25 W. Madison Street,
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There was a McVickers Theater in Chicago for a large part of the city’s history.
When the orignal McVicker’s Theater opened its doors in 1857 on Madison Street near Dearborn Street, the city was celebrating its 30th anniversary. It was built by Chicago actor and producer James H. McVicker (1822-96) at a then-staggering cost of $85,000 for legitimate theater. McVicker had been part of John Blake Rice’s theater company during the late-1840’s at Rice’s Theatre (which stood near the corner of Randolph Street and Dearborn Street).
The first McVicker’s Theater was completely destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, but was rebuilt the following year in an even grander style on the same site. In addition to legitimate theater, it also began to feature opera and minstrel shows.
In 1884-85, it was entirely remodeled by the firm of Adler & Sullivan but another fire in 1890 heavily damaged the theater and the theater’s owners had Adler & Sullivan redesign it yet again, in a style that was quite modern for the day.
Louis Sullivan’s graceful stylized floral stencil-work decorating the auditorium, lobby and other public areas echoed his work on the Auditorium Theatre.
The Jones, Linick & Schaefer circuit acquired the McVicker’s Theater in 1913, and began presenting “popularly priced” vaudeville acts along with motion pictures there. In 1922, this McVicker’s Theater was demolished to make way for yet another McVicker’s, which was designed by the firm of Newhouse & Bernham.
This last incarnation of the McVickers Theatre (the apostrophe in the spelling of the theater name dropped around this time) seated well over 2,000 and featured motion pictures and, at least early on, live entertainment, as well. The Balaban & Katz chain took over the McVickers Theater from Jones, Linick, & Schaefer in February of 1926. Jones, Linick & Schaefer took over the theater again in December 1934 and continued to operate into the early-1960’s. In 1962, the theater was leased for a 13-month period by Martin Theatres.
The theater’s facade, resembling an ancient Athenian temple, with its chunky Ionic columns, pediment and freizes depicting mythological creatures and heroes, also had a marquee stretching the full length of the building along Madison Street, as well as an enormous vertical sign, rising above the building’s cornice.
In 1960, CineMiracle came to the McVickers Theater with the film, “Windjammer”. For a brief time in 1962, live theater returned again to the theater before movies were shown again, with “The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm” in Cinerama. The 3-camera system was removed a year later and 70mm films were brought back in.
By the 1970’s, the McVickers Theater began showing mainly kung-fu, horror, and blaxploitation films. Later, adult films were added to the mix. The theater was shut down by the city in 1971 for various code violations, but soon was reopened.
The theater finally closed in 1984 and was torn down in 1985, a sad and inglorious end for a theater which, in an earlier life, hosted Sarah Bernhardt’s first Chicago stage appearance a century earlier.
The site of the McVickers Theater was a vacant lot for almost two decades before the One South Deaborn development, a 40-story office tower, rose on the site from 2003-2006. It also covers the site of the former first Chicago Tribune Building, which stood to the west of the McVickers Theater at Dearborn Street and had been demolished in the late-1990’s.
The landmark Chicago Building, constructed in 1904-5 and designed by the firm of Holabird & Roche, located to the east of the McVickers Theater, at the corner of Madison Street and State Street, still survives and was converted into a dormitory for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1997.
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