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Standing Ovation

Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre celebrates 125 years.
 

The theater today

 

The Romanesque-style Auditorium Building, that hulking but majestic mass of granite and limestone on East Congress Parkway between Michigan and Wabash avenues, is often likened to a fortress.

The comparison is also apt in a figurative sense, for only a fortress could have withstood 125 years of ups and downs, particularly the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University contained in that edifice. The venerable venue is celebrating its milestone birthday all season. Inventive programming, including a Made in Chicago series, will culminate in a grand gala on Dec. 9, 2014—125 years to the day when the theater opened in 1889 with President Benjamin Harrison in attendance. The presidential link continues: Chicago-born first lady Michelle Obama is the honorary chair of the 125th anniversary season.

Auditorium Theatre Executive Director Brett Batterson has his fingers crossed that Mrs. Obama will be in the house for the December event. “The White House can’t confirm social engagements that far out,” he says. “But she’ll definitely be invited.”

In addition to the theater, the building, designed by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan— with assistance from a young Frank Lloyd Wright—originally housed a hotel and offices. With its 17-story tower, it was the tallest structure in Chicago, and the largest building in the country.

The theater during World War II

The theater is rich in eye candy: mosaics, art glass, decorative iron and plaster work, murals and 3,500 light bulbs stud its elaborate arches. Yet for all its decorative flourishes, its design isn’t over the top. Gilding the lily wasn’t Sullivan’s or Wright’s style.

Once home to Civic Opera and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the theater was also the site of national political conventions. Anna Pavlova danced on its stage. Booker T. Washington spoke there. Sarah Bernhardt radiated dramatic magic.

The venue’s celebrated acoustics are attributed to Adler, who designed ever-widening arches from the stage outward, which afforded an even distribution of sound. “The effect was like a gramophone,” says Batterson.

After a few heady decades, grim days awaited. The Auditorium Building went bankrupt in 1929, and during the Depression estimates were taken for its demolition. But its bulwark-like construction was its salvation. “It was too expensive to demolish during the Depression,” says Auditorium Theatre historian Bart Swindall.

The theater limped along during those lean years, and the hotel, “was in bad shape,” says Swindall. “Eventually, the city took the property over because taxes hadn’t been paid in years,” he says. During World War II, the theater was used as a servicemen’s center, and the stage was turned into a bowling alley.

Roosevelt University bought the building in 1946, but it had no use for the 4,000-seat auditorium. So it deteriorated for years, until one determined woman in the early 1960s got the ball rolling to renovate the theater. Beatrice T. Spachner was a socialite, but she was also a musician who couldn’t bear to see the iconic site decay.

“She had played here in 1932 as a violinist in the Young Women’s Symphony, so she had an emotional connection to the theater,” says Swindall. “She rounded up a lot of heavy-duty people to raise funds.”

Spachner’s bold effort was successful, and the theater reopened in 1967. “The fact that she did this in the ’60s is amazing because during that period the craze was for tearing down buildings,” says Batterson.

The venue once again was home to high culture, but it also hosted musicians who rocked the rafters, including Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and The Who.
Diverse programming like that has always been the hallmark of the Auditorium Theatre, part of the “democratic ideal” shared by Adler, Sullivan and Ferdinand Peck, a wealthy businessman who formed an association of investors to erect the edifice. The theater was intended for all Chicagoans, and current management hasn’t lost sight of that mission.

In addition to serving as the Joffrey Ballet’s home base, presentations include Broadway shows, jazz and pop. On Sunday mornings, the Willow Creek Community Church holds services there.

And in summer, the building houses something close to Batterson’s heart—the Hands Together, Heart to Art camp designed for children who’ve lost a parent. The idea is that the arts can be a salve for grief. Batterson spearheaded the project when he arrived in 2004. “I was 7 when my father passed away from a heart attack,” he says. “And it was my involvement in the arts that got me through that period. So when I got in a position to help kids who had the same loss, the camp got started.”

The Auditorium Theater, a National Historic Landmark, underwent another major renovation beginning in 2001 to further gussy up the place. But good looks alone can’t account for the venue’s survival, Swindall believes. “Everyone knows the auditorium is beautiful,” he says, “but we’ve managed to adapt to whatever came our way because the architects built in that flexibility from the start. So when new things come up, we say, ‘Yes, we can do that!’ We’ve been able to roll with the punches for 125 years.”