Follies Theater

450 S. State Street,
Chicago, IL 60605

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Gem Theatre, Chicago, 1909

Viewing: Photo | Street View

Formerly the London Dime Museum, which was in operation from at least the early-1890’s, managed by ‘Captain’ John White, and featured a vaudeville house on the main floor and an ‘oddities’ museum on the upper floor. The building became the Gem Theater in 1908. It was renamed Gem Theater from 1908 through to 1949. In 1929, the Gem Theatre began to feature burlesque in addition to movies. It stood directly across the street from the landmark Second Leiter Building, later the first Loop home of the flagship Sears, Roebuck, & Co. department store (now located at Madison Street and State Street).

By early-1950, the name of the theater was changed to the Follies Theater, also known as the Follies Burlesque. It lasted until 1972, when the management refused to start showing hard-core pornography in order to keep in operation. It reopened in 1974 for legitimate theatrical use, but after one performance, the theater was closed again. The Follies Theater was destroyed in a fire in 1978.

Today, the enormous Harold Washington Library Center, Chicago’s main library building, is located on the site of the theater.

Contributed by Bryan Krefft, BWChicago

Recent comments (view all 13 comments)

kencmcintyre
kencmcintyre on June 29, 2007 at 1:13 am

I have a 1909 photo which puts the Gem at 312 State Street. I will post the photo after I get it on a disk. Perhaps it’s a different theater.

Englewood
Englewood on August 20, 2007 at 6:24 pm

The Chicago Tribune has the old Follies burning down early Wednesday morning, January 4, 1978. Cause unknown but not believed to be arson. The address shown in the newspaper is 450 So. State St.

sgroge
sgroge on April 16, 2008 at 8:01 pm

I found a reference to a magician playing the Gem in Chicago in 1907 so the age may be greater.
Steve

KenC
KenC on February 27, 2009 at 3:31 am

In the book “DOWNTOWN CHICAGO IN TRANSITION” by Eric Bronsky and Neal Samors, there’s a nice photo of the Gem theatre-in 1941- on page 107. On the marquee: BURLESQUE ON STAGE ON SCREEN “I’LL SELL MY LIFE”.

mikebaggi
mikebaggi on May 13, 2009 at 1:45 am

By the time I discovred the FOLLIES THEATER it was a burlesque joint that also showed one short movie between the girlie acts. I guess that I was about 13 or 14 when I first saw the show. It was everything that a cheap old burlesque house should be. The bored chorus line of over-aged hard looking ladies, the pitchman sellling candy and “a picture booket of naked ladies that’s only supposed to be sold to doctors. But I can’t tell if you’re a doctor or not”. The movie that week was a documentary on “How To Shrink A Human Head”. And let me say that it was both graphic and accurate. It could never pass any censors of any kind today.
Next door to the theater was a penny arcade where the ladies of the chorus could catch a quick lunch or dinner of hot dog sanwiches. I saw several of them in there on several occasions.
For me in those days it was an adventure!

Mikebaggi

bjanu
bjanu on September 29, 2009 at 6:45 pm

The Follies was actually known for its burlesque as early as 1916. There was an organization entitled the Political Equity League, headed by Mrs. Guy Blanchard, that studied the immoral nature of moviehouses and made recommendation to the censors. She had publicly made comments about the dancing girls at the theater, complaining that they were “drug fiends.” She claimed that there were small rooms under the stage where the girls would get high. In the Chicago Tribune, Feb 1, 1916, one of the dancers shot back at Mrs. Blanchard, saying that the “girls who dance at the Gem theater work there and do the dances they do because by doing so they can make a living.” (pg. 11)

LindaW
LindaW on April 14, 2012 at 5:30 am

Captain John White was the proprietor and manager of the London Dime Museum on State St. He died in 1902. He was with the Adam Forepaugh circus for a number of years.

brendag
brendag on July 11, 2013 at 8:41 pm

mikebaggi, I danced at the follies. at 13 or 14 anybody looks old! not to say there were not a couple up in age.i lived the life of a dancer back in the 70s it was real burlesque.it was the old bump and grind.hard looking ladies? that is uncalled for. I will say the movies were a little rough. what did you expect mickey mouse? we worked hard for our money. and most were skilled dancers. you can see more on the beaches now days. unless you have lived it don’t be so critical. what were you doing in a place for adults anyway? guess it was not so bad you went back for more.

DavidZornig
DavidZornig on October 21, 2014 at 12:06 am

Just added a 1941 image as the Gem.

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