For 40 years, the Regal Theater was the most important entertainment showcase on the south side. Located at 47th and South Parkway (now Martin Luther King Drive), it was the Chicago venue for virtually every popular black performer who passed through town from the late 1920s to the late '60s. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Nat "King" Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown, Sam Cooke, Miles Davis, and Stevie Wonder all performed at the Regal.
The theater was a show in itself. When the Regal opened in 1928, it was advertised as "the thrill of a lifetime" with "treasures from the four corners of the earth." It was indeed eclectically furnished, with marble floors from Italy, crystal chandeliers from Belgium, silk drapes from the Orient, and more than 3,000 leather-bound seats from Morocco. The interior was designed to look like a brightly striped Arabian tent. A blue sky with twinkling stars and a horizon silhouette of imposing Moorish castles could be seen through openings in the tent's top.
Like the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C., and the Apollo in New York City, the Regal was known for its smart and enthusiastic audiences. Entertainers and Regal employees worked together to put on shows worthy of this appreciative group.
"The old Regal was like a community house," said Robert "Pete" Peters, who worked at the theater in a number of capacities from 1942 to 1949. "Everybody knew everybody, and everybody helped everybody."
The Regal went through four different owners before it was closed for financial reasons in 1968. In 1973 it was demolished and replaced by a parking lot--one more step in a trend that has been forcing blacks to leave their communities for entertainment. The Chicago Theatre, Poplar Creek, and the Holiday Star are now booking acts that would have played at the Regal 20 years ago.
Edward Gardner and his wife Bettiann noticed this void in the black community.
"My wife has always had a strong interest in theater," said Gardner, who is the chairman of the Soft Sheen Products company. "She always wanted to bring quality theater to the inner city."
In June 1985 the Gardners, acting on a tip from realtor, author, and former musician Dempsey Travis, bought the 2,300-seat Avalon Theater at 1649 E. 79th Street with the intention of restoring the old movie palace for stage shows. They renamed it the New Regal Theater, and this weekend, after nearly two years of interior and exterior renovations, it opens to the public with a black-tie reception Friday night and concerts Saturday and Sunday by Gladys Knight and the Pips.
"We're calling this week 'Regal Renaissance Opening Week,'" said Vickii McDonald, executive director of the New Regal Theater Foundation. Stephanie Mills and the Whispers are scheduled to perform next Friday, and on Wednesday, August 19, WMAQ TV will tape a special titled Rompin' at the Regal, featuring Gladys Knight, Lou Rawls, an 18-piece orchestra, and various local performers. Future bookings for the New Regal include Ray Charles, B.B. King, the "Cotton Club Revue," and the drama Diary of a Black Man. Other unspecified dramas, a film series, and boxing matches are also planned for the year ahead.
To fund the New Regal's restoration, Gardner and the New Regal Limited Partnership provided $3.5 million, and the city of Chicago chipped in a $1 million Illinois Development Action Grant, which was presented to the theater as a low-interest loan. Every dollar of the total was needed to spruce up the mosquelike structure, which was last used by a church in the early 1980s. The church's primary contribution to the theater's maintenance was to slather green paint over the previously ornate, multicolored lobby. When the new owners began work, the lobby's beautiful ceiling, an exact replica of a Persian rug, was crumbling and falling to the floor.
"It took us ten weeks alone to renovate the lobby," said construction director Charles Gueno Jr. "Everything had to be repainted by human hand, and the ceiling had to be reproduced."
"When we first saw the theater, some of the electrical fixtures were not in good shape," added Gardner. "There was also a good three feet of ice in the basement. Still, it was basically a sound structure."
Gueno and the renovation architects, D'Escoto, Inc., were faithful to the original design of architect John Eberson. Like many of the stage/movie palaces built in the late 1920s, Eberson's Avalon was a colorful collage of exotic locales, essentially a Persian temple decorated with multicolored jewels and murals of Arabian scenes. Eberson considered the theater to be the best of the 400 he designed in Europe and America.
The New Regal retains the pseudo-Persian motif. The stunning replica of the Persian rug again flies over the lobby, studded with jewels of many different sizes, shapes, and colors. On the west wall of the lobby, hand-laid mosaics depict both bucolic scenes and images of wild revelry. The upper level of the two-tiered lobby is supported by glistening marble columns from Italy.
The main auditorium has enough detail for three theaters. A rich blue Arabian sky, speckled with stars, covers the ceiling; the theater's crew can also project images of clouds underneath the "sky" for a complete outdoors effect. Towering quasi-Islamic temples stand on either side of the main floor, and the entire room is encrusted with glittery red and blue jewels of many sizes. Arabic maxims are inscribed on the east walls of the room; their English translations appear on the west walls. There are fountains on either side of the stage capable of shooting water 12 to 15 feet into the air. Unfortunately, however, they will remain dry, according to Vickii McDonald. "We'd like to use them," she said. "But there was a problem at the original Avalon--the fountains were subliminally affecting customers and sending them to the bathroom."
Gardner and the Regal Theater Limited Partnership intend to spend an estimated $5.1 million to renovate a building adjacent to the theater and two buildings across the street. These buildings are to be used as a theater/arts complex with a jazz museum, rehearsal space, office space, a restaurant, a box office, and facilities for artists-in-residence. No definitive plans on the opening of the complex have been made, but Gardner expects work on the buildings to start "in a few months."
In addition to its function as a performing arts center, the New Regal Theater will also be available for rental by community organizations. And the New Regal Theater Foundation--which operates as a not-for-profit organization--will itself present a number of community-oriented events in the upcoming months. "We're hoping to have at least one community talent show per month," said Gardner.
Right now the foundation is working on plans for a children's matinee series, to be presented by Urban Gateways, and a matinee series for senior citizens planned by the city's department of aging.
"It's very difficult to do community programming," says Vickii McDonald, "because it's not deemed as being as entertaining as something popular or contemporary. The question is how many community events can we afford to host at this theater while still keeping the theater solvent?"
To help defray the costs of the community events, the foundation is accepting donations from corporate and private organizations. These donations will be tax-deductible if the foundation receives the tax-exempt status it applied for earlier in the year.
McDonald said that the theater already has received "overwhelming" support from donors in the nearby Chatham/Avalon area and in other sections of the city. "We've also received many unsolicited donations in the mail to the theater," she added.
The donations are likely to be needed. According to a pair of feasibility studies commissioned by the theater, the New Regal can expect only to break even over the next few years: the theater's 2,300-seat capacity precludes it from generating revenue on the same scale as larger houses like the Chicago, the Holiday Star, or the Arie Crown. But that, Gardner claims, is OK with him. "This is not a money-making situation for anyone," he said. "We see the New Regal as a theater for the community."
According to the feasibility studies, the middle-class Chatham and Avalon areas are financially stable and can support the theater. Nevertheless, McDonald said that management also hopes to draw a considerable amount of patrons from other black and nonblack areas of the city, as well as from outlying areas in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin.
"When the Regal was on 47th Street, it was white, black, blue, green, purple--everybody went to the Regal," said McDonald. "But now we're living in a different age and people perceive certain areas like 79th Street as being dangerous. I think it's a fallacy--you can go anywhere in Chicago and get hurt or killed--but I guess the issue is that, by and large, Chicago has always been a segregated city. In any case, we will do much to lessen the fear of jeopardy or injury to body."
Ultimately, Gardner wants the Regal to be a source of pride for the inner city. He also wants it to be a source of jobs.
"We want to provide full-time and part-time jobs for youngsters in this community who want to go into entertainment," he said. "We hope to get youngsters started into the areas of production, lighting, sound."
"For too long, black people have been strictly performers onstage," McDonald added. "We need to know more about management and operations so we can take control of our own careers, rather than having them controlled by others. That's why it's so important for this theater to be here."
"This theater's been here since 1927," said Gardner. "It's gonna be here 'til 2027, 2127, et cetera."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.