Ford Center for the Performing Arts Oriental Theatre

24 W. Randolph Street,
Chicago, IL 60601

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Ford Center for the Performing Arts Oriental Theatre

Opened May 8, 1926 on the site of the tragic Iroquois (later the Colonial) Theatre, and seating over 3,200, this was Balaban & Katz' first new Loop movie palace since the opening of the Chicago Theatre in 1921. Opening day at the Oriental Theatre included popular bandleader Paul Ash (who moved to the Oriental Theatre from B & K’s McVickers Theatre) presenting two musical reviews “Insultin' the Sultan” and “Harem-Scarem”. Harry Langdon in “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp” was the first movie to appear on the screen. Originally, ushers and other B & K employees wore costumes inspired by the “Arabian Nights”. The Oriental Theatre was equipped with a Wurlitzer 4 manual 20 Ranks theatre organ.

The Oriental Theatre, which stands on W. Randolph Street between N. State Street and N. Dearborn Street, was for many years, in addition to live stage shows and movies, also one of Chicago’s premier destinations for live jazz performances by many of the greats of the era, including frequent performer Duke Ellington.

The Oriental Theatre thrived through the 1960’s, but by the late-1970’s, however, the Loop was no longer the entertainment destination of earlier decades, and the Oriental Theatre, like many of the other movie palaces downtown, was reduced to B-grade action and kung-fu films attended for the most part by young people. It was closed on January 4, 1981 (having last been run by the Kohlberg Theatres chain), the Loop and the theatre’s fortunes had fallen into disarray. For several years, an electronics store operated in the lobby space of the Oriental Theatre while the remainder of the theatre was disued.

Shuttered for over 15 years, the Oriental Theatre was magnificently restored to its original exotic and over-the-top Indian-Indochinese style appearance in 1996 and reopened in 1998 as the Ford Center for the Performing Arts Oriental Theatre. The theatre is now host to live Broadway stage productions. On February 12, 2019 the theatre will be renamed James M. Nederlander Theatre.

The Oriental Theatre was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

Contributed by Ross Melnick

Recent comments (view all 190 comments)

RickB on August 9, 2016 at 5:01 pm

This 1980 story says that Kohlberg was the operator that was evicted to effect the 1981 closing. The owners of the building had plans to convert the two lower floors to retail and build a 1600-seat theater above them; obviously that never happened.

From my memory M&R was running the Oriental when I got to Chicago in 1976.

DavidZornig on November 12, 2016 at 7:39 pm

1955 photo added courtesy of Jim Jasiota‎. Giant Marilyn Monroe image on the marquee, for “The Seven Year Itch”.

sam siklas
sam siklas on March 8, 2017 at 9:54 pm

There are elements in this theater’s auditorium design which are suggestive of the sadly demolished Ambassador Theater in St. Louis. One key difference between the two was the Ambassador’s unique use of silver leaf instead of gold. There are good photos here in Cinema Treasures' page on the Ambassador for comparison.

DavidZornig on June 7, 2017 at 7:38 pm

5/15/64 -6/04/64 photo added credit Saul Smaizys.

DavidZornig on September 20, 2017 at 6:49 pm

02/06/76-02/19/76 photo in Flickr link below.

DavidZornig on November 13, 2018 at 11:22 am

Name change coming….

Scott on November 14, 2018 at 12:33 pm

Thank goodness the “patronizing, objectifying and offensive” name of “Oriental” is being replaced. That has bothered me for decades. I recall that in the early years B&K called it the Oriental because they claimed that going to the theater was like taking a trip to the Orient. How insensitive they were. Really, I don’t care what they call it. I’m just glad it still exists.

Khnemu on November 14, 2018 at 1:33 pm

Why not the Nederlander Oriental Theater? Why take a name away that’s been familiar to Chicagoans for decades? What about Egyptian, Aztec, or Chinese named theaters? They aren’t named for people they’re named for their exotic styles.

Mister_Comics on November 14, 2018 at 7:38 pm

Now if Cracker Barrel would just change their name.

DavidZornig on December 5, 2018 at 2:14 pm

Link to Norman Rockwell’s 1945 painting “The Clock Mender” at the Chicago History Museum. Has a glimpse of the Oriental blade sign on the right.

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