Sunday, February 22, 2009

Chicago's Lost Magic Theater

In 1894, the Steinway Piano company commissioned Dwight Perkins to build a new building in Chicago at 17 Van Buren Street. Finished in 1896 the Chicago Musical College building, a 12-story high-rise, housed the 850-seat Steinway Hall and various offices. It was in financial trouble from the start. The theater suffered from poor acoustics and supports for the balcony blocked views on the main floor.

By 1899, the situation worsened. Alexander Comstock came to save the Steinway Theater. He had managed Niblo’s Garden in New York and had wide experience in theatrical affairs. The task was great. The financial trouble deep.

A late summer heat wave cooked Chicago that early September. Thermometers reading near 100 did not stop huge crowds from attending Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. The Dreyfus Affair trial, gripping news from a half a world away, filled the front pages of the newspapers. It was the latest of the “trials of the century” to be debated in the homes and barrooms across Chicago.

In this Chicago, Comstock announced the reopening of Steinway Hall as a Temple of Magic. He based his hope on the some 40 years of success of London’s Egyptian Hall and the “experiment” in Philadelphia, Kellar’s Egyptian Hall in 1891.

“Magic,” said Mr. Comstock, “is the most ancient form of amusement and that it is still immensely popular is proved by the financial success of every modern wizard of cleverness and ability. Professor Herrmann, although an extravagant man, left a large estate and fully a dozen prestidigitators living in this country are wealthy.”

Comstock chose Edward Maro to open the new Temple. Billed as Maro the Versatile, he performed an act of magic, music, and art. He was a star in the Lyceum and Chautauqua circuits. At this time of his career, he was considered the heir apparent to the magic legacy of his friend Harry Kellar. Now, he was to perform a month in a Temple of Magic.

Chicago Tribune, September 3, 1899

Chicago Tribune, September 3, 1899
Opening of the Steinway
The Steinway had a happy opening last night as a “Temple of Magic,” a phrasing which hereafter is to be part of its title. An audience of respectable proportions was kept in good humor for over two hours by Maro, an entertainer of versatile talents. He divided his performance into three parts, appearing first as a magician, in the second as a musician and an artist, and in the third as a magician again. His tricks were not all novel, but they were cleverly done, and some of them apparently were of his own invention. His card tricks in particular seemed to cast in an original mold. In concluding his first part, he employed the “Chest of Mahatma,” a brass-studded affair which did not have a remarkable look. However, it served as a medium of transposing a Negro boy, whom the audience saw locked inside, and a Negro girl, whom the magician perched upon the closed lid. A whisk of a cloth disclosed the boy to view, and when the chest was opened, the girl was inside. In the second part of the program, Maro played upon several peculiar instruments and afterward posed as a lightning artist, drawing pictures in quick succession upon a canvas surface. Maro is to stay at the Temple of Magic for a month. Performances will be given nightly, with Wednesday and Saturday matinees.

Advertising for Maro’s performances lasted only a week. If he performed the full month, the newspapers ignored it. There is no other article on a Temple of Magic or other magicians performing there. On January 4 of 1900, the Tribune announces the sale of Steinway Hall, ending the magic theater experiment.

History would see Steinway Hall become more famous for the occupants of its top two floors. Frank Lloyd Wright joined a group of inventive architects, including the builder of Steinway Hall, Dwight Perkins. There they created the center of Chicago progressive architecture and formed the beginnings of Wright’s Prairie School movement.

The magic gone and forgotten, the theater itself languished. In an effort to change its luck, it was named and renamed of the years, first as the Kelly and Leon Opera House, then the Whitney Opera house. Around 1910, it became the Central. In subsequent years it was known as Bryant’s Central, Barrett’s Central and then was leased to the Shubert family and as, Shubert’s Central hosted light opera and musicals into the 1920s. Stars such as Sophie Tucker and stars-to-be like the young comic, Roscoe Arbuckle appeared on the stage. Early in the 1930s, it became Punch and Judy, a movie house and renamed, again, 1935 as the Sonotone. Five years later, another makeover (reducing seating to 300) and renamed the Ziegfield. Last, it became the Capri Cinema and lived its final days as a porn theater.

On April 5, 1970, a Tribune reporter wrote an obituary for the Capri Theater as wrecking balls demolished the structure. He remembered its theatrical past, never mentioning its brief magical history. He did write that, “Few, if any, will mourn it.”

I do, although much too late.

A brief note on addresses in Chicago: The Tribune, within a matter of months gives two different addresses for Steinway Hall, 17 Van Buren Street and 19 to 23 Van Buren Street. These addresses were changed early in the new century (after 1900) when Chicago adopted a more sensible numbering system. The ads for the theater put the address on Van Buren Street near Michigan. Contemporary sources, such as the Tribune article from 1970, report the modern address to be 64 East Van Buren Street.

Sources for this article include Articles from the Chicago Tribune Historical Archive and Magic Magazine (August 1997 Maro Article).


Gordon said...

Excellent write-up, Bill. I'm really glad to see you unearth this forgotten memento of Chicago's magical past. Thank you!

Neil said...

Great stuff, Bill. Thanks!

The Magician said...

Very nice article - thanks

Maximus Erectus said...

Great stuff Bill, thanks. I find it interesting that it ended as a porn theater. It says something about magic and porn that is both amusing and disturbing.


ChgoMagic said...

Hey Maximus,
Can you believe it has been two years since you last posted on your blog?
We, in blogland, miss you.


Maximus Erectus said...

Wow, two years! You never know, I may start it up again one day. All it will take is a few more viewings of Worlds Greatest Magic. I could write a piece on every show.


Sharon said...

A really fascinating bit of Chicago history. Hope you don't mind, but I'll be featuring your site on The Chicago History Journal soon.

ChgoMagic said...

Thanks for the comment. I am glad you liked it. Love your blog and I am fine with you featuring mine on yours. I hope your fan don't get too disappointed that mine is not strictly all history.

Have Fun,

carey said...

Hi, I saw a photo of Steinway hall on your blog. I'm in need of a larger image, would you have one?

ChgoMagic said...

Sorry Carey, I don't. if you every find one. I would love a copy myself.