Wednesday, April 5, 2023

The Varsity Theater, 1710 Sherman Avenue, Evanston, Illinois. (1926-1988)

The Varsity Theater opened on December 24, 1926, at 1710 Sherman Avenue, Evanston, Illinois. The theater was commissioned by Evanston native Clyde Elliot and was designed by John E.O. Pridmore. It was the only known example of an atmospheric theater designed as a French Chateau. 
The Varsity Theater, 1944, and the Marshall Field & Company Evanston Store.

Just 4 years, 3 months, and 11 days later, the Nortown Theater, 6320 North Western Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, opened on April 4, 1931, another Pridmore design. It was also an atmospheric theater designed with a seaside theme, sea horses, mermaids, and zodiac motifs. The theater closed in 1990 and was demolished in 2007.
The Nortown Theater, Chicago, Interior from the Balcony.

More specifically, the Varsity Theater was designed to represent the courtyard of a French chateau "of magnificent coloring and rare charm." The sidewalls represented castle walls, abutting the proscenium with turrets and buttresses hiding organ chambers and pipes within. The proscenium arch formed "a massive gateway with flying flags and pennons" and suggested the view out over a lowered drawbridge from the castle courtyard of the auditorium out onto the stage beyond.

Noted scenic company Sosman & Landis Co. was credited with creating the auditorium's elaborate French interior. They were founded in 1878, and many of its artists and mechanics have practically spent their lives developing their art. The company's first theatrical scenic painting began at the old McVicker Theater in Chicago.

At 2,500 seats, the Varsity Theater was one of the largest suburban Chicago movie palaces ever built and was also one of the most spectacular. The cerulean blue sky dome featured twinkling stars, floating fleecy clouds, and a delicate crescent moon that sailed slowly overhead during the performance.

The theater's 3-manual, 26-rank organ was built by the Genevan Organ Company. Leo Terry, former organist at the Capitol Theater, Chicago, one of the foremost theater organists in the country, will preside over the giant Geneva organ. Called an "atmospheric console," the Geneva organ was sunken and rose into view during organ numbers.
The Varsity Theater. 1967.

The lighting scheme of the Varsity expresses the early French era. The illumination in the auditorium was early French period, a crude lantern-type of fixtures enameled in bright colors. The modern Italian lobby used old iron and antique gold metalwork finishes. The company making the lighting fixtures supplied them for the new Palmer House Hotel and the new Stevens Hotel in Chicago. 

The marvelous lighting effects and the ceiling treatment enhance the illusion of sitting outdoors in the chateau courtyard. Overhead is a cerulean blue sky with twinkling stars, floating fleecy clouds and a delicate crescent moon that sailed slowly overhead during the performance. Its rising and setting begin so timed that it slowly fades from view behind the chateau just at the close of the performance, a distinctive innovation in theater decoration.
The Varsity Theatre Interior from the Balcony in 1926.

The Varsity closed in 1988. Almost immediately after the theater closed, the main level and lobby were gutted and turned into retail space.

In 2010 the City of Evanston received a $50,000 grant from the National Endowments for the Arts to conduct a feasibility study on reopening the theater as a performing arts center. In July 2011, the study concluded that the first floor of the theater was currently occupied by a retail store and not available for redevelopment and that the performing arts needs of Evanston were greater than the Varsity Theater could accommodate alone. They recommended developing several performing arts spaces in downtown Evanston instead of just one central location.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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