“A trove of historical theater backdrops have been discovered in the attic of The Forum, the long-vacant Bronzeville treasure that’s being restored to its glory.
“Forum owner Bernard Loyd said the backdrops were found by contractor Michael Beaver, who was working at the site several weeks ago as part of an extensive renovation effort of the venue at 318-24 E. 43rd St.
“Waszut-Barrett said the backdrops date to 1897, around the time of the Forum’s grand opening. Despite being ravaged by time and water damage, Waszut-Barrett told Block Club they can all be saved.
“One backdrop in particular immediately captured the artist’s attention: a scene prominently featuring three Black people — two women and a man — dressed for a day on the town, pointing to what appears to be a cemetery.
“‘I’ve seen thousands of backdrops in my career. I’ve never seen one depicting people of color. It’s remarkable,’ Waszut-Barrett said. Waszut-Barrett said the backdrops were only built to last 10 to 15 years, so for the canvases to still be salvageable after 130 years is remarkable.
“Loyd said he was ‘blown away’ by it all. The entrepreneur and Urban Juncture founder has spent the last decade painstakingly restoring the building, which served as the epicenter for Black South Siders for generations.
“Finding the backdrops 11 years into his mission to return The Forum to its full grandeur makes it all the more meaningful, a ‘metaphor for both the building and Bronzeville,’ Loyd said.
“‘We want to reconnect with that era, to tell the story of how we got from there to here. That last backdrop in particular is significant because of the Black people in it. We want to connect with that. As we found out from Wendy, Black folks have been creatives in Chicago for 127-plus years,’ said Loyd.
“Built in 1897, The Forum closed in the 1970s and fell into such disrepair that pieces of furniture had sunk into the floor due to water damage. The Forum was in danger of being demolished when Loyd, who has lived around the corner from the Black Chicago landmark for 25 years, bought the building in 2011 and announced an ambitious, $20 million effort to restore it to a functioning performing arts space.
“Loyd has bankrolled most of the remediation efforts himself. Crowdsourcing and grants and rezoning have helped further his efforts, but Loyd estimates it will take $25 million to make the Forum fully functional again.
“‘They’ve all been challenged, battered, all but discarded, but against all odds they’ve survived,’ Loyd said. ‘They’re still incredibly rich and connected. As we figure out how to tap into that cultural wealth and reactivate those dormant links, we will bring the drops, The Forum and our community back to their full vibrancy.'” (Nesbitt Golden, Block Club Chicago, 10/1/23)
Bronzeville’s The Forum Uncovers Century-Old, Hand-Painted Scenic Theater Backdrops; The backdrops date to 1897, when the iconic venue on 43rd Street opened. Owner Bernard Loyd hopes to restore them to their former glory. ‘Against all odds, they survived.’ Jamie Nesbitt Golden, Block Club Chicago, 10/1/23