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As one of the first motion picture palaces whose décor was inspired by the Far
East, Chicago’s Oriental Theatre opened to much fanfare on May 8, 1926.
Designed by George L. and Cornelius W. Rapp for theatre managers Balaban
and Katz, the theatre, a virtual museum of Asian art, presented popular first-run
motion pictures, complemented by lavish stage shows. Turbaned ushers led
patrons from the lobby, with polychrome figures and large mosaics of an Indian
prince and princess, through an inner foyer with elephant-throne chairs and
multicolored glazed Buddhas, to the auditorium’s “hasheesh-dream décor.”
Among the many stars that played the theatre are Paul Ash (billed as “the Rajah
of Jazz”), The Three Stooges, Judy Garland, Al Jolson, Stepin Fetchit, Sophie Tucker,
George Burns and Gracie Allen, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Fanny Brice, Danny
Kaye and Alice Faye. During a record-breaking week in 1930, as many as 124,985
patrons visited the Oriental to see the hit film “Flight.” Although management
changed hands several times in the subsequent decades, the theatre continued to
feature films until the early 1970s, at which time it hosted live performances by
such artists as Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips and Little Richard.
Soon the theater fell into disrepair. In an effort to preserve the theatre, it was added
to the Federal National Registry of Historic Places in 1978, but the building continued
to crumble. The theatre was closed to the public in 1981, and the site was considered
for a two-story, 50,000 square-foot shopping mall and a 1,600 seat cinema. In 1996,
Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley announced that the Oriental would be restored to
its original grandeur for the presentation of live stage musicals. Renamed the Ford
Center for the Performing Arts in 1997, the restoration of the theatre was completed
in October 1998, at which time it was opened with the Chicago premiere of RAGTIME.
In 1999, FOSSE debuted at the Oriental Theatre before embarking on a national tour.
The list of hits goes on, including the pre-Broadway premiere of BLAST in 2000, the
world premiere of SING-A-LONG WIZARD OF OZ in January 2003, the record-breaking
run of WICKED from 2005 to 2009, BILLY ELLIOT and the pre-Broadway World
Premiere of BIG FISH in 2013. In 2014, the hits include the National Tour Premiere of
MOTOWN and Disney’s NEWSIES.
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