Question: What do Jimi Hendrix, Teddy Roosevelt, Frank Lloyd Wright, Hillary Clinton, World War II veterans who like to bowl, and uncountable millions of Chicagoans have in common?
Answer: All are part of the legendary history of Roosevelt University’s Auditorium Theatre, soon to mark its 125th year. Some gave speeches, some performed, many helped build it and restore it, and countless more have found joys and entertainment in its halls.
In large part that’s just what businessman and philanthropist Ferdinand Whythe Peck intended when he began planning a world’s best concert venue full of architectural firsts. It was in the wake of the Great Chicago Fire and the opening of the magnificent Auditorium Theatre is credited with helping win the World’s Fair of Chicago soon after.
Peck’s goal was to make culture available to all—working men and well-heeled alike. As he and the architects, Adler and Sullivan, would have it, the latter were not given the best sight lines as in other theaters but rather box seats on the side.
This was and is an entertainment hall for all of Chicago. It’s been the Chicago venue of rock legends like The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and more. Nearly every major dance company in the world has performed on its stage. It’s been a second stage for Broadway productions too. Drummers, choruses, comedians and more—Auditorium Theatre was and is a center of entertainment and culture in America.
It was and is also quite the architectural feat. It was the heaviest building of its time and in order to support its 17 story tower they used pig iron to help support it. If you’ve walked on the uneven floors of the Auditorium Theatre you know that this effort was not 100% successful. When it opened it was the tallest building in Chicago and the largest structure in the USA. It was the first theater with all electric lighting—3500 carbon filament bulbs that don’t get hot. Another first was air conditioning, which required tons of ice to feed into the building’s ventilation system.
What many don’t realize is that the Auditorium Theatre building was also a first-of-a-kind mixed multi-use building. The theater was to be sustained by a hotel and offices, a novel concept at the time. Alas, the development was dealt a major blow when hotels with shared bathrooms fell out of favor. And in fact the building, which later become part of Roosevelt University, was mothballed for many years until aggressive fundraising kicked off its renovation and renewal in the 1960’s.
You can take get a backstage look, marvel at its architecture, and learn more of the legends who have performed on it’s stage by taking a tour of Auditorium Theatre. If you love architecture or have a keen interest in Chicago history taking this tour should surely be towards the top of your bucket list. Anyone who wants to look backstage will get a rare thrill too.
You will also be treated to demonstrations of its amazing acoustics as you hear whispering from one side of the balcony travel along arches to your ears on the other side. We have acoustical genius and engineer Dankmar Adler to thank for this and making the building into what is essentially a megaphone for the stage. Adler’s partner, Louis Sullivan, created a design with a feeling of grandeur from the great hall’s trademark compression in small space to feeling of release in the large hall, as well as decorative splendor galore.
Auditorium Theater’s staff is giving much time and consideration to the celebration in December and throughout the year. At this time it’s unknown the event’s Honorary Chair, First Lady Michelle Obama, will attend the birthday bash gala in December. But they do have the great grand niece of the first soprano who ever sang on the Auditorium Theatre’s stage, Patty Lapone, lined up to entertain for sure.
The 125th celebration will not just be that one day in December, but rather throughout this year. All of Chicago will be able to take part. Soon there will be elections on celebration events. And, movies free to the public to be screened in the grand hall, honoring Peck’s vision of the building as a great hall for all of Chicago.
This 125th Season also includes seven international dance groups, four of Chicago’s leading dance troupes, and four musical events. For tickets and information visit the Auditorium Theatre website or call 312 341 2357 and keep an eye on these Splash pages for announcements of 125th birthday events currently in the works.
Photos and drawings courtesy of Auditorium Theatre