I feel fortunate to have grown up in the days of Chicago's grand Gingerbread palaces. The neat thing about these theaters is that everytime you went to the movies you knew that it would be a special event. The architecture and decor of the building could rival anything that was on either stage or screen. This was especially true of Of the Oriental Theater with its Far-East or Indian inspired decor.
The Oriental Theatre opened in 1926 as a movie house that also featured live performances. It opened with the showing of an early Joan Crawford picture. The theater seated 3,250 in a comfortable and beautiful setting. During the theater's heyday stars like Judy Garland, Bob Hope, Jackie Gleason, and The Three Stooges lit up its stage. Band Leader Paul Ash headlined at the Oriental during the late twenties and Duke Ellington made several appearances there in the 1030's.
By the time that Chicago's downtown theaters had passed their better days, the Oriental was reduced to a third-rate movie house showing "only movies that rowdy male teenagers wanted to see". (Chicago Jazz age). Its last months were a time of knife fights between rival gangs and a small arson fire in the rear of the first balcony.
Eventually it closed its doors, and the massive lobby area was covered up and transformed into a discount electronics store. I had hear rumors that the auditorium had been preserved, but there was no word on the Oriental ever reopening. For those of us who know what lie behind the paneling, it was sad to think that all of that beauty might never be seen again.
And then things began to turn around. By the late 1990's, the theater began to go under extensive renovation. The restoration project was jointly funded by the Toronto-based Livent Inc. and the city of Chicago. The project was massive, returning the theater to its original eastern decor and installing brand new state of the art technology in preparation for contemporary live performances. After being closed for 17 years, the newly and elaborately refurbished Oriental Theatre reopened its doors as the Ford Center for the Performing Arts - Oriental Theater. As you can see, it still carries the Oriental name, and anyone who remembers the old theater will truly enjoy its new reincarnation as a musical theater for live performances.
The Ford Center has very carefully balanced the needs of historical preservation and modern technology, and the result is very impressive. The auditorium has the same feel that I remember from forty plus years ago with its ornate chandeliers and gold leaf surfacing and the marble floors and sculptured domes. The stage has been expanded so that it can handle the cast and scenery of larger musicals that come to town. It looks great, and every effort was made to bring you into the theater with all of the granduer that it had in its early years. I had stopped into the lobby on a trip into Chicago while they were renvovating, and I watched some of the artisans at work painstakingly preserving or recreating every little detail. They clearly have done a great job. In truth, it looked better than I remembered it. The new additions were done seamlessly, with an expanded stage, state of the art lighting, and a very clean and clear audio system.
My wife and I helped to inaugaurate the new Oriental when we traveled to Chicago to see their production of "Ragtime". This was the first show that was brought in to grace the stage of the newly renovated theater. Ford Center anticipates that the Oriental will again be blessed with the kind of big-name tickets that had been so much of the Oriental's past. It is a great addition to the newly revived north loop theater district.
The Ford Center for the Perfoming Arts - Oriental Theater today!
Return to Photo Index
Return to Front Page