Studebaker Theater

410 S. Michigan Avenue,
Chicago, IL 60605

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World Playhouse in the Fine Arts Building

Viewing: Photo | Street View

The Studebaker Building opened in 1885, a massive Romanesque style building between the Auditorium Building and Theatre and the old Art Institute of Chicago (which moved to its present location across Michigan Avenue in 1893; the old Art Institute building was razed in 1929 and replaced a year later with the Chicago Club Building). The Studebaker Building housed showrooms for the carriage company (which later manufactured autos) until 1898 when it was converted into the Fine Arts Building as a school and performance venue for musicians and artists and offices for publishers and architects. In 1917, the legitimate Studebaker Theatre was built on the ground floor of the building, the name still inscribed on the facade.

In 1933, the Studebaker Theater was renamed the World Playhouse and later began to show films, mostly foreign, while it continued to also feature plays on its stage as well.

However, by the 1950’s, the World Playhouse was a movie house only, and its legitimate days were over. By the 1960’s, it was screening adult films, and closed for a while in the 1970’s after being renamed for a short time the Studebaker Theater.

The theater was reopened as the Fine Arts Theatre in 1982 with two screens. Some of its Beaux-Arts style decor remained intact, though a bit worse for the wear. In the mid-to-late-1980’s, the Fine Arts became a quad. The Fine Arts was known as Chicago’s premier art and foreign film venue for much of that decade and into the 1990’s, along with the Music Box Theatre.

However, by the mid-to-late 1990’s, the Fine Arts Theater had clearly seen better days. Newer and larger art film houses, such as Landmark’s Century Centre in the Lake View neighborhood, and the Gene Siskel Film Center on State Street in the Loop, had replaced the Fine Arts in popularity and quality in the art film genre.

In its last days, it was no longer even showing just art films, but commercial features, as well. The last film on its marquee was “Red Planet” when it closed in late-2000. It reopened October 18, 2015 as the Studebaker Theater.

Contributed by Bryan Krefft, Ray Martinez

Recent comments (view all 104 comments)

Tim O'Neill
Tim O'Neill on January 13, 2014 at 11:13 pm

We’re not not “bitching” about bad writing; we’re mentioning the fact that the description has way too many historical inaccuracies. For an excellent piece of writing on the history of the Fine Arts Theatres, and other Downtown Chicago movie houses, pick up a copy of “Downtown Chicago’s Historic Movie Theatres”, by Konrad Schiecke. I couldn’t have written it better myself.

Tim O'Neill
Tim O'Neill on January 14, 2014 at 2:20 am

Bravo!!! One thing I noticed; you mention the small theatre was renamed the Fine Arts in 1908 and then you mention that the small theatre was renamed the Fine Arts in 1912. Is this an error in naming of the smaller theater?

Broan on January 14, 2014 at 10:45 am

The newspapers were a little unclear. “The Fine Arts Theatre” and “The Fine Arts Music Hall” both appear in the Tribune from 1908-1912. I suspect the ‘music hall’ references were talking about Assembly/Curtiss Hall on the 10th floor but it’s not really clear. I’ll take it down and re-edit.

Broan on January 14, 2014 at 10:56 am

Chicago’s Fine Arts building contains two of the oldest surviving theatres in Chicago, with remarkably complex histories.

The Solon S. Beman-designed building began was built 1885-1887 as the Studebaker Building. A massive building with gigantic granite columns, it was built for the Studebaker Company, which at the time manufactured carriages. The first four floors originally served as showrooms, with manufacturing on the upper four and in the basement. At the time of construction, this part of Michigan Avenue was largely residential, but the character began to change soon after, with the construction of the adjacent Auditorium Building to the south in 1889. To the north was the Art Institute of Chicago, built in 1886-1887. Both neighboring buildings echoed the Studebaker’s architecture with extensive use of arcades and rusticated stone.

In 1890 and 1892 the Art Institute built and enlarged an annex addition to the Studebaker to house its galleries and libraries while it prepared to move across the street into the Memorial Art Palace, used by the World’s Congress Auxiliary for scholarly programs during the Columbian Exposition. In 1895, the Studebaker Company began work a new building on South Wabash Street and once it was complete in late 1897, the old building was re-dedicated to Fine Arts.

Under the management of Charles C. Curtiss, the new plans included two music halls on the first floor, Studebaker Hall, seating around 1500 and University Hall, seating around 700 for recitals. The top story was removed and three new stories added. The upper part of the building would be offices and studios for musicians, artists, publishers, architects, and other artistic purposes. A smaller assembly hall would be built on the 10th floor, connected to the Auditorium hotel’s dining room. The open-air Venetian Court was built in the fourth floor light well. Stores on the lower floors would be designated for musical instrument stores. The new building would become the hub of the arts community in Chicago, and over the years held studios for such luminaries as Frank Lloyd Wright, Lorado Taft, John T. McCutcheon, L. Frank Baum, and organizations such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, Chicago Women’s Club, University of Chicago Teacher’s College, Chicago Musical College, Poetry Magazine, the Little Room, the Little Review, the Little Theater, the Kalo Shop and the Illinois Women’s Suffrage movement.

Studebaker Hall opened September 29, 1898 and was primarily used for popular music, meetings and plays. It was noted as exceptionally beautiful and acoustically superior. Originally, it had an arched proscenium like the neighboring Auditorium and 34 box seats across three levels, divided by stately columns. Early on it was primarily used for light opera by the Castle Square company of Boston. It was leased to Connor & Dillingham of New York in June, 1907 and was refurbished. In August, 1913 it turned over to Klaw & Erlanger. The Studebaker began its brief high-class film career April 20, 1914 when Jones, Linick, and Shaefer assumed operations, with an even briefer stint under Triangle. In September, 1917 the Shubert organization took over the lease, working with K & E, and began a major reconstruction. The proscenium arch was enlarged, the side walls were rebuilt, and a new main floor, balcony, and gallery were constructed, though the ceiling remained the same. Hanks & Gazzolo took over in 1922, and in October 1927, Samuel Insull took over the lease so that his theatrically-oriented wife could manage it. (Gladys Insull was the inspiration for the Susan Alexander character in Citizen Kane.) After the stock crash devastated Insull, the Studebaker ran diminished until being leased to a variety of itinerants. Among them was the Central Church, which held services there 1944-1950. On February 11, 1950, it closed and was used as studios for NBC through 1955, reopening October 2, 1956. From then it operated under a series of organizations including the Nederlanders. It was only used sporadically in its later years, and the final show may have been A Prairie Home Companion in October, 1982.

University Hall opened December 29, 1899 and was renamed Music Hall around 1903, when a balcony was added. It was again remodeled somewhat in 1908, and renamed the Fine Arts Theater, now presenting plays. In 1912, it was totally rebuilt and the Fine Arts Theater name became more prominently used. On May 16, 1914 it started showing films under the Alfred Hamburger organization during gaps between live shows. Another round of renovations came in October 1916, when it was renamed the most familiar name, the Playhouse Theater and went back to showing plays except for brief stints of movies. In 1919 it was leased to Metro Pictures, but showed both film and performance through the twenties. In April 1933, coinciding with the Century of Progress, it was again renamed to the World Playhouse, featuring movies, especially foreign films. The World Playhouse became, essentially, Chicago’s first dedicated foreign and art film theater. It closed in 1972; in its final year it had booked adult films among other imports. It was renovated and reopened in September 1980 for chamber music.

In December, 1982 M&R Amusement Company announced plans to convert the two theaters into a cinema complex, becoming the first theaters to open in the Loop in 10 years. They opened on Christmas Day with Moonlighting in Theatre 1 (Studebaker) and Veronika Voss in Theatre 2 (World Playhouse). Initially, the World Playhouse continued showing live entertainment occasionally. In 1983, the Studebaker stage was walled off to create Theater 3, utilizing a dressing room as a projection booth. In 1984, the same approach was taken in Theater 2 to create Theater 4; Theater 3 was renovated so that both could share a newly-built booth in between. Theatre 1 held approximately 1200 seats; Theatre 2 approximately 550 seats; Theatre 3 240 seats; Theatre 4 158 seats. Showing mostly art and independent films, with occasional Hollywood fare, the theaters closed in November, 2000.

Since then, various proposals have been floated to reopen the theaters, but none have come to fruition. Theaters 3 and 4 have been removed, restoring the integrity of the stages. The Studebaker and World Playhouse have been open for occasional special events, but await a thorough renovation to be reused.

Broan on August 16, 2015 at 11:08 am

The Studebaker is apparently to reopen October 18.

Mikeoaklandpark on August 16, 2015 at 2:04 pm

Great news. A theater once more and not demolished or converted into some stupid retail space. :)

DavidZornig on October 2, 2015 at 9:23 pm

Current piece on the Studebaker with great current photos. Copy and paste to view.

Broan on October 4, 2015 at 9:07 am

Incredibly, in 1917 the Studebaker was closed only 5 weeks for renovations.

Broan on October 18, 2015 at 12:53 pm

Name should be changed to Studebaker, status to Open

DavidZornig on November 25, 2015 at 8:30 pm

1915 photo added courtesy of Jori Sobery Curry.

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