‘Auditorium Theatre’ Review — Upcoming Birthday Bash for a Marvel of Architecture 125 Years Ahead of Its Time

3,500 filament bulbs cast a golden glow

The stage of the Auditorium Theatre has seen a lot of action: from John Phillip Sousa to Jimi Hendrix, from the Ziegfeld Follies to Bette Midler, from Anna Pavlova to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. But much of the drama has been offstage, swirling around the building itself.



Sketch of the theater's grand opening Dec. 9, 1889


A marvel of engineering and modern design that was billed as “the eighth wonder of the world” when it opened on December 9, 1889, the Auditorium Building helped Chicago land the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and become the cultural destination it is today. But the building also went through hard times, rescued from the threat of demolition in the 1930s only because it weighed too much — a whopping 110,000 tons — to justify the cost of tearing it down. When the theater went bankrupt in 1941, its once glorious stage was converted into a bowling alley for GIs. Roosevelt University acquired the building in 1946 but lacked the funds to restore the theater. That didn’t happen until 1967.



The stage used as a bowling alley during World War II


Today, the grande dame of Chicago theaters has never looked better. To mark the occasion of her 125th birthday on December 9, a star-studded lineup of performers that includes John Mahoney and Patti LuPone will take to the stage to celebrate “Living the History — 125 Years of the Auditorium Theatre.” The gala continues with a post-performance dinner at the historic Palmer House Hilton.


Tim Samuelson on the stage of the Auditorium Theatre


In anticipation of that milestone birthday, Tim Samuelson, cultural historian for the City of Chicago and an alumnus of Roosevelt University who chose the school primarily for its architecture, joined Brett Batterson, executive director of the theater, to lead a tour of the historic building designed by architects Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan.




Full disclosure: As a docent volunteer at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, I lead walking tours that include the Auditorium Building, so I know its stats pretty well. But as familiar as I was with the history of the building, and as many performances as I’ve attended and reviewed in the theater, Samuelson and Batterson pointed out some of the venue’s charms I had overlooked. The duo also explained how the theater was technologically way ahead of its time.




First a little background. In the 1880s Chicago businessman Ferdinand Peck spearheaded fundraising efforts for what he envisioned as a state-of-the-art performance venue that would make high culture available to the general public. Dankmar Adler won the commission for his structural wizardry — the building “floats” on a massive “raft” foundation — and for his acoustical prowess. Teaming up with Adler, Louis Sullivan injected his organic style of design, uniting yang and yin — a streamlined, brawny exterior contrasting with a flora-detailed interior. With the work proceeding a fast clip — President Grover Cleveland laid the cornerstone on October 5, 1887 and the colossus opened two years later (and housed the 1888 Republican convention before it was even completed) — Sullivan delegated some of the design details to his 21-year-old protégé, Frank Lloyd Wright.




“Adler and Sullivan made a place for the eye and the ear,” said Samuelson. “They made magic that provided a place for the heart.”



Louis Sullivan's trademark arches highlight the stage


That artistic magic continues to this day. “To walk into that theater for the first time is one of the most memorable things you can do,” said Samuelson. As smitten as Samuelson is with the beauty of the building, he finds its technological mastery equally awe-inspiring.




“The 19th Century acoustics and sight lines are perfect,” said Samuelson. “No matter how hard people have tried, they’ve discovered they can’t improve upon them. Those basics never go out of date.”



Original seat on highest level


A trip to the highest level of seating — a tier that features the original chairs — proved his point. Without benefit of a microphone a singer on stage projected her voice over the 3,900-seat theater. The sound was dazzling. “The megaphone shape pushes the sound out, and the curves allow the sound to bounce,” said Batterson.




As large as the theater is, it feels intimate, and in fact it can be reconfigured into smaller sizes to match the needs of a particular event. “That flexibility of space comes from Adler,” said Samuelson, who explained that Adler zoned the space so that people don’t crowd the exits, a safety feature that surpasses many more modern theaters. “I’ve seen accessibility experts trying to decode the secrets. It was something that Adler did naturally. That planning makes it work today.” The additions of an elevator and a new entrance off Wabash and Congress extend that accessibility.



A lightbulb that grows like a flower bulb


Batterson pointed out that the lighting was electric, not gas, from day one: “Filament light bulbs weren’t seen publicly until 1879. The Auditorium design featured 3,500 bare carbon filament light bulbs, so that people couldn’t miss that.” The bulbs are integrated into the plaster ornamentation, their golden glow casting a circle of light that matches the diameter of the ornament.



Beautifully designed, down to its air ducts


The theater was also the first in the world to feature air conditioning. The initial system blew air over ice, and although the building now has a modern HVAC system, the air still emerges from the original decorative duct covers, Sullivan’s lush design like a breeze emerging from a garden.



Seat with built-in cane-holder below


Some historic details may yet find new uses. Samuelson drew attention to the bases of the velvet-covered seats on the lower levels, where curved notches appeared to flow from a decorative tangle of metal vines. “That’s where theatergoers would place their walking sticks,” explained Samuelson. That organic design still makes a good spot to tuck a cane out of the way — and it just might make the perfect place for that selfie extension arm.




Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress Parkway, Chicago


Living the History — 125 Years of the Auditorium Theatre


Dec. 9, 2014 at 6 pm


Tickets $35 — $125 at Ticketmaster or in person at the Auditorium box office or by calling (312) 341-2357


Gala celebration tickets (performance and dinner) start at $500; contact Amanda Martinez Byrne at (312) 341-3825 or [email protected]


For information on upcoming performances, visit Auditorium Theatre.


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