Friday, May 10, 2019

The history of the Grand Opera House of Chicago, Illinois. (1872-1958)

The Grand Opera House of Chicago was built on the original site of "Bryan Hall and Hooley’s Opera House," at 546 N. Clark Street (119 N. Clark Street today). J.A. Hamlin and brother L.B. Hamlin purchased the property in January, 1872, and erected the first building that was completed upon that block after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.
In 1873, Hamlin Brothers built on the rear lot what was subsequently known as "Foley’s Billiard Hall," which was at the time the largest billiard hall in the world, containing thirty tables on one floor. In 1874, the billiard hall property was bought by the Hamlin Brothers, and the billiard business was discontinued after a few months.

The hall was reconstructed with an additional building added to the east end, and for two years was occupied as a garden styled after Gilmore’s Garden of New York, with fountains, waterfalls, vocal and instrumental music, and all kinds of refreshments.
Subsequently the garden, by degrees, was changed to a vaudeville theater, and was continued as such until 1878, when it was again re-constructed as a regular theater, and opened in September, 1878, under the name of Hamlins’ Theater. About that time the property passed out of the hands of Hamlin Bros: into those of William C. Reynolds, who sold it to John Borden in 1880.

John Borden shortly afterward sold the property to his son, William Borden, who re-constructed the theater at an additional expense of about $55,000, and it was opened on September 6, 1880, under the name of the Grand Opera House, and under the management of John A. Hamlin. The lot upon which the Grand Opera House buildings are erected contains about thirteen thousand two hundred square feet of ground.

The history of the location as a place of amusement, commencing with the original Bryan Hall, way back in the 1850s, and running through all its various changes, is one of almost continuous success. The original Bryan Hall was one of the most popular amusement resorts in Chicago for many years. The Grand Opera House was opened by Hoey & Hardy’s Company, in their adaptation of the play “A Child of the State,” followed by Tom Keene, in a Shakesperian repertory. Nathaniel Goodwin, Emma Abbott Opera Company, Boston Ideal Opera Company, etc., all performed.

It was the scene of the first production of two huge hit musicals aimed at children. In June of 1902, the original production of The Wizard of Oz had its premier there. One year later, in June 1903, came the premiere of Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland.
The Grand Opera House was built as a legitimate theatre and had seating for 1,750 in an orchestra, balcony and gallery. The interior was lit by gas and described by the Chicago Daily Tribune as having “the beautiful blending of rich colors and the graceful elegance of the designs charms the eye at every point."
In 1912 George M. Cohan and his partner Sam H. Harris leased the theatre, on March 3rd, the renamed "George M. Cohan’s Grand Opera House" opened its doors. In 1926 the façade and auditorium were reconstructed by Andrew Rebori, and reopened as the Four Cohans. 
"Of Thee I Sing" became the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama (1932), and was the longest-running Gershwin show during George Gershwin's lifetime. Ad c.1933
Later the Shuberts took over and the theatre became the Shubert Grand Opera House, it then returned to its original name Grand Opera House. 
When live theatre left and films came in the theatre was renamed the RKO Grand. In March 1958 the RKO Grand showed its last film and was demolished a month later.
The RKO Grand Theater, 119 N. Clark Street, Chicago. One screen,1200 seats. (1953)
The Chicago Civic Center completed in 1965 was later constructed on the site (renamed the Richard J. Daley Center on December 27, 1976, seven days after his death).

Among the stars who played the Grand Opera House, over the years, were: Lionel Barrymore, Arthur Byron, Mady Christians, George M. Cohan, Constance Collier, Katharine Cornell, Dudley Digges, Robert Edeson, Leon Errol, Douglas Fairbanks, Walter Hampden, Miriam Hopkins, Allan Jones, Bert Lahr, Eva Le Gallienne, Canada Lee, the Marx Brothers, Chester Morris, Mildred Natwick, Effie Shannon, and Ethel Waters.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

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