“Brittle scraps of Scotch tape stick to the marble walls, chipped and gouged from decades of comings and goings — and if it were any darker in the lobby of the Fine Arts Building on South Michigan Avenue, a flashlight might come in handy.
“Inside, hidden almost in plain sight, is the newly renovated Studebaker Theater. With its glittering mirrored walls and ice-white lighting, the grand old theater once again radiates a kind of frosty warmth.
“‘It’s unique. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I don’t know that I’ve found a true comparison [in Chicago] because there are few theaters that are this grand but of this size,’ said Jacob Harvey, the theater’s managing artistic director, leading a tour last week of the all-but complete multi-million dollar, two-year renovation.
“By ‘this size,’ Harvey means the relatively small capacity. It has 600 seats now, though when the theater first opened back in 1898, it could seat about 1,300 people. That’s back when patrons were jammed in up to the rafters. It opened only five years before the Iroquois Theater went up in flames during a performance, killing 602 of the 1,700 attendees.
“‘This was also the very early years of theater technology. There were still early experiments in terms of lighting and sound,’ said Tanya Palmer, a Northwestern professor and Chicago theater historian. ‘A lot of what people would go to see were music-hall kind of experiences. … It was quite an event to go to this space.’
“Though The Studebaker, 410 S. Michigan Ave., has hosted live events in recent years, it hasn’t been ‘fully functional’ since the early 1980s when it was chopped up and converted into an art-house cinema. It closed in 2000, Harvey said.
“‘Basically everything is new, with the exception of the physical architecture itself,’ Harvey said.
“What hasn’t changed, Harvey said, is the expectation the theater will return to its 125-year-old theater roots, offering locally produced shows and those coming from out of town.
“The Studebaker is also set to become the new home of the Chicago-based NPR quiz show, ‘Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!'” (Esposito, Chicago Sun-Times, 6/1/22)