Monday, November 12, 2012

Movie Theaters in Rogers Park and West Ridge, Part 1

The literature of movie theater architecture tends to focus on the best examples of the type.  But rarely do they provide a sense of how pervasive movie theater culture was as a form of neighborhood entertainment, or how it evolved in response to changes in building technology, film production, and social trends.  As a part of the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society's Storefront Exhibits Project, I've been taking a close look at 1554 W. Devon, the current location of Devon Clark Hardware but originally the Ellantee Theater.  In order to place that building in context I've been researching other neighborhood theaters.  The graphics below are simplified building footprints taken from various editions of the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, and the photographs are from the collection of the RP/WRHS.

Casino Theater (1911).  7053 N. Clark.  299 Seats.
The former Casino Theater at 7053 N. Clark is the oldest motion picture theater in Rogers Park and was documented in an article published in the Chicago Tribune in August of 1911.  It has a facade of glazed green and white brick with terra cotta trim.  This was built in the middle of the nickelodeon craze, which lasted from 1905 until 1914.  For a small admission you could enter and stay as long as you liked.  A typical nickelodeon might show short features 16 hours a day, from 8 a.m. until midnight.

Many early theaters were simply converted storefronts.  These acquired a dangerous reputation, since they weren't fireproof and the early nitrate film stock was extremely flammable.   It's interesting that this theater only had 299 seats.  According to the Chicago Building Code of 1922 three-hundred or more seats would define this as a Class V  construction, requiring greater attention to safety features at a greater expense.

The Casino was put out of business as larger, more elaborate theaters were constructed nearby.  As movie theaters became more profitable the early ones were often superseded by larger models.  The marquee was removed and it was converted into a storefront.  Since this undated photo was taken the rounded parapet has been squared, making it even harder to spot this for what it is.  Or was.

Morse Theater (1913).  1330 W. Morse. 750 Seats.
Neighborhood residents will recognize this as The Mayne Stage, a recently renovated concert space and bar near the Morse El stop.  But before it became the Mayne Stage it was the Morse Theater.

This went a step beyond the Casino.  It used an attractive combination of brick and terra cotta detailing to convey respectability.  And it was true fireproof construction, making use of steel roof trusses with fireproof cladding.

The central bay provided access to the box office and a small lobby.  The projecting marquee and inset entrance helped to extend the theater space and draw in the crowd.   Box offices were normally placed close to the sidewalk to better call in customers.  Two flanking storefronts allowed for additional income. With a seat count of 750 building code required that the theater observe the maximum number of seats-per-row (13), provide clear secondary exits to the alley, and locate the projector in a fire-proof room.

It was common for these theaters to combine motion pictures with live entertainment to compete with the popular vaudeville shows of the time.  Interestingly, vaudeville had begun to intersperse their own shows with short feature films.  As live performances became more expensive most movie theaters eliminated them.  Vaudeville itself was hit hard by the popularity of the motion picture.  Two years after this theater was built D.W. Griffith's twelve-reel Birth of a Nation became the first blockbuster, paving the way for more feature-length films and further boosting the popularity (and profitability) of motion pictures.

A rounded marquee is shown in the building footprint above.  This was taken from the 1951 map, and probably indicates a theater modernization, which were very common.  The above photo is c. 1920 and likely shows the original rectangular marquee.

Adelphi Theater (1917).  7074 N. Clark.  1,308 Seats.
The Adelphi Theater was built just four years after the Morse, but the change is dramatic.  The marquee is more elaborate and a two-story illuminated sign is mounted to the building.  The ornamentation has become more exuberant, and you can see the light sockets that are integral to the terra cotta columns.  A signboard showed what was currently playing (and also reveals that the photo was taken in 1921).  This building accommodated several storefront spaces and a large lobby.  Movies were still silent, but they were often feature length, underscored with a live orchestra (or organ), and shown according to a schedule.  

The small structures at the rear of the building were early air-conditioning equipment, a rare luxury for the time.  And of course this was fireproof construction with a steel frame, concrete floors and roof, and brick curtain walls.

Throughout the 1910s move studios were being consolidated and centralized distribution was established.  This theater was operated by the Ascher Brothers, who would coordinate movie distribution throughout their network. There were many of these early operators, including Balaban & Katz (B&K), Marks Brothers, William Fox, Marcus Loew, and Adolph Zukor.  Theaters were bought and constructed with the intent of establishing entertainment empires. 

This building was demolished in 2006 after a long decline.

This series will  focus on several more theaters in future entries.  Amazingly, there were 13 theaters in Rogers Park and West Ridge, including some of the best movie palaces outside of the Loop.

I'm  indebted to Maggie Valentine's book, "The Show Starts on the Sidewalk: An Architectural History of the Movie Theater," for her concise history of early movie theaters and theater design.


  1. Hello! I'm a Rogers Park resident who's always about taking odd photos of old buildings (my handle on Flickr is randoymwalks).
    On one of my ramblings, a storefront on Greenleaf that usually had a big rubber mat down in the doorway stood revealed as having a tiled floor entrance that read CASINO. I was fascinated, but didn't have my camera. Everytime I pass back that way, all the entrances are gated and have rubber mats down, so I've been unsure of where I saw it, but it must have been on that block...

  2. Interesting. I haven't seen that, but I'll keep and eye out. I think the old Casino nickelodeon was part of the white brick building on the NE corner, which has some frontage on Greenleaf... Thanks!