Top theatre historian passes away
Joseph R. DuciBella, ASID, of Chicago, arguably the most influential and prolific theatre historian in the United States, died Friday, June 29. He was 62.
Known internationally for being a founding member (1969) and longtime Chicago-area director of Theatre Historical Society of America, DuciBella was an accomplished designer of theatre, office, residential and commercial interiors. A Chicago Academy of Fine Arts graduate, he operated an independent interior design firm for 24 years. During that time, he was the designer of choice for Classic Cinemas, of Downers Grove, Ill., an independent, family-owned company of more than 80 screens in the region. DuciBella led the renovations of two of Classic Cinemas' most historic theatres, the Tivoli Theatre, in Downers Grove, Ill., and the Lake Theatre, Oak Park, Ill.
A passionate researcher and storyteller of Chicago history, he had the unique ability to weave with words the complex religious, ethnic, labor, political and architectural histories of Chicago into near-epic tales – neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block, and theatre to theatre. He was most recently featured in the documentary film “Uptown: Portrait of a Palace,” which gave a glimpse of his knowledge about the challenges of historic theatre renovation and reuse.
DuciBella was a frequent speaker and informed tour guide for events and symposia related to architecture and historic preservation – particularly theatre buildings. He rallied enthusiasm and anticipation for decades for his comprehensive book, “The Theatres of Chicago,” that has not yet been published. However, he published articles and lectured on theatre design history extensively for more than 30 years.
A quiet but methodical activist, DuciBella worked steadily in many historic preservation efforts in Chicago, including support of the Wicker Park (neighborhood) historic district, the Chicago Theatre, the Oriental Theatre, the Uptown Theatre, the Congress Theatre and St. James Cathedral. He was a proud owner of a National Register home in Wicker Park, in which had been a tenant. He out-stayed the other boarders, bought the building and restored it over time to its original Victorian beauty.
Born on April 17, 1945, DuciBella grew up in a tough, working-class Italian neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. That’s where he was first enchanted by the interiors of the Marbro and Paradise theatres of the Balaban & Katz chain. While a student, Joe worked for B&K in many of its theatres, including the Marbro and Uptown theatres. Of his favorite “movie palaces” in Chicago, only the Chicago and the Uptown theatres remain. The Chicago Theatre was saved with his help and remodeled for live shows in 1986. The Uptown Theatre has been closed and “endangered” since 1981. DuciBella was active as a volunteer in the continuing “Friends of the Uptown” effort since 1979 – even before the theatre closed to the public.
An enthusiastic fan of both popular and liturgical music, DuciBella was a lifelong supporter of the arts, several churches and many theatre and church organ restoration efforts. A private player of piano and organ, Joe was always thrilled by the sound of a well-played, installed and maintained theatre, church or concert organ.
DuciBella was a longtime cancer survivor who again suffered from the disease in recent years. He endured extensive treatments, therapies and surgery before succumbing in hospice care at his home in the company of his closest friends and family members.
A wake will be held Friday, July 6, and a funeral will be held Saturday, July 7, at the Church of the Ascension, 1133 N. La Salle Drive, where DuciBella was a member. Information about other memorial activities and where memorial gifts may be directed will be published soon.
“The Theatres of Chicago,” by Joseph R. DuciBella and R. David White
Theatre Historical Society of America, Elmhurst, Illinois
American Society of Interior Designers
(Photo courtesy of the Theatre Historical Society of America and Obituary courtesy of Friends of Uptown)