Will Rogers Theater

5641 W. Belmont Avenue,
Chicago, IL 60634

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The Will Rogers Theater, opened in 1936, was named in tribute to Will Rogers, who had died in a plane crash the year before. The Rapp & Rapp designed movie house was located on Belmont Avenue at Parkside Avenue in the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood of Chicago.

The theater’s Art Deco style design was influenced by ideas featured in the architecture of Chicago’s Century of Progress World’s Fair of 1933.

Operating into the mid-1980’s, the Will Rogers Theater was demolished in 1987 to make way for the strip mall which sits on the site today.

Contributed by Ray Martinez, Chris Siuty

Recent comments (view all 71 comments)

Roustabout
Roustabout on July 19, 2009 at 11:15 am

I grew up in the BC area and going to the WR with the neighborhood guys was a Saturday afternoon ritual.
In the early 60’s, I remember Sword and Sandal, Bible and yes, Walt Disney movies. They were later replaced by Pink Panther, Elvis, James Bond and others that were popular from that decade.
It was during this time that I was introduced to 3-D. There was a sci-fi or horror movie (mild by today’s standards) playing that afternoon. The employees were handing out those glasses with the cardboard frames and cellophane lenses. Talk about a movie that came alive!
One Saturday, I went with my mother, aunt and cousin to see the Ghost and Mr Chicken. My relatives are all deceased now. Every time I see that movie on video, I remember that evening at the WR.
One Saturday evening in the 70’s, I went with my mother to see a movie that dealt with the highly theological question of life after death. The movie was not really eerie but it did make people feel a little bit on edge. I can’t remember the name of it but as it came to a close, a big chunk of plaster fell from the ceiling and came crashing down to the floor. I believe no one was hurt, thank God. A few people screamed and there was a big rush for the door. There was some pushing and shoving and I was worried about my mother if this thing turned into a stampede. Luckily things did not escalate any further. (I wonder if the local churches had higher attendance the next morning?)
I believe the last movie I saw there was an 80’s midnight Saturday showing of Risky Business or maybe Apocalypse. The theater was packed but I just had a sense the doors would be closing permanently in the near future. I did not read or hear anything, it was just a feeling I had.
I made the rounds of the other theaters in the area; the Luna, Portage, Gateway and Patio (read the site about the Patio and the endeavors to reopen those doors, good luck) but for me, none of them could compare to the WR.
My mother and I continued to live in the area and one Saturday afternoon I went to BC to do some shopping. I could not believe my eyes when I looked west on Belmont. Half of the WR was demolished, mostly from Parkside. The screen, many of the seats and the balcony were still there. The afternoon was cool and overcast, a lttle misty. I got as close as I could to the building and just stood there mesmerized. I felt like I was standing in a different part of the universe. All those memories, fun times and this theater was a big part of it. I wish I would have taken some pictures. When I returned the following Saturday, the whole thing was in rubble.
I continued to live in the area until my mother passed away in 1990. I still live in Chicago and went back to BC a few years ago. The store my mother worked at is gone and that infamous strip mall is there. Yes, it is a high traffic area but for those of us who remember BC during its heyday, there is no comparison. Time moves on, things change and I guess that is the natural progression of things whether we like it or not.
This is just my opinion but when neighborhood theaters and department stores were replaced by multiplexes and malls, we lost a little bit of Americana in the process.
Excuse me for rambling a little bit but I came across this site about a week ago and I have been strolling down memory lane ever since.
Anyway, thanks for all of your comments, pictures and best wishes to you all.

marysal
marysal on September 13, 2010 at 3:27 pm

Does anyone remember seeing the Sound of Music at the Will Rogers Theater? What year(s)?

TLSLOEWS
TLSLOEWS on October 18, 2010 at 1:51 pm

Nice Marquee on this one.

Roustabout
Roustabout on November 9, 2010 at 3:15 pm

Marysal:
The Sound of Music played exclusively at the Michael Todd from 1965 to 66.
It was released to the neighborhood theaters in early 67.
The movie had a two month run at the W.R. from Friday July 28 to Thursday September 28.
Best Wishes.

marysal
marysal on November 17, 2010 at 5:06 pm

Thanks for the response, Riverview!

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on March 8, 2012 at 2:33 am

The October 17, 1936, issue of Boxoffice featured a brief article about the Will Rogers Theatre, with a single photo of its Streamline Modern auditorium. The exterior had some Art Deco flourishes, but the auditorium was almost austere, nearly the sole exception being the florid upholstery on the seats. The scan of the photo is a bit blurry, but it serves to show the overall sleekness of the design.

rivest266
rivest266 on June 28, 2012 at 12:53 pm

September 5th, 1936 ad uploaded here in the photo section.

BobbyS
BobbyS on July 19, 2012 at 8:23 pm

Great photo btkrefft….I went there many saturdays in the 50’s as we were “dropped off” as parents visited relatives who lived 2 blocks away. It is sad how so many great neighborhoods have changed for the worse in Chicago.

Broan
Broan on October 21, 2012 at 2:35 pm

http://calumet412.tumblr.com/post/34043220411/the-will-rogers-theater-5641-w-belmont-1938

Kent
Kent on August 10, 2013 at 6:13 pm

Oddly enough my grandmother took me to see Funny Girl for my first movie there, in 1968 (I was 7). And the last time I went to this theater, ahortly after she passed away in 1979, and I saw the Muppet Movie. Yes, me at 18 sitting in the middle of the Will Rogers Theater, by myself, simultaneously smiling and crying, surrounded by children, as Kermit sang “The Rainbow Connextion”.

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