Curious City on WBEZ: From Cemetery Saloons To Movie Palaces; How Uptown Became An Entertainment Hub

“If you stand at the corner of Lawrence Avenue and Broadway in the Uptown neighborhood, you’ll see two famous Chicago music venues: the Riviera Theatre and the Green Mill. The Uptown Theater, which closed to the public in 1981, looms behind them. And looking east down Lawrence, beyond the “L” tracks, you can see the tall vertical sign for the Aragon Ballroom, yet another legendary spot for experiencing live music.

“Karen Kinderman lives nearby this cluster of music venues, and she’s wondered why they were all built in this small section of her neighborhood. So she came to Curious City to find out how Uptown became the entertainment center it looks like today

“Uptown’s growing entertainment scene was also shaped by the ways Americans enjoyed spending their leisure time in the 1910s and 1920s, including three important trends: cabaret, movies and dancing.

The Green Mill and Rainbo Gardens were cabarets, a style of entertainment venue that emerged in America around World War I, influenced by similar places in France and Germany.

“Chicago was really the leader in the beginning of that kind of entertainment in the United States,” said Charles A. Sengstock Jr., author of That Toddlin’ Town: Chicago’s White Dance Bands and Orchestras, 1900–1950. “It set up a feeling of intimacy between the entertainer and the audience that could not be realized in a theater.”

“During that same era, moviegoing was a national craze, just two decades after the very first motion picture parlors had opened. In 1918, the 2,600-seat Riviera Theatre opened a block south of Green Mill Gardens, with a 30-piece “synchronizing symphony” performing during the silent films.

“The Riviera was the second theater built by the legendary Chicago company Balaban & Katz. According to movie historian Douglas Gomery, Balaban & Katz decided to build its earliest theaters in neighborhoods with growing populations, such as Uptown — “near fans who had just moved to what were then outlying districts. New mass transit made access simple.”

“In the following years, Balaban & Katz bought up Green Mill Gardens’ outdoor space. That L-shaped property was where they opened the Uptown Theatre in 1925.

“‘They spared no expense in creating the most modern and lavish theater probably that the country ever knew — and will ever know,’ historian John Holden said.

“A Balaban & Katz advertisement called the Uptown Theatre “a spacious playhouse of magnificence to meet the requirements of this progressive and rapidly growing community.” When the theater opened, its marquee boasted: “An acre of seats in a magic city.” With 4,381 seats, it was the world’s largest theater, a distinction it held until New York City’s 6,500-seat Radio City Music Hall opened seven years later.

  • “Cemetery saloons form on Clark Street…
  • “The ‘L’ arrives…
  • “Uptown becomes a hot spot for shopping…
  • “Enter cabarets, movies and the dance craze…
  • “Uptown’s ups and downs…” (Loerzel, WBEZ Chicago, 7/4/20)

Hear, read, and see the full story at WBEZ Chicago.

Curious City: From Cemetery Saloons To Movie Palaces: How Uptown Became An Entertainment Hub, Robert Loerzel, WBEZ Chicago, 7/4/20

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