McVickers Theater

25 W. Madison Street,
Chicago, IL 60602

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McVickers Theater

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 W. Madison Street near S. 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, and it was known as McVickers Vaudeville. 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.

Opened October 26, 1922, this last incarnation of the McVickers Theatre (the apostrophe in the spelling of the theatre 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 Theatre from Jones, Linick, & Schaefer in February of 1926. Jones, Linick & Schaefer took over the theatre again in December 1934 and continued to operate into the early-1960’s. In 1962, the theatre was leased for a 13-month period by Martin Theatres.

The theatre’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 Theatre with the film, “Windjammer”. For a brief time in 1962, live theatre returned again to the theatre 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 Theatre began showing mainly kung-fu, horror, and blaxploitation films. Later, adult films were added to the mix. The theatre was shut down by the city in 1971 for various code violations, but soon was reopened.

The theatre finally closed in 1984 and was torn down in 1985, a sad and inglorious end for a theatre which, in an earlier life, hosted Sarah Bernhardt’s first Chicago stage appearance a century earlier.

The site of the McVickers Theatre 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 Theatre at S. 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 Theatre, at the corner of W. Madison Street and S. State Street, still survives and was converted into a dormitory for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1997.

Contributed by Bryan Krefft

Recent comments (view all 91 comments)

DavidZornig on March 19, 2014 at 8:48 am

The Calumet412 website has a photo claiming to be the 2nd version of the McVickers. No mention of the source or photo credit.

Tim O'Neill
Tim O'Neill on January 6, 2015 at 5:38 am

A 1984 article with some inaccuracies.

reggiey123 on July 31, 2016 at 10:34 am

I attended a James Brown concert there in late 1983 or early 1984. Have been trying to find a record of it for an essay I am writing but have had no success. Anyone remember news of this concert that started very, very late and there were NO SEATS in the entire theater.

Tim O'Neill
Tim O'Neill on July 31, 2016 at 10:29 pm

I highly doubt there was a James Brown concert at the McVickers Theatre. By 1983/1984, the McVickers was showing mostly kung fu movies. I don’t ever recall hearing about a concert there at the time.

Broan on August 1, 2016 at 4:20 am

James Brown played the Bismarck (now the Cadillac Palace) on December 29, 1984. The Bismarck did indeed have its seats removed as it mainly was used for banquets at the time.

rivest266 on November 13, 2016 at 6:06 am

This opened on October 26th, 1922. Its grand opening ad is in the photo section.

GREGlookingback on October 16, 2017 at 8:42 pm

The theatre had stage productions in the 60s, I was taken to a wonderful “Fiddler on the Roof.”

vindanpar on March 25, 2018 at 2:53 pm

It looks like the photo with Fiddler on the marquee is not a stage production from ‘67 but the original Chicago film engagement in '71 or'72 when the film was running roadshow.

Tim O'Neill
Tim O'Neill on March 25, 2018 at 6:30 pm

Nope. It’s the stage production. FIDDLER ON THE ROOF movie (1971) never played at the McVickers Theatre. It played at the McClurg Court Theatre.

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