I had heard about it for years from friends and neighbors. Walked by it countless times but never went inside. How long, I wondered, would it take before my job as roving reporter for the Chicago Cultural Mile would lead to the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University — said to be one of the most acoustically-perfect concert venues in the world?
Not very long, it turns out. Thanks to Lily Oberman, associate director of communications for the theatre, I recently had the opportunity to join one of the regularly scheduled tours of the 126-year-old National Historic landmark. Designed by the well-known architectural firm of Adler and Sullivan, the Auditorium is not only Chicago’s oldest operating theatre, it is also is one of the oldest structures in the entire city, having been built 16 years after the Great Chicago Fire, which occurred in 1871.
According to Sharon, our tour guide, the theatre oozes with history. Just prior to its completion and official opening, it played host to the 1888 Republican National Convention where Benjamin Harrison was nominated for President; it hosted a fund-raising dinner on behalf of Teddy Roosevelt; it was converted into a Servicemen’s Center during World War II with regulation bowling alleys atop the stage; it hosted the circus, tennis and boxing matches; staged all of the great operas, Broadway musicals and dance companies (Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Phantom of the Opera, the Joffrey Ballet); presented great rock musicians (Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Doors, Elton John, The Beach Boys); and has served up some truly memorable performances over the years – such as the evening Tony Bennett performed for a sold-out audience without a microphone.
But the star of the tour is actually the 3,901-seat theatre itself. Beautiful 24-karat gold-leafed ceiling arches, hundreds of beautifully restored stencil patterns, ornate gilded and bas-relief designs, intricate floor and wall mosaics, and striking murals lining the upper walls of the theatre. A trip to the third balcony reveals a hand-cranked winch system that operates a cantilevered panel capable of hiding the top two seating galleries when they are not in use (for an aesthetically pleasing look). On the main floor, 3,500 electric clear glass carbon-filament bulbs produce a soft, golden glow that permeates the entire theatre; bronze-plated cast iron panels decorate the stairways from the main lobby to the first balcony; six arched art glass lunettes are located above the doors leading from the box office entryway into the main lobby.
It is one of the most beautiful and best-sounding theatres in the world — and well worth a visit. My next goal is to enjoy a performance there. I wonder if Tony Bennett still has the pipes to reprise his earlier non-amplified performance.
For information regarding the Auditorium Theatre (shows, tours, etc.) click here.