Up until the mid-20th century, going to the theater in Chicago meant going downtown. Browse the archives of the Tribune or the entertainment listings in The Chicagoan (our Jazz Age knock off of The New Yorker) and you’ll find advertisements for touring shows playing large, traditionally styled Loop theaters on Clark Street, Dearborn Avenue or Randolph Street. Some of those old proscenium houses have survived: the Nederlander, the Auditorium, the Chicago Theatre. And, the modern Goodman Theatre stretches out behind the preserved facades of the old Harris and Selwyn theaters.
Most of the shows at those venues 80 to 100 years ago were productions sent through by producers from New York. But as Chicagoans began to turn toward developing a theater of its own, we looked to establish footholds in neighborhoods where people actually lived. The “Off-Loop theater movement” that evolved through the ’60s and ’70s was game to produce shows wherever they could find an audience. Sometimes that meant retrofitting defunct movie houses for live performance; sometimes it meant commandeering any empty storefront or basement that was available and declaring it a theater.
Many of the proverbial old barns that have inspired can-do artists to say “let’s put on a show” over the last half-century have been razed, or turned into condos or liquor stores or climbing gyms. Others have survived, and some are still just getting started. The locations on this list are here for hidden quirks of architectural significance; some made it out of sheer perseverance. But all of the theaters demonstrate the arts as a staple of Chicago’s civic diet.Read More