The Uptown is the largest surviving movie theater in the United States, larger even than New York's Radio City Music Hall in square footage, although its seating capacity is a little less. Designed by the renowned architects Rapp and Rapp and built in 1925 at a cost of $4 million, it opened on August 18 to throngs of people winding around the corner of Broadway and Lawrence. The crowd, which at one point grew to more than 12,000, waited to see a show including two live orchestras, newsreels, a stage show called "Under Spanish Skies," and the silent feature The Lady Who Lied--all for a ticket price of 50 cents.
The merchants of then-thriving Uptown held a week-long pageant celebrating the arrival of the new theater with contests, outdoor bands, and parades throughout the neighborhood. Opening-day advertisements for the theater beckoned "Drop everything and come! The Uptown Theatre's opening is too magnificent a moment to miss. Come for the most awe inspiring sight of your life--There's An Acre of Seats."
Today the Uptown looms silently above the neighborhood, sealed and sleeping. Dust blankets its elegant fixtures, and all that's left of the crowds is an eerie feeling of spirits that once graced the screen and filled the 4,381 seats.
My fascination with the Uptown Theatre grew out of a project I began in 1978 as a graduate thesis--documenting old movie theaters whenever and wherever I could. I immediately became interested in the Uptown when I moved to Chicago and the Uptown neighborhood, but unfortunately it was 1982, one year after the theater had closed its doors permanently, and I was unable to locate anyone who could get me inside. I photographed the Woods, United Artists, Nortown, Oriental, Chicago, and Granada theaters over the next several years. Finally on a cold winter day outside the wreckage of the Granada I met a man who put me in touch with the people who are now hoping to restore the Uptown. The first time I entered I knew it was the most breathtaking movie palace I had ever seen.
All of the extravagant descriptions that are overused in discussions of movie palaces are perfectly reasonable in the case of the Uptown. It is filled with magic, sentiment, and history. I can only hope some of its magic will help reopen its doors and return it to the masses who once loved it. --L.R.
Loren Robare's photographs of old movie palaces will be on exhibit from December 2 through January 19 at the Chicago Studio for Dance and Musical Theater, 1505 N. Kingsbury. Call 266-6009 for hours.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Loren Robare.