UPDATE: The Oriental Theatre blade sign, which dates back to a restored 1926 version, is being changed to read the “NEDERLANDER” and the marquee face now reads James M. Nederlander Theatre. Fortunately, the historic blade sign structure and the historic theater will remain.
James L. Nederlander, president of Nederlander Organization, announced his intention to rename the Oriental Theatre in memory of his late father, James M. Nederlander. This follows a family tradition as in the 1980s, James M. Nederlander renamed the Billy Rose and National Theatre on West 41st Street in New York after his late father David T. Nederlander.
Preservation Chicago does not oppose the proposed name change for the historic theater but encouraged the Nederlander Organization to preserve the historic blade sign which has been a core visual element of the Randolph Theatre District for decades. Many of the great neon signs along Randolph Street have been lost over time and the reinstallation and restoration of the historic Oriental Theatre neon blade sign marked a significant step towards reactivating and re-illuminating the dynamism of Chicago’s Theater District.
The Oriental Theatre opened on May 8, 1926 and has been an anchor in Chicago’s Theater District ever since. Located at 24 W. Randolph Street, the Balaban & Katz picture palace and live theater was opened with great fanfare one year after they opened the Uptown Theatre. The exuberant ornament of the Oriental Theatre interior was inspired by Indo-Chinese influence. The exotic “Far East” décor was intended to transport visitors to a fantastic realm.
The incredible interior décor is described as “a virtual museum of Asian art, presented popular first-run motion pictures, complemented by lavish stage shows. Turbaned ushers led patrons from the lobby, with polychrome figures and large mosaics of an Indian prince and princess, through an inner foyer with elephant-throne chairs and multicolored glazed Buddhas, to the auditorium’s ‘hasheesh-dream décor.’” (BroadwayInChicago.com)
The Oriental Theatre was designed by Rapp and Rapp, the accomplished theater architectural firm, who also designed the Uptown Theatre, Riviera Theatre, Palace Theatre, Chicago Theatre and Central Park Theatre and more than 38 other theaters outside of Chicago. Additionally, the Oriental Theatre was built on the site of the former Iroquois Theatre, where a catastrophic fire in 1903 claimed the lives of over 600 theatergoers. This tragedy catalyzed extensive changes in fire codes in Chicago and across the country.
The theater was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. After a period of decline and vacancy, and a brief period as a radio and television appliance store, a restoration of the theater was completed in 1998.
The Oriental Theatre is owned by Broadway in Chicago which is controlled by the Nederlander Organization, an extensive family business that owns theaters throughout Chicago, New York and Detroit. Since the 1990s, they have owned and operated the Majestic Theater/Schubert Theatre also known as the LaSalle Bank Theater/Bank of America Theater/CIBC Theatre located at 18 W. Monroe Street.