventure.
It could never last, and it didn’t. Chicago theater impresarios were as unable to resist the temptation to overbuild than Chicago office developers, and the sector usually had more seats that people to put in them. In that sense even the houses that survived the wrecking ball were doomed. By 1950, only seven theaters remained open.
The straight theaters did rather better than did the vaudeville/movie houses, in part because City Hall was not as eager to bulldoze them—and their audiences—out of the Loop. By the 1970s, downtown still had a handful of standard playhouses—the Blackstone on Balbo Drive; the Civic Theatre on N. Wacker Dr. (in the Civic Opera Building); McVicker’s on West Madison Street.; the Shubert (originally the Majestic) on West Monroe, and the Studebaker in the Fine Arts Building on South Michigan, the Goodman in Grant Park. (The Auditorium, on Congress Drive, was used for ballets and musicals.) Others were closed—the Harris and Selwyn for example—but were left standing because it cost too much to tear them down, and no one yet wanted the land they stood on.
A few legitimate theaters were of architectural distinction. Two downtown Chicago theaters sprang from the desks of one of Chicago’s most outstanding architecture firms—the Auditorium and the Schiller (or Garrick, as the latter was later known), both by Adler and Sullivan. The Apollo Theater at the southeast corner of Randolph and Dearborn streets, which opened in 1921, was designed by the mainstream architecture firm of Holabird and Roche, which designed the theater in the Greek Revival style.
The crown jewel was, and is the Auditorium building. The place was never just a theater—it was the massive complex that included a hotel shops and offices—but the theater was the centerpiece. It was the largest opera house in the world when it opened, with an orchestra pit that could hold 110 players and seating for around 4,000 patrons. It certainly one of the gaudiest. Closed as World War II began, the theater suffered from many years of neglect until activists raised the money in 1959 to save it. (The theater reopened in 1967.) that restoration was the cause of an eight-year court battle between the theater council, which undertook it, and Roosevelt University, which occupies the rest of the building, battles that rival any opera that was ever staged there. Today the Auditorium is run by a not-for-profit corporation that is also responsible for its restoration and preservation. Its acoustics, then and now, are superb; its only drawback as a venue is its size, and in recent years it has struggled financially.
The "little theater" movement
The coming of the railroads might have made Chicago industry but it killed the city’s many stock theater companies. Beginning in the 1890s local stock companies were squeezed out of local houses by bookers of national touring companies, and for more than a half-century afterward, Chicago was merely the pot in which stale New York productions were warmed up.
What the nation enjoyed, Chicago enjoyed—even if, then as now, it often enjoyed them after their cousins in London or New York enjoyed them. (The exception is the tryout performance; Chicago audiences have long been guinea pigs for works that are still in progress prior to their New York debuts.) The steady diet of old chestnuts left many local theater people—not necessarily audiences—gagging. As early as 1900, adventuresome theater people were gathering in Michigan avenue studios—then the hotbed of advanced artistic thinking in Chicago—to read plays by such outré dramatists as Shaw and Ibsen; while the tourists tramped downtown to see revues to laugh, more earnest types went into off-Loop theaters on the settlement houses and local college campuses to learn.
Out of that soil sprouted a new theater movement in Chicago. The seed was planted by Maurice Browne, a Britisher who arrived in Chicago around 1910. Browne propagandized for the writing and producing plays for art’s sake rather than money. The vehicle to test this extraordinary notion was The Little Theatre, which he founded in 1912 with the actress known as Nelly Van, who offstage was Browne’s wife, Ellen Van Volkenburg.
The Little Theatre became famous for its staging of experimental plays both classical and modern. (The company for example gave Euripides' The Trojan Women its first U.S. production in 1912.) Rather than the usual painted backdrops they used sets that were symbolic and suggestive (they also were cheaper.) The Little Theatre crowd saw themselves—innovators always do—as prophets of a new social movement, not merely a new way to put on plays.
Such enterprises collectively became known as the little theater movement, after the company that pointed the way. The “little” in Chicago’s little theatre movement certainly described the box office take. The players set up shop in the Studebaker Building—later the Fine Arts—in a venue with only 100 seats; that proved not a seat too few for the plays by Shaw, Strindberg, Synge, Schnitzler, and the classic Greeks that Browne offered.
Ben Hecht was one of that small circle of adherents. “There was in my youth a fringe of incomprehensibility fans, whose souls hungered for befogged plots and unintelligible whoops from their actors,” recalled Hecht, who as the author of many one-acters fogged up his share of plots. “But in Chicago, they were a minority barely able to fill the two hundred seats of Maurice Brown’s Little Theater on the seventh floor of the Fine Arts Building. And there was only one such shrine in town.”
After only five years the company succumbed to financial ailments common to such enterprises even today. Long-time Tribune theater critic Richard Christianson reported, in his history of the city’s theater, that there is no physical trace of the Little Theatre left. “When I roamed around the Fine Arts fourth floor one wintry afternoon, trying to spot a hint of its existence, I found nothing. The whole floor had been radically remodeled several years earlier, erasing any evidence of the shrine I had hoped to find.”
Among the theatrically inclined, however, the Little Theatre lived on as an inspiration. To produce original plays, the Chicago Theater Company was formed by Chicagoans inspired by the local performances by the Irish Players from Dublin’s Abbey Theater. In 1916, another “high-aiming” theater venture, the Players’ Workshop, was formed in one of the 57th Street studios left over from the Columbian exposition, where were produced plays by members of the “Chicago Renaissance” group, one-acters of the sort described by Hecht.
Then there was the Hull House. The progressives of turn of the century Chicago advanced reforms on multifront war on social disintegration. All proceeded from the principle that healthy individuals would foster a healthy society. To nurture that health, they proposed playgrounds and education and dozen other nostrums, including the arts.
Jane Addams for example always included music and the crafts at Hull House as its modern equivalent might offer drug therapy addiction therapy and infant care. She had built there a state-of-the-art theater where plays were produced by resident staff—earnest ladies for the most part. The works ran the gamut; the play, in this case was not the thing (or certainly not the only thing), rather it was a vehicle of self-expression. (Those mantras—social reform and self expression—been the hallmarks of Chicago theater ever since.) The Hull House Theater produced plays which were intellectual and socially-minded rather than the Little Theatre’s “arty” fare, in the form of plays by Galsworthy, Masefield, and Shaw, that brought a to audience attention the social conditions against which Hull House fighting. Hull House Players earned special local and national attention and was active through the 1920s. Alas, the social workers who replaced Addams disdained such folderol and theater was dead at Hull House by the late 1950s.
It all seems a bit silly today. The dangerous plays that were mounted did not excite Chicagoans to take to the streets; they did not even excite Chicagoans to take to the theaters. Arguably the most effective writers of the era were not its authors of socialist tracts-as-novels or earnest issues plays but intellectual and social critics such as Jane Addams, John Dewey, and Thorstein Veblen. As for the poor and downtrodden, then as now the escapism made possible by access to the popular arts proved vastly more persuasive.
The Trib’s Richard Christiansen, for years dean of Chicago theater critics, summed up the era of the Little Theatre and its spawn this way: “[P]romoting and producing contemporary works from near and far, works that attempt to take the theater a step forward in its vision, is still an inspiring force in American theater,” he notes in A Theater of Our Own. “And the call to “create your own theater with the talent at hand” is still a battle cry for many young Chicago artists as they set out to conquer the world with their own little theaters. It was a harbinger of things to come. It was small; it was adventuresome; it was motivated by passion; it delighted in turning economic short-comings into blessings of innovation and experiment.”
The little theater movement encores
Chicago theater remained in the doldrums for nearly 50 years after the demise of Browne’s experiment. In 1929 the Chicago Civic Shakespeare Society, founded by Midwest industrial and cultural leaders headed by the utilities magnate Harley L. Clarke, invited veteran rep actor Fritz Lieber to form a resident repertory company at the Civic Theatre. Critics and ticket buyers liked it but the Depression (and the movies) and the Chicago Civic Shakespeare Society folded after three seasons.
Just as the little theater sought to open the Victorian parlor to the pungent air of the city, so another theater movement wanted to break through the complacency of 1950s Chicago. What Stuart I. Hecht calls “this theatrical void” was filled, again, by Hull House. There, a new generation of radically-inclined thespians tried to combine Jane Addams’s philosophy about art and social change to ambitious young director and eager actors and production people who were even younger who were committed to using the stage to change American society that, by the early 1960s, plainly was in need of changing.
The man behind the curtain at Hull House was director Robert Sickinger. Richard Christiansen was then editor of the weekend arts supplement to the Chicago Daily News. Christianson did for theater what Dell did from the old Friday supplement for the city’s writerly renaissance a half century earlier: He encouraged Chicago’s grassroots theater scene to dare to be Chicagoan.
In particular, Christiansen raved about the avant-garde productions being mounted at Hull House Theatre. Sickinger’s Chicago directorial debut came in 1963, with a production of Frank Gilroy’s Who’ll Save the Plowboy? More was to come in the form of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, Edward Albee’s Tiny Alice. Martin Duberman’s In White America and other works as alien to loop theaters as tutus in a Bears backfield which challenged audiences, critics, and Sickinher’s using non-professional casts and designers.
The Hull House productions won first local critics like C, then audiences of people who had disdained theater previously. They excited the rest of the nation too; in 1965 famed producer David Susskind invited Sickinger to present a Hull House play for Susskind’s televised Esso Repertory Theater—the only non-professional company asked to participate.
Ostensibly the program was to ease strained black-white relations, offer young people viable substitutes for drugs and gangs, and improve conditions of the poor. In fact art didn’t serve the poor, poor merely the subjects. Sickinger’s increasing ambition, and expensive, theater program was in conflict with its larger social mission. It had become very much a theater group in a settlement house, not a settlement house doing theater. Addams had wanted the theater to improve the residents; Sickinger did too but only in a narrow vocational sense, not a cultural sense; the disputes led to Sickinger leaving in 1969.
Nonetheless, Sickinger’s influence was huge, and not merely through his plays. The 140-seat Hattie Callner Theatre of the Jane Addams Center, 3212 N. Broadway was created in 1963 for Sickinger’s company; it offered space for other, similar companies. Among the companies that debuted here were Bailiwick, Lookingglass, and Steppenwolf, all to become crucial to the city’s theatrical renaissance. Thus, Hecht says, Hull House built the foundation for Chicago theater renaissance of the 1970s.
Sickinger and colleagues gave young people chance to apprentice, introduced the idea of serious plays, and made going to the theater exciting. Also bequeathed a style. Sickinger directorial style was emotional, realistic, the opposite of genteel, a style that fit the often technically unpolished performers who brought more commitment than technique to their parts. That style remains the Chicago’s theatrical trademark.
The first of what became the major companies in this new pantheon was the Body Politic (1966) which in the following 13 years followed by the Organic, Northlight (1974), Victory Gardens (1974), Wisdom Bridge (1974), Pegasus Players (1978), and Remains (1979). Today Chicago has two dozen pro companies and an astonishing 200 acting companies, many of which admittedly not much more than a couple of kids and their friends working out of borrowed basements. Plays going on outside the Loop—campuses (The Court Theatre, at the University of Chicago is especially well-regarded) storefronts in neighborhood, churches, and the small, slightly raffish theaters, mostly on the North Side neighborhoods, Earnest often experimental, but not all grim; The Noble Fool Theater Company specializes in parody (like that other resident company the Chicago City Council) , such as the long running Flanagan's Wake (now in its eighth year) and its hit production of The Baritones, a tongue-in-cheek complement to The Sopranos television show.
The Off-Loop boom matured with its largely baby-boomer audience. Surveys suggest that theater is a Chicago phenomenon; only about ten percent of audience are tourists, the rest from city and—amazing, considered the fear with which going out in the city center was regarded as recently as the early 1980s.
The new Chicago theater offers quality as well as quantity; Chicago was, as of 2001, the only city in the us with three theaters awarded the coveted Tony Award for best regional theater in the U.S.—Steppenwolf, Goodman, and Victory Gardens. The Steppenwolf Theatre Company first performed in a church basement in Highland park, in 1974 after that a larger basement, then a succession of ever-larger theaters until 1991, when Steppenwolf moved into a new custom-made 500-seat home on North Halsted Street.
Reading the early reviews of Steppenwolf is like reading about Sickinger or Brown’s Little Theater before that. The by-now trademark Chicago style—untutored intense, physical—inspired critics to coin the term “rock ‘n’ roll theater.”
Steppenwolf came not like the proverbial breath of fresh air. It was more like a gust—in the form of stagings of Lanford Wilson’s “Balm in Gilead” (1980), Sam Shepard’s “True West” (1982), and Frank Galati’s adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel “The Grapes of Wrath” (1988). Several players and directors who apprenticed at Steppenwolf have become mainstays in Hollywood, but most—rare among Chicagoans who make it big in the arts—return occasionally to work in Chicago productions, to recharge professionally.
Steppenwolf is not the only Chicago name that U.S. fans of contemporary theater recognize. “The Goodman” was for some 75 years located not in the loop but on the lakefront, appended to the Art Institute. It was an odd place for a theater, physically and institutionally; it happened, as it so often does in the arts in America, because a rich donor wanted it that way.
Kenneth Sawyer Goodman, who had theatrical ambitions, wrote seven one-acters for the Players’ Workshop and other little theaters with Ben Hecht. Goodman’s businessman father, lumber king William O. Goodman, had always indulged his son’s after-hours affair with the theater. (Hecht recalled that he and the younger Goodman had used the lumber king’s board of directors’ room as a studio to put on one-acters.) Kenneth envisioned a people’s theater with cheap tickets and daring plays. He found a site—in what then still called the Jewish ghetto around Maxwell Street—but, as Hecht would recall, “Kenneth . . . went off to see a football game in Princeton. He caught cold in the grandstand, developed pneumonia, and died.”
As a memorial, the father set out to see his son’s dream made real. The result was the Kenneth Sawyer Goodman Memorial Theatre and School of Drama, set up on a European model with a professional repertory company whose members would also teach in the acting school. The theater to house this ambitious enterprise was built not in the west side ghetto but as a wing of the Art Institute, about a million miles from Maxwell Street. It was not only the contradiction of Kenneth’s vision of a people’s theater in the temple of bourgeois culture that was compromised by the new Goodman. The building was designed by a society architect, not a theater specialist, and had bad acoustics, noisy heating and cooling systems, too few seats, and too cramped a backstage.
The Goodman School of Drama opened in 1925, with the professional repertory company debuting the following year. Consistent with the vision of the its late namesake, the company eschewed commercial fare in favor of European-influenced contemporary work; consistent with their tastes in entertainment, ticket-buying Chicagoans stayed home. The company was shut down in 1931, victim of the Chicago public’s indifference to contemporary theater and of the trustees’ intolerance of deficits.
The School of Drama was retained, however, so productions went on using imported stars in otherwise student productions. As a school the Goodman has to be counted a success. Among the many noted actors who studied at the Goodman School are Linda Hunt, Karl Malden, Joe Mantegna, Lois Nettleton, Geraldine Page, Jose Quintero, Carrie Snodgress, and Sam Wanamaker. But an acting school made scarcely more sense in an art museum than a theater company, and while it didn’t cost as much money it did use space that the AI needed for its main mission. The school was in effect booted out in 1978, to be taken off the streets by DePaul University, where it thrives as that institutions theater school, which now is the Midwest's oldest theater conservatory.
A professional company had been reconstituted at the Art Institute in 1969, but the then-current generation of Art Institute directors had no more appetite for show biz than did their predecessors, and that group was split off as separate not-for-profit group in 1977, which still runs the Goodman today. This second Goodman troupe staged some of the best productions in recent Chicago theater history, and earned for the company a national reputation.
It was the Goodman that staged the world premiere of The Freedom of the City by Irish playwright Brian Friel, which became the first Goodman show to move to Broadway. It was a Goodman studio series that tapped the talent of Chicago’s Off-Loop theatre scene, names that are now famous, such as Frank Galati and David Mamet; Mamet’s American Buffalo premiered in 1977 as a Goodman studio production. Gregory Mosher—now a doyen of New York’s theater world, engineered the world premieres of Mamet’s Glengary Glen Ross, and showed there was an appetite for contemporary works from abroad by selling tickets to plays by the likes of South African Athol Fugard. Under successor Robert Fall, Goodman has forged a close partnership with playwright August Wilson and actor s such as Brian Dennehy; the last starred in the 1998 Death of Salesman, which went on to win Tony Awards for Falls, Dennehy and the Goodman when it played on Broadway.
There are many who consider the Goodman to be the “real” theater company in Chicago. A real theater company needs a real theater, which the facility at the museum was not. The original Goodman Theater was demolished to make room for an expansion of its original host, the Art Institute. In 2000 a new Goodman theater opened—actually two theaters that are part of a $46 million complex at 170 N. Dearborn in the Loop theater district built on the site of the historic vanished Garrick and Woods theaters and incorporates the long-closed Harris and Selwyn theaters. The complex resurrected from the dead not only two great old houses, but serious Loop theater. The new complex has drawn lavish praise as a place to make and to watch theater.
The actors and directors who have learned their craft in such companies are as famous in certain circles are as the city’s gangsters used to be. Previously the artistic director of Wisdom Bridge Theatre, Evanston's Robert Falls has been the Goodman Theatre's artistic director since 1986, and under him the company earned a Tony award as a regional theater. On Broadway, he also directed The Night of the Iguana and The Rose Tattoo (which was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Revival).
The Chicago Style
The off-Loop companies of the 1960s trumpeted spontaneity, experimentation, and freedom from inhibition—the natural reaction of too-carefully-raised suburban kids raised to the level of aesthetic principle. Lawrence Santoro, a veteran of the scene in the 1970s, recalls how Chicago theater people went about their business. “Midwestern Shakespeareans seemed all headbash and spit, rock'n'roll and rend your clothes . . . . For them, it seemed less performance, more day labor in an abattoir.”
The approach is manifest in perhaps its purest form in two forms of quasi-theatrical forms that are peculiarly popular in Chicago. One is the poetry slam—more theater than literature, and more therapy than either. The other is improv. No guarantee of spontaneity in performance than to abandon the script in favor of skits improvised (often with help of audience) on the spot or performed to scripts generated through improvs of the troupe in rehearsal, as practiced by such troupes as Annoyance Theater, ImprovOlympic and others.
Second City is the standout here, thanks in no small part to Del Close, a pioneer in the long-form improvisation method. Close began his improv career with The Compass Players, and essentially invented “long-form” improvisation; his improv team game, The Harold, is practiced in countries around the world, and he coauthored a standard text on comedy improvisation.
Second City began offering improvisational comedy with a satirical edge in a Wells Street club in 1959. SC did for a new generation of satirically-inclined actors and writers—the familiar Chicago wise guy with a college education—what vaudeville had done for their punch-line-oriented forebears. It gave bright but inexperienced talents a place where they could hone their skills—a place, in short, to be bad.
Alas, poor Yorick
It is one of Chicago’s more diverting urban legends. When the legendary Chicago improv guru Del Close died in 1999, he willed his cranium to the Goodman for use as a prop. He had played Polonious once in Hamlet, but the role he really wanted to play was Yorick, and left the skull in the hope that he would.
Close's skull is kept in the office of Goodman's artistic director, displayed reverently on a red velvet cushion in a plastic box. Alas for lovers of legend, it was revealed in 2006 that no pathologist could be found willing to prepare the head, so the skull so honored in fact was purchased, and belongs to who knows who.
Second City was an offshoot of an University of Chicago theater group whose founding members included such now familiar show-biz names as Paul Sills, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, and Zohra Lampert. After college they collaborated in The Playwright's Theatre Club on the north side, before some of them formed, in 1955, an improvisational group known as The Compass Players. Their stages were in Chicago nightclubs, not theaters.
The Compass Players were intellectual and politically conscious, and thus shared a sensibility with experimental theater going back to the original HH Players. WHO recalled a student party at the time. “There were Nichols and May . . . . enjoying the usual kind of Partisan Review-crowd yakety-yak about politics and the novel and Freudianism and everything else.” In time the Compass Players would include among its alums Alan Alda, Jane Alexander, Alan Arkin, Ed Asner, Shelley Berman, Valarie Harper, Barbara Harris, Linda Lavin, Paul Mazursky, Anne Meara, and Jerry Stiller.
Second City was formed by other Playwright's Theatre Club veterans in 1959. Performing in a former Chinese laundry in Old Town under the direction of Bernard Sahlins, the Second City has become a North American theatrical institution. Through the 1970s, SC produced some of the era’s best-known club comedians and comedic actors. A partial list includes Alan Arkin, Ed Asner, Shelley Berman (who invented the style of comedy that Bob Newhart would later perfect), Barbara Harris, Linda Lavin, Mike Nichols, Elaine May (the last two forever famous as Nichols and May), Paul Mazursky, Jerry Stiller Anne Meara (best known as the team of Stiller & Meara), Paul Sand, Joan Rivers, Avery Schreiber, David Steinberg, Robert Klein, Fred Willard, Peter Boyle, Harold Ramis, John Belushi, and Bill Murray. Among Chicago institutions of learning, only the University of Chicago can boast of such accomplished alumni.
Since 1973 The Second City in Toronto nurtured such talents as Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner and the troupe’s satirical SCTV made stars of John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Harold Ramis Catherine O'Hara, and Dave Thomas. Like most other things, Second City has gone suburban; the “Chicago” troupe now trains in Arlington Heights, where the need for laughs is pressing, and in YEAr opened a $2 million Comedy Club and Players Workshop of Second City in Joliet.
As noted, Sickinger and the Hull House troupes produced the model for much of Chicago theater today—realistic, or rather naturalistic in style, socially uplifting, determined to rub in the face of the bourgeoisie in all the sordid truths that the privileged would rather ignore. (Those truths have changed since the 1960s—instead of class war or racism, it is sexual repression, and more recently sexual politics and the immigrant experience.) Chicago’s little theater movement was all earnestness in social sense. today it is—true to the times-earnest in a psychological sense.
Literature on the stage
Long a source of actors and impresarios, Chicago been a less fecund source of plays. Many of the Chicago Renaissance crowd tried their hands at writing for the stage, in the form of earnest dramas of social criticism that had little effect on the world or on their audiences.
The first Chicago playwright that did was Lorraine Hansberry. She was born in Chicago in 1930 to a well-off family. She discovered she had the theater bug while attending Englewood High School, an interest refined and deepened by study at the University of Wisconsin. The adult Hansberry moved to New York City, where she survived on odd jobs until 1957, when she finished a draft of a play she titled, A Raisin in the Sun about a family of African American Chicagoans trapped psychically and socially in the South Side.
The theme was one that Hansberry, herself black, knew well. Richard Wright’s Twelve Million Black Voices addressed the appalling overcrowding in the Black Belt in the 1920s and ‘30s when a swelling population was crammed into the few neighborhoods that white prejudice was prepared to allow the city’s new black immigrants to live. The result was a public health crisis. Death rates among Chicago black residents exceeded the birth rate—what Wright called “our death sentence without a trial.”
Producing a play by a neophyte and with an all-African American cast was not easy—Raisin took two years to make it to the stage—but audiences and critics applauded when they finally got the chance to see it. It was Hansberry who suggested that actor Sidney Poitier play the lead, and the part made him a star. (A film was later made of it, also starring Poitier.) The work won the Pulitzer, among other plaudits. Much more was expected of Hansberry but she died, only 34, in 1965; the former Indiana and 56th Park, 5635 S. Indiana Ave., was eventually renamed Lorraine Hansberry Park.
The most famous play written by Chicagoans about Chicago is The Front Page. In it, former reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur distilled years of gaudy doings into high comedy about very low goings-on. It was denounced as vulgar, which explains why it was made into three Hollywood films. The story, which depicts some Chicago politicians determined to execute a white man who has killed a Negro policeman in self-defense, because the politicians need the black vote in next day’s election, might well have happened. The two central characters very definitely happened in Chicago—legendary Chicago newspaper men, Walter Howey, an editor on the Tribune, and reporter Hilding Johnson.
David Mamet’s quintessential Chicago lyrical tough guy are not far removed from Hecht’s. David Mamet was born in 1947 in “Chicago” (although some sources give his birthplace as suburban Flossmoor), returned to Chicago in 1972 after college and stints in New York. The city recognized his talent, which is to say his prejudices aligned nicely with those of the city. He was associate artistic director at the Goodman Theater in 1978–79, and awarded the Joseph Jefferson Award, Chicago’s version of the Tony, in 1975 for Sexual Perversity in Chicago. In 1975, his American Buffalo at Chicago’s Goodman Theater garnered him an Obie Award for best new playwright of the year; a revised version of the play staged on Broadway in 1977 won the New York Drama Critics Circle Best Play award. He has drawn on his experience in the city for several works such as Glengarry Glen Ross (1984), which is “of the very bones and sinews of Chicago,” in the opinion of Carl Smith, a student of the city’s literature who teaches at Northwestern.
Mamet went on to a successful career writing, directing, and acting in plays and films. Mamet’s characters carry on a tradition—or perpetuate a stereotype, depending on your view—that goes back to Algren and, before him, to Hecht. In his screenplay for the 1987 film The Untouchables, Mamet has a policeman explain to super G-man Eliot Ness that Chicago “stinks like a whorehouse at low tide.” It is classic Chicago wisecrack—a hard shell of attitude around a simile that is gibberish.
Mamet has long since ceased to be a Chicago playwright, and must be described as an American playwright with roots in Chicago. He has garnered many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Glengarry Glen Ross. No prize yet for perhaps his most notable achievement, which has been to make Chicago interesting to a new generation of Americans, and for having thus confirmed what Chicagoans like to think as special about themselves.
The New Theater District
Chicago in the 1990s began experiencing another theater boom. if not perhaps a theater-going boom. theater a crucial part of the “24-hour downtown” that planners and developers lusted after beginning in the 1980s. The wrong kind of theaters had helped drive the middle class out of the downtown in the 1970s; perhaps the right kind could bring them back.
Preservationists fought the city's plans to urban-renewal the Chicago into rubble and replace it with new office buildings. The city’s new mayor Daley was perhaps still stinging with the shame that had fallen upon his father for not saving the Garrick, came up with the money buy to the old house in 1986 for an organization of preservationists who oversaw a nine-month, $25 million restoration.
The rescue of the Chicago was a spur to revive other closed houses. Thanks to a supportive mayor, and citizens such as real estate developer and philanthropist Lewis Manilow, Chicago now has a “theatre district” (the French spelling is presumably preferred because it impresses the tourists from Moline). Building theaters, once the province of the great impresarios like McVicker and showman A. H. Woods, is now a public enterprise. City Hall supplied nearly $60 million towards the revitalization of the District, including money for the rehabilitation and construction of theaters and streetscape improvements.
A half-dozen six stages now dot Randolph Street in the Loop, including the restored Palace and the Oriental and, and, steps off Randolph at Dearborn, the new Goodman complex which incorporated the old Harris and Welwyn houses. Randolph Street has regained something of its historical place as a center of theatrical life in the Second City.
The classics have not been forgotten in the new boom. Chicago Shakespeare Theater is Chicago's professional theater dedicated to the works of William Shakespeare. Founded as Shakespeare Repertory in 1986, the company moved to its permanent home on Navy Pier in 1999.
Meanwhile the downtown theaters, as they have always done, book the splashy touring shows, and host tryout performances of works heading toward New York. Chicago audiences and critics can seldom make a show, but they can break one. Richard Christiansen states that the most famous review in Chicago theater history was written in 1944 by the Tribune’s Claudia Cassidy—a rave about the pre-Broadway premiere of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie that sent the play off to New York with people buzzing, and thus guaranteed the young playwright’s success.
Neither it must be said did many of the performers. If Chicago theatrical style is earnest and improving it is also naïve. Chicago theater is largely made by people from the small towns and suburbs; the greatest of the Chicago companies born in the 1970s—Steppenwolf—was created by two Highland Park high schoolers (Gary Siniese and Jeff Perry) and a classmate from ISU in Bloomington, (Terry Kinney) joined later by two from southern Illinois small towns—John Malkovich (Benton) and Laurie Metcalf (Carbondale and Edwardsville) and Joan Allen (Rochelle). They don’t know enough to know what they aren’t supposed to do, which often is a good thing.
In sum, Chicago ain’t New York, and many think it is better for that. Theater here is a pastime, at most a craft, not an industry as it is in New York. every apprentice playwright, director and actor needs a place to be bad, and Chicago is such a place. ●