Shakespeare in Nineteenth-Century Chicago: An Evolving Cultural Identity

Nineteenth-Century Shakespeare Theaters in Chicago: Then and Now

This page offers a then-and-now perspective on Chicago's grand nineteenth-century theaters, contrasting images of the original theaters with photos of their original locations in the twenty-first century. Move the sliders across the images to see, first on the left, the theaters that produced Shakespeare in nineteenth century Chicago, and then on the right how their sites look now.

The Sauganash Hotel (1831-1851)

Located on the southeast corner of Lake Street and Wacker Drive, the Sauganash Hotel was the site of the very first production of a Shakespeare play in Chicago, Richard III, in 1837. The plaque in the present-day picture notes that the Sauganash "was Chicago's first hotel and it soon became the social center of town." 

Rice's Theater (1851-1861

Situated on Dearborn Street between Randolph and Washington, Rice's Theater was Chicago's first purpose-built theater. The owner/manager, John Black Rice, stepped in one evening in 1857 to play Othello when his lead actor took ill, and it was here that one James H. McVicker worked as a stage manager before opening his own theater (see next slide). On the older image, Rice's Theater is the smaller building in the middle.

McVicker's Theater (1857–1871)

McVicker's Theater, on Madison just west of State Street, is noteworthy for its numerous distinguished productions of Shakespeare throughout the late ninteenth-century (see Shakespeare Playbills in Nineteenth-Century Chicago for many examples). Famously, it was also the site of an assassination attempt on the life of actor Edwin Booth due to the actor's having the audacity to adapt the text of Shakespeare's Richard II (see Timeline of Shakespeare in Nineteenth-Century Chicago for more information).

Hooley's Theatre (1872-1924)

R. M. Hooley referred to his theater on posters as "The Parlor House of Comedy." Located at 124 West Randolph Street and opened on October 17, 1872, the theater was briefly called Haverly's in 1876-77, then reverted to its original name until Hooley's death in 1893. The theater was then purchased by one Harry J. Powers, who reopened it as Powers' Theater in 1898. A mix of live entertainment and movies were shown there until the theater was razed in 1924.

Academy of Music (1872 - circa 1940)

On Halsted Street between Madison and Monroe we find the site of the Academy of Music, which opened on January 10, 1872. The theater had 2,450 seats, and was the first in history to use electrical (as opposed to gas) lighting. The lighting initially caused some concern for the actors in regard to their makeup, since they were not accustomed to being so brightly illuminated by electric footlights. One could see a performance here for anywhere from 10 cents to 50 cents.

Central Music Hall (1879-1901)

Located on the southeast corner of State and Randolph Streets, the Central Music Hall was designed by the architect Dankmar Adler. Adler was particularly gifted as an acoustician, and as a result the theater was renowned for its rich and accurate sound. Adler later furthered and refined his acoustical expertise when he designed the Auditorium Theater, which opened in 1890 and remains in operation today.

Grand Opera House (1880-1958)

Residing on Clark Street between Washington and Randolph, the Grand Opera House began its life as a vaudeville house in the 1870s, where it featured such "lowbrow" entertainments as "Macbeth Reconstructed!" in 1875 and "Burlesque Scene from Romeo and Juliet" (1884) (see Shakespeare Playbills in Nineteenth-Century Chicago). It opened as the Grand Opera House in September, 1880, presenting such Shakespeare productions as Richard III (1880 and 1882), Hamlet (1881, 1882, and 1885), As You Like It (1883), and The Comedy of Errors (1885).

Columbia Theater (1880-1900)

The Columbia, on the south side of Monroe Street between Dearborn and Clark, had a seating capacity of 2,000 and was known for its architectural combination of French Renaissance and Queen Anne styles. The great actress Ellen Terry was on hand to christen the theater, and its first production was Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.  The Columbia opened to the public in 1880 just eighty-eight days after ground was broken, and burned to the ground in March 1900 in just thirty minutes. 

Chicago Opera House (1885-1912)

Located at the corner of Washington and Clark Streets, the Chicago Opera House opened on August 18, 1885 and originally housed not only a theater but also offices designed to provide additional revenue. The theater hosted such major Shakespearean productions such as Hamlet (1885), Julius Caesar (1887) Richard III (1888) and Twelfth Night (1889).