Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Des Plaines Theatre is 85

Des Plaines Theater, 1925

Forget the Des Plaines Theatre you've been to. Forget the black-walled, drop-ceiling, dim-lit twin it's been since 1987 - the only Des Plaines Theatre I've ever known. Forget the fondly-remembered movie house with green walls and a blue ceiling. The Des Plaines Theatre of 1925 outclasses all the modernizations that have occurred since then and points to what an asset the theatre could once again be to our city.

So to help you step back into the theatre as it was and should be again, here are several articles from the Des Plaines Suburban Times leading up to that opening day 85 years ago - August 9, 1925 at 2pm. They helped me gain an appreciation of just how unique its architecture is - I have studied historic theatres and have never come across anything like it. The proscenium arch is absolutely original in design, anticipating art deco. Every other theatre by architects Betts & Holcomb was designed in the Tudor Style. The rousing success of the Des Plaines led directly to the building of the Pickwick - an even more unusual theatre.

While the sketches and drawings these articles mention are evidently lost to time, blueprints and other investigative work have allowed us to create images of what the theatre would have looked like in 1925 - and what it could look like again. Far from the seafoam green walls and cobalt ceiling seen when it was a single screen, at opening the theatre was richly colorful and sumptuously decorated in stencils and wrought iron lanterns.

Imagine what an impression such a unique and inventive interior would leave on a visitor to Des Plaines today. This is not a forgettable theatre; it could once again define Des Plaines just as the Pickwick defines Park Ridge.
A wireframe of the original lobby design
Artist's rendering of a restored auditorium, by Conrad Schmitt Studios

July 18, 1924

B. H. Winkelman Lets Contract for $125,000 Structure
Big News of Interest to All Des Plaines; Fine Improvement for Business Section
   The contract for a new $125,000 building for Miner street has been let by B. H. Winkelman. The structure will be located on the lot at the corner of Miner (Northwest highway) and Lee street on the opposite corner to the Masonic temple building.
   This big improvement is another indication that Des Plaines is showing a remarkable growth and is one that will meet the unbounded approbation of every citizen in the village.
   The contract for the erection of this beautiful building has been let to Ed Nissen, local contractor, and work will be started immediately in the desire to get the structure completed in as short a space of time as possible.
   Besides a theater auditorium that will have a capacity of one thousand seats (sic) the building will contain three rooms for store purposes and two flats in the second story. It will be a two-story edifice.
   The building has already been leased for a period of ten years to the Parker Brothers (sic) of Chicago (sic). The rental price was not made public by Mr. Winkelman, but we understand it will run into six figures, and will furnish a handsome income for the owner.
   The size of the structure will be 100x140, covering the entire lot belonging to Mr. Winkelman on the above mentioned corner. The material used will be pressed brick and terra cotta and of as near fireproof construction as possible.
   To facilitate building activities Mr. Winkelman offers his residence and barn for sale cheap to clear the lot in a very short space of time. If his offer is not accepted this week the buildings will be wrecked.
   Last summer Mr. Winkelman built the handsome structure at the corner of Center and Ellinwood streets which is a valuable addition to the business section, and now he is to be commended for his decision to improve the lot where he has made his home for many years. This action on his part will necessitate the moving of his family to new quarters.

January 9, 1925

So Says Versatile Writer of Park Ridge
General Scheme of Interior to be Late Spanish, of Moorish Flavor; Concealed Lighting
   Have you seen the drawings for the interior of the new Des Plaines theater? Considerable mystery seems to be attached to the contemplated design. Barney Winkelman just says, "Shush," when asked about it. Ed Nissen assumes an air of injured innocence, and all Betts & Holcomb, the architects, will say is, "'Twill be somewhat different."
   Well, we want to tell you, we are on the inside now, have seen the drawings, photographs of the terra cotta models, and sketches of the color schemes.
   Subject to correction on our description of the architectural style, we would say that the lobby is a glorified edition of a Moorish harem in the Spanish Moresque, with polychrome terra cotta wainscot, wrought iron lams and ticket booth, and an interesting design of tile floor.
   The general scheme for the auditorium is a later Spanish, with rough plastered walls, broken up by symmetrically placed architectural motifs, which frame the exit doors and which have a decorative niche above them. These niches will be flooded with color lighting and the general effect will be in polychrome with gold the predominating color.
   All lighting will be concealed, except the low lighting for the house, which will be furnished by unique wrought iron lanterns suspended from the ceiling.
   The whole effect is a rich display of decorative plaster in color, with enough plain wall surface, to act as a proper foil, for you know, girls, as Epictetus once said to Julius Caesar (as they were both aligting from the 5:15), "You know, old top, after all, good design is in the discriminate
juxtaposition of plain and ornamental surfaces." I thank you.

March 20, 1925
Work Being Pushed to Get Structure Finished
Large Stage for Legitimate Plays, and Fine Facilities for Popular Screen Productions
   Des Plaines will soon have the pleasure of helping to dedicate the beautiful new theater building now approaching the completion stage at the corner of Miner and Lee streets.
   Work on the big structure has been going on prcatically all through the windter months, and now that the roof has been added workmen are constantly busy on the interior rushing the work as much as possible in order to get the work completed at the earliest possible moment
   A very large stage at the north end of the building will furnish ample facilities to show all the best of screen plats in the finest possible manner.
   The interior when completed will be most beautiful and no expense is being spared on either the decorations or lighting effects to make it the most beautiful playhouse outside the city of Chicago.
   Des Plaines ought to be, and is, wonderfully proud of this addition to her amusement facilities and there is not a doubt but when the latest screen shows are presented the theatrer will have a pulling power that will bring people to our city from a radius of many miles.
   The contractor, Ed Nissen, and his corps of workmen are doing their utmost not only to speed the work but to make this structure a monument to their ability as workmen and artisans.

May 29, 1925

Building Activities Reliable Indicator of Conditions
Business Blocks and Dwellings Arise on Every Hand; Des Plaines in Very Rapid Growth
   Building operations in Des Plaines are assuming large proportions and every artisan and laborer is employed and being constantly pushed in the effort to rush construction work to the utmost.
   The new Des Plaines theater building is rapidly approaching the completion stage. One store room on Miner street is now being prepared for occupancy, and the other rooms are near the finishing point.
   The large interior has so far been completed that an onlooker can easily visualize the appearance of the theater when entirely completed and in use.
   The walls and ceiling are plastered and decorated and the staging removed, and one is struck with the extra large seating capacity the room will have. A thoroughly modern projection room has been added to the rear upper part and an unusually large stage will have ample space for vaudeville or stage productions.

June 5, 1925
Opening of Johnson Electric Store

July 17, 1925
New Movie House Recieving Finishing Touches
   The new movie house at the corner of Miner and Lee streets, after many months consumed in erection work, is now reaching the final stages of completion and within a very short time its doors will be thrown open to the public. It is thought the grand opening will be held about the first of August.
   The big sign of Polka Brothers, who are lessees of the theater, was placed in position yesterday, likewise the seats are being assembled and fastened to the floor and only a few lessor matters are to be taken care of to mark the finish of the big auditorium.
   This palatial house is a marked improvement for Des Plaines and Mr. Winkelman, who is the builder, should recieve the plaudits of all our citizens for the erection of such an imposing structure. Polka Brothers, who will operate the playhouse, are interested in a large string of theaters throughout the outlying districts of Chicago, and their buying power is so great that it will assure Des Plaines seeing the very latest and best releases from the producing companies.

August 7, 1925
Polka Bros. Have Arranged Fine Program for Day
   At last the long awaited event is to happen, for the Des Plaines theater, under construction since last fall, will be opened within the next few days, with a complete program of feature photoplays, as well as a six piece orchestra and five big acts of loop vaudeville.
   In addition to the other attractions, Mr. Brown, connected with the Geneva Organ company, installers of the three-manual organ here, will render a number of selections. Mr. Brown has been heard over the radio from station WJJD, Mooseheart, on a number of occassions, playing from Geneva, and he is an artist of great ability.
   The show house is one of the most beautiful in any district outside of Chicago and has been the cynosure of many during the final stages of completion. Polka Bros., who are lessees of the house, are interested in a string of theaters and in that way will be able to bring the best of photoplays as well as vaudeville and other entertainment to our city.
   On page two of this issue you will find the ad of the new theater, telling of the good things in store for all who patronize the opening event.
   The management has submitted a statement and invitation as follows:
   The Des Plaines Theater Welcomes You
   The conception and building of the Des Plaines Theater are the results of a desire on the part of the residents of Des Plaines and surrounding territory for a larger and more commodious place of entertainment, to meet the requirements of a rapidly growing population and to keep pace with the many other local improvements, all of which are essential to community up-building, advancement, and prosperity.
   No pains or expense have been spared to make the Des Plaines Theater complete with all the modern improvements in construction, lighting, pictures, and stage equipment.
   It will be conducted as a place of entertainment, where every man, woman and child for miles around will want to come; where they will feel at home amid surroundings designed for their comfort and convenience.
   We shall strive to maintain the highest standard of excellence both in our vaudeville and photoplays, and to merit your good will and patronage.
   It is our intention to make the Des Plaines theater a place where you, your family, and friends can always be sure of seeing a good show, and to know that right here at home you, your family and friends can always be sure of seeing a good show, and to know that right here at home you have the best in refined entertainment to be found anywhere.
   This is your theater, and will be maintained and operated for your recreation and enjoyment.
   We realize fully that you will demand the latest and best in pictures, refined vaudeville, high class entertainers and an appropriate and excellent musical program.
   All of these we shall endeavour to present. We thank you.

August 14, 1925
Enormous Crowds Witness Initial Performances
   Some thirty-six hundred paid admission was the result of the opening performances of the Des Plaines theater Sunday afternoon and evening.
   Although the theater was not entirely completed the enormous crowd was treated to a fine program which embraced the picture, "Are Parents People?", a six-piece orchestra and five acts of excellent vaudeville.
   The organ installation had not been completed, consequently the patrons were disappointed in not hearing the selections of Mr. Brown, but all seemed well satisfied with the caliber of the performance as it was.
   Workmen have been busy all week on the organ and now have it about ready for use, so that all theater patrons can have the enjoyment of excellent and fitting music as a complement to the feature programs that will be a rule at this show house.
   Uniformed ushers are used and every appointment is patterned after the best theaters of Chicago, so we can feel proud that we have a veritable metropolitan playhouse in our midst.
   Only the best has been good enough to have a place in the building. The stage appointments are right up-to-the-minute and the auditorium is likewise ideally equipped. The lighting, the decorations are all that can be desired, while the upholstered seats are comfortable and restful.
   The theater is under the management of Mr. Cadwallader, who is desirous of bringing to Des Plaines the very best amusement the community will support. The theater is not for use of Des Plaines alone, but is to be an attraction that will draw patrons from miles around.

Des Plaines Theatre

Historical Summary
The Des Plaines Theatre was built in 1925 as the northwest suburban flagship for the Polka Brothers chain of suburban theatres, based in Maywood. It was constructed by businessman and saloon owner Barney Winkelmann on the site of his home, built as the retirement residence of the widow of Socrates Rand, a founding father of Des Plaines. The Spanish Baroque Revival building with ebullient polychrome Terra Cotta is the only known theatre designed by Betts & Holcomb departing from the Tudor style. The theater's success prompted the Polkas to build the more elaborate Pickwick Theatre in neighboring Park Ridge in 1927. After hosting the likes of Gene Autry in vaudeville and film, the theater was purchased by H&E Balaban, a spinoff of Balaban & Katz, in 1935, and received a streamline redecoration, including the distinctive marquee, by famed architects Pereira & Pereira. The theater remained a popular first-run and discount cinema until a 1982 fire damaged the building's storefronts. Although the theater itself suffered little damage, it remained closed for a year, and business never fully recovered. The theater was then sold twice, and was twinned in 1987 by Kohlberg Theaters, with much of the d├ęcor obscured by walls, a dropped ceiling, and flat black paint, and became newly popular for bargain-basement late runs. The theatre briefly closed in 1997. The next year, Jim and June Burrows of Chicago refurbished the theater for first-runs, but were unable to shake the theater's reputation. It was sold several times in the next few years, settling on Bollywood, closing for a period when a bank purchased it, planning to demolish it for a new drive-through. The Des Plaines Theater Preservation Society was formed to oppose this effort and support restoration as a performing arts center, and the bank's plans were dropped. The theater was sold to the Bollywood operator, receiving some refurbishments through the efforts of the DPTPS. After several years of special programming, DPTPS was unable to reach a long-term agreement with the owner and went on hiatus. More recently the theatre has operated on a rental basis, including a stint of vaudeville revival.