Fine Arts Theater

410 S. Michigan Avenue,
Chicago, IL 60605

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Broan
Broan on January 14, 2014 at 8:56 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
Broan on January 14, 2014 at 8:45 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.

Tim O'Neill
Tim O'Neill on January 14, 2014 at 12:20 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?

Tim O'Neill
Tim O'Neill on January 13, 2014 at 9:13 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 October 22, 2013 at 9:43 pm

I worked at the M&R Fine Arts Theatre 30 years ago. I wish somebody would re-open these 2 historic late 19th Century theatres.

Broan
Broan on October 22, 2013 at 9:41 pm

Yes, this is a particularly inaccurate and confusing entry.

Tim O'Neill
Tim O'Neill on October 22, 2013 at 9:37 pm

Broan; I’m glad you got it right. The author of this page has so much info incorrect.

Broan
Broan on October 22, 2013 at 9:29 pm

Actually the Playhouse was University Hall until about in 1903, when it was renamed Music Hall and may have gained its balcony, renamed again in 1912, when it was rebuilt as the Fine Arts Theatre which it remained until 1917, when it was renamed the Playhouse, until it was renamed World Playhouse in 1932. Oddly, in 1917, the Studebaker was run by Jones, Linick, and Shaefer while the Playhouse was run by Alfred Hamburger, a competitor.

Broan
Broan on October 22, 2013 at 7:57 pm

Here are 1898 views of the Studebaker and the Playhouse (then known as University Hall until the 1916 remodeling)

Broan
Broan on October 21, 2013 at 6:17 pm

Here are recent views of the Playhouse and Studebaker

Broan
Broan on October 8, 2013 at 8:38 am

http://www.openhousechicago.org/site/144/ This year’s OpenHouseChicago features the opportunity to step inside the Studebaker.

Matthew Prigge
Matthew Prigge on November 8, 2012 at 7:09 am

If anyone has any stories about going to/ working at this threatre in its adult days, I would love to hear them. I am chronicling the histories of adult theatres in the US. Please contact me at Thanks!

Tim O'Neill
Tim O'Neill on March 13, 2011 at 1:22 am

Here is a 2006 video tape from CLTV News in Chicago. At the end of the report is footage of the auditorium of the Studebaker Theater a.k.a. Fine Arts Theatre #1.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rxJvqOEjbLs

cbnight
cbnight on December 10, 2010 at 10:50 am

Another image in the lobby by the manned elevator.
View link

cbnight
cbnight on December 9, 2010 at 12:32 pm

I have an image from the 1980’s out front here
View link

And a recent image made vintage
View link

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on December 7, 2010 at 4:15 am

Solon S. Beman was the architect of the Studebaker Building, but a pamphlet providing information for self-guided walking tours of the Fine Arts Building (Google Documents quick view) says that the 1917 Studebaker Theatre was designed by architect Andrew Rebori. Solon S. Beman died in 1914.

Mike Rogers
Mike Rogers on May 25, 2010 at 5:44 pm

Tim,thanks for the article and your hard work putting it together one has to have worked at a theatre to want to take the time to research and write it up. Thanks.And because you worked in the business it means more to us that did work in a theatre. Has Too.

JudithK
JudithK on May 20, 2010 at 4:58 pm

I saw quite a few films right up to the closing of the Fine Arts complex (just once in what was the Studebaker); there were issues of renovation that needed to be addressed, but I loved the place. I hope it re-opens.

jwballer
jwballer on January 11, 2010 at 1:29 pm

I went by the the building today and there doing some sort of work to the front and back of the building.

Tim O'Neill
Tim O'Neill on December 4, 2009 at 1:58 am

jwballer, The Studebaker was the original name of the 1200 seat theatre. It was called the Fine Arts Theatre #1 from December, 1982 until November, 2000. The smaller theatre had several different names; it was called the World Playhouse beginning in the early 1930s until December, 1982 when it was known as the Fine Arts #2 until it closed in November, 2000. When M&R Theatres re-opened these two theatres on Christmas Day, 1982, the newspaper ads had the new theatres advertised as “Fine Arts” but underneath that term, in parenthesis, it said “Studebaker/World Playhouse.”