The astonishingly beautiful Auditorium Theatre in Chicago

While Margaret and I were in Chicago last month we saw The Nutcracker as presented by the Joffrey Ballet. It was a lovely show, well produced and well danced. But I was blown away by the theater!

Auditorium Theatre, Chicago

If you could count them, you’d number more than 3,500 light bulbs in that arch. Bulbs were in those sockets upon the Auditorium Theater’s opening in 1889, not ten years after the carbon-filment bulb’s invention. To counteract all the heat those bulbs generated, an ice-based air-conditioning system was installed. This was the state of the theater art!

But let’s back up a little, to the experience of entering the theater. Our seat was on the second balcony, so up the stairs we went.

Auditorium Theatre, Chicago

Each landing had a unique tile pattern.

Auditorium Theatre, Chicago

Low ceilings and dim lighting created a closed-in feeling.

Auditorium Theatre, Chicago

It’s deliberate, so that entering the large and airy auditorium creates a feeling of having emerged into the open. And then there are all those glorious lights. It’s quite a rush the first time, let me tell you!

Auditorium Theatre, Chicago

All of the boxes were on the theater’s sides, as the architects wanted anyone who could afford a ticket, and not just the wealthy, to have great seats.

Auditorium Theatre, Chicago

I had concerns that our stage-left second-balcony seat would be so-so, but it offered a commanding view.

Auditorium Theatre, Chicago

The theater is part of a larger building that originally contained a hotel and offices. It was hoped that this building’s various uses would, together, keep it financially viable. It worked, for a while. But by the end of the 1920s the theater had run into financial trouble. It would have been demolished in the 1930s had the land not been worth less than what demolition was going to cost.

Auditorium Theatre, Chicago

The theater served during World War II to house, feed, and entertain servicemen. Much of the building’s ornate plaster work was covered; a bowling alley was erected on the stage.

Auditorium Theatre, Chicago

After the war the building fell into Roosevelt University’s hands, but lacking funds to restore and reopen it the theater sat empty until 1967. That year a four-year restoration completed, enabled by a committee that sought patrons to fund its reopening.

Auditorium Theatre, Chicago

Ever since, the Auditorium Theater has hosted concerts, plays, dance, and even the 2015 and 2016 NFL Draft.

Auditorium Theatre, Chicago

And there we were, ready to enjoy the Joffrey Ballet’s presentation of The Nutcracker. What a wonderful venue in which to see it!

Auditorium Theatre, Chicago


24 responses to “The astonishingly beautiful Auditorium Theatre in Chicago”

  1. J P Cavanaugh Avatar

    Wow, what a stunning space! I am a sucker for those ornate old theaters. As nice as they were in places like we come from, it took a place like Chicago to bring the good stuff.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yeah, Chicago had resources any Indiana city only dreamed of!

  2. Nancy Stewart Avatar
    Nancy Stewart

    Absolutely beautiful !! When we went to see Wicked at the Oriental Theater years ago, it was my granddaughter Amber’s first trip into the “big city” so she was taking a lot of pictures. After the performance was over we lingered in our seats talking and letting the crowd disperse. Amber took a couple pictures and immediately a very gruff woman behind us said “no pictures in the theater” and preceded to take the camera and delete the pictures herself. We were aware that you would not take any during the performance …. but non at all ??

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      What that woman did was wrong. If the rule truly was “no pictures in the theater” she should have told you at that time but not taken the camera. Some people.

  3. DougD Avatar

    What a building! And how ironically wonderful that it wasn’t worth enough to knock down so it could have been saved later.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Sometimes that really is a key element in saving a building.

  4. Zimmette Avatar

    Growing up in Northwest Indiana, I had multiple occasions to visit Chicago. One such event was “Jesus Christ Superstar” as a teenager at the Auditorium some where around 1969-1971. Of course, we didn’t have cameras to document our every move back then. So thanks for the trip down memory lane. I’m thrilled to see the Auditorium is the same as I remember. It must have been magical seeing The Nutcracker WITH The Joffrey Ballet in the Auditorium. What a Christmas gift!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It is remarkable, isn’t it, the things we can photograph easily today! I’m happy I could connect you with a good memory from long ago.

  5. lmstevens0724 Avatar

    Very nice Jim. Have you been to Chicago Cultural Center? Not as grandiose but another example of Chicagos fine architecture. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Haven’t been! Maybe on a future trip. Chicago seems to be our default getaway location.

  6. analogphotobug Avatar

    It’s amazing how random chance saves wonders like this….too expensive to tear down!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      How many great buildings have we lost because random chance like this didn’t happen? I wonder.

  7. TBM3FAN Avatar

    One thing I have always admired the Europeans for is in saving older buildings by either restoring them to original use or a new use. Over here this building could have been torn down the moment it was no longer used and replaced by something many times likely to be bland. We tear down too much in the name of progress and money vs. the European view of history. That concept enabled me to walk into Canterbury Cathedral in 1976, sit down to close my eyes, and then imagine back into time all the history and people who walk through it.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yes, we do tend to tear down buildings pretty readily here. I think what happens is that buildings go through a “just old” phase — it’s not special, it’s just old. But later that old building becomes a good example of some sort of architecture that is largely lost because so many other buildings like it were torn down, and then the building gets saved.

  8. M.B. Henry Avatar

    Gorgeous theatre, gorgeous shots! Great post, makes me want to visit someday.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Just buy a ticket! Oh, and get to Chicago. Depending on where you are that’s probably the most challenging part.

  9. Dan Cluley Avatar
    Dan Cluley

    It has been way too long since I have visited Chicago, so I’m enjoying the virtual vacation you are providing.

    Another interesting thing about the Auditorium building is that the sidewalk along Congress on the South side of the building is in an arched arcade that is part of the building. Originally that space was part of the building interior, but they widened the street in the ’50s and lost the space outside the building where the sidewalk had been.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Oh wow, I didn’t know that. We entered on the building’s south side, but it was dark and cold and we weren’t able to see much.

  10. Photography Journal Blog Avatar

    Wow, what a beautiful place!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It’s a stunner.

  11. Tania Castroverde Moskalenko Avatar

    Mr. Grey,
    Thank you for sharing your experience at the Auditorium Theatre with such eloquence and with the stunning photographs. We are proud of our National Historic Landmark and devote ourselves to its preservation every day. We also strive to keep our programming relevant so that new generations can enjoy performing arts experiences in this glorious space. The Auditorium’s history is remarkable and the list of luminaries who have graced our stage is impressive (Caruso, Sarah Bernhardt, Anna Pavlova, Booker.T.Washington, The Doors, Bob Marley, and on and on….) It is an honor and a privilege to come here everyday. I hope you will return, again and again.
    Warm regards,
    Tania Castroverde Moskalenko
    Chief Executive Officer
    Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Tania, I am delighted you found this post on my little blog and stopped to comment! You are indeed fortunate to work every day in that lovely building. Long may its lights shine!

  12. Susie Avatar

    Love this post—particularly your detail shots. The Auditorium Theater is stunning!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Entering the auditorium itself that first time was an astonishing experience. It’s too bad you can only enter a space like this for the first time once!

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