Avalon Theater – Chicago
Remembering the glorious Avalon Theater (New Regal) on Chicago’s south side in the 1950s and ‘60s from my childhood, I included a lot about it in my new true family, true crime book, The Pied Piper of South Shore, Toys and Tragedy in Chicago. The story is set around my parent’s toy store, Wee Folks, across the street from the Avalon.
My parent’s held many toy giveaway promotions on the stage of that theater. I thought you would all enjoy an excerpt from the book about the Avalon. For more information on the book with an artistic rendering of the Avalon on the cover contact me at or visit www.chicagospiedpiper.com to see it LIVE.
The Avalon’s interior displayed an immense oriental rug, said to be the world;s largest, hanging from the lobby’s twenty-foot ceiling. We kids were convinced it was a flying carpet. The lobby also boasted a gigantic Wurlitzer organ. Five murals made of tiny inlaid mosaic tiles adorned the walls along with a series of floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The entire place was encrusted with imitations of semiprecious jewels.
A working fountain and a grand piano graced the balcony. A winding marble staircase enhanced the splendor of the theater’s rich yellows and blues. The ceiling’s small electric lights twinkled like stars. It created an atmosphere of an imaginary courtyard surrounded by exotic buildings under a starry sky. In the 2,400-seat auditorium four fierce gargoyles guarded the stage. It all looked like pages from the stories of the Arabian Nights.
Wee Folks held seven or eight promotions a year at the Avalon in the fifties. Dad would set up an elaborate display of toys in the lobby so kids could see what they might win in next week’s drawing. In addition, the theater would play a brief trailer about our store. On the big day, a kid could see twenty-five cartoons for twenty-five cents and perhaps win the toy of his dreams right from the stage. Dad and I coordinated many of the events.
I had my first onstage moment at the age of eleven, when I awarded prizes to the kids with winning tickets. Later, promotions expanded to include the Rhodes Theater, farther west on 79th Street.
I particularly remember the annual Christmas promotions that started in the 1950s and continued for years. Dad put a glass and wood display case in the Avalon lobby and filled it with the hottest, most tempting toys of the season. Enormous signs told moviegoers four weeks in advance that a big toy giveaway would take place on stage the Saturday before Thanksgiving.
The theater showed one regular kids' feature and twenty-five cartoons, and then Dad and I took the stage. We drew winning ticket stubs for bikes, cap guns and holsters, and all things Mickey Mouse. Only a handful of kids won each time, but those who did remember the thrill to this day. The drawings pulled in so many kids that theaters started approaching Wee Folks with dates and ideas for cross-promotions.
Have a terrific new year – all!
Caryn Lazar Amster