Once you’ve established a reputation for creating elaborate movie palaces, each more grand than the last, there’s only one thing you can do: make the next one even more elaborate, more over the top, more exciting, more exotic. That’s exactly what Balaban and Katz did with the Oriental Theatre. Opened on May 8, 1926, it was “more oriental than the orient,” “the spirit of the Orient in gay mood,” and filled with “hasheesh dream decor.” In the midst of Prohibition, a trippy theater must have seemed like just the ticket.
It had been five years since Balaban and Katz opened The Chicago Theatre and they were due to make a splash. The theater owners partnered with the Freemasons, who needed a new building, and the two seemingly disparate interests created a twenty-four story office building, and behind it, a seven-story theater topped with eight floors of Masonic halls. The location was the site of the infamous Iroquois Theater, which opened on November 23, 1903, and suffered a devastating fire a few weeks later that killed several hundred people. That fire made a permanent impact on theater safety laws, requiring automatic sprinklers, exit lights, and fire alarms, and flame resistant scenery, props, and curtains. Doors also had to open outwards with push bars instead of doorknobs or handles. The building itself reopened as Hyde and Behman’s music hall the following fall, and in 1905 became the Colonial Theatre before it was razed in 1924. The building wasn’t completely removed, however. According to the National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, “The Oriental retains the flame scorched south and west stage walls of the Iroquois. Marks still indicate locations of the Iroquois dressing rooms on the south wall.”
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Architects: Rapp & Rapp
Address: 24 W. Randolph St.
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Sources for Oriental Theatre (James M. Nederlander Theatre)
This is a selection of specific sources used to provide details while researching this landmark. Additional sources, including books and websites, can be found on the Resources page.
- “Amazing return of the Oriental.” Chicago Tribune, 12 Jan 1996.
- Blake, John. “Boom Boxes Shattering ‘Quiet Scene’.” Chicago Tribune, published in Sun-Sentinel, 3 Jul 1986.
- Bullock, E. C. A. “Theater Entrances and Lobbies.” The Architectural Forum, Vol. XLII No. 6 Jun 1925.
- “Chicago’s Oriental Theatre marquee is history: PHOTOS.” Chicago Sun-Times, 5 Feb 2019.
- “Closeups.” Chicago Tribune, 4 Apr 1928.
- Colonial Theatre. CinemaTreasures.org
- “Magic Stage Built at Fort Armstrong.” The Rock Island Argus, 18 Nov 1926.
- National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form
- “New Oriental Theatre Opens May 8.” Suburbanite Economist, 7 May 1926.
- “Oriental’s rebirth music to the ears of theater builder.” Chicago Tribune, 11 Jan 1996.
- “Oriental Theater Sets New Record.” Forest Park Review, 21 May 1926.
- “Paul Ash Collapses on Stage in Chicago.” Battle Creek Enquirer, 9 Feb 1928.
- “Paul Ash Signs Huge Contract.” Palatine Enterprises, 23 Apr 1926.
- Schiecke, Konrad. Downtown Chicago’s Historic Movie Theatres. United States, McFarland, Incorporated, Publishers, 2011.
- “Will Decorate Big Masonic Movie Along East Indian Lines.” Chicago Tribune, 2 Nov 1924.