Central Park Theatre
3535 W. Roosevelt Road,
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“One of the most important extant theaters in Chicago,” according to Theatre Historical Society of America (Marquee magazine, Vol. 35, No. 1, 2003), the 1917 Central Park is the first cinema presentation house of the wildly successful and popular Balaban and Katz entertainment corporation. It is also the first collaboration of Chicago showmen A.J. Balaban & Sam Katz and the Chicago architects C.W. and George L. Rapp.“ In this theater, Balaban & Katz first defined their style of presentation,” Marquee magazine states. “Its success gave rise to the beginnings of an entertainment empire which culminated in multiple movie palaces, market domination, and
the successor organizations of Publix and Paramount.”
Following the tremendous success of the Central Park Theatre, Balaban & Katz built the Riviera, Tivoli, Chicago, Uptown and other theaters to house their style of cinema presentation (— all with architects Rapp and Rapp). After being a popular and profitable West Side cinema for decades, the Central Park Theatre was fortunate to receive the congregation of the House of Prayer, Church of God in Christ in 1971 under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Lincoln Scott. The congregation has grown to include adjacent buildings to accommodate foodservice, counseling and transitional housing facilities, and to allow for the future growth of the church. Dr. Scott, his congregation and other community leaders are beginning a campaign to renovate the Central Park and the adjacent contemporary buildings, the combination of which will serve a variety of community social, spiritual and entertainment needs (2004). It is anticipated that the entire auditorium will be renovated, including the disused balcony, which is presently separated from the floor and mezzanine by a drop ceiling.
“The proscenium (replete with annunciator boxes), balcony and some original lighting fixtures survive behind the sanctuary walls,” according to Marquee magazine. It is interesting to note that two prominent books on American movie palaces, both by David Naylor, list the Central Park as demolished! At the same time, the building is absent from the “AIA Guide to Chicago.” However, native Chicagoan David Lowe (author of “Lost Chicago” and now of New York), in “Chicago Interiors, Views of a Splendid World” calls attention to the Central Park’s place in history. “The inauguration of the era of the movie palace may be marked by the opening in 1917 of Balaban and Katz’s 2,400 (sic) seat Central Park. The Central Park began the long, rewarding collaboration between Balaban and Katz and the architect brothers, Cornelius W. and George Rapp, who were eventually to design the Balaban mausoleum. The Central Park’s scenery, side stages, and curtain were created by Frank Cambria, a master of stage show design.”
What made the Central Park Theatre and its owners/operators/showmen so successful was the Balaban and Katz concept (initiated here by design) of presenting films (the same product its competitors had). However, they created a unique venue and style.
“The Central Park was designed to house by "Presentation Shows,” A.J. Balaban wrote via his wife in “Continuous Performance.” “It was to seat about 2,000. There was a moderate sized main floor and a good balcony. These were separated by a mezzanine floor of boxes. This horseshoe of boxes was the spectacular feature of the building. It was intended to give the audience the feeling of being part of a stage set. Added to the usual center one, there were two side stages, decorated like tiny gardens with greens and marble statuary. Here, singers (singly or in groups) could appear while the "Silent” was being shown on the center stage. Our colored stage lighting was extended to take in the whole house. The gently changing colors traveled from wall to ceiling, melting from soft rose to blue, lavender and yellow as they touched the velour of the seats, crystal of chandeliers, and the beautifully painted murals."
An interesting “Jazz Age” note is that Benny Goodman made his first professional debut playing the clarinet during of the Central Park’s jazz nights in 1921, according to Ross Firestone in “Swing, Swing, Swing: The Life and Times of Benny Goodman.”
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