Vintage Tribune: Chicago’s First Air-Conditioned Theater
The Central Park Theater took moviegoers out of seedy nickelodeons and into air-conditioned movie palaces, only to find themselves on life support.
“It’s the mothership of Chicago movie theaters,” said Blanche Killingsworth, president of the Lawndale Historical Society. Just because her audience disappeared half a century ago doesn’t mean it’s empty, she notes. It is filled with memories, including his own of finding respite from Jim Crow laws.
“In Mississippi, black people couldn’t enter a movie through the entrance, we had to walk around through a side door and sit separately,” Killingsworth recalled. “Then I came to Chicago, bought a ticket to Central Park, and could watch a movie wherever I wanted.”
Killingsworth, other West Side activists and conservationists fight to save the theater from bulldozers. They pin their hopes on the city protecting it with a historic designation. But time is running out. Real estate developers have their eyes on the sprawling, ramshackle carcass of 3535 W. Roosevelt Road.
Killingsworth and its allies believe it should be restored as the arts and culture center of the community. She is fascinated that it was built by everyday people who, like her family, came to the West Side hoping to escape the poverty of their birthplace. “Theater is a family affair,” she noted.
One of these early families was the Balabans, who together with a business partner built the Central Park Theatre, among many others. The entrepreneurial bent of some family members was evident from the start.
“I was 9 years old when I laid down my first plot,” AJ Balaban recalled in his autobiography, “Continuous Performance.”
“My brother Barney was about 11 years old. We were leaning against the garbage can in the driveway behind our kitchen door, brushing flies from our little sister’s face as she squirmed nervously in her rickety pram (then tending to her sixth occupant). I said, ‘I’m going to work to earn money, so mom won’t have to stay at the store all the time.’ »
AJ and his siblings were the children of Gussie and Israel Balaban, Jewish immigrants from Moldova who ran a grocery store on the West Side. Behind, the family lived in three rooms and, true to his word, AJ dropped out of primary school to take on various odd jobs.
He loved to sing, so performing at weddings brought home a few dollars. As the neighbors spoke a mashup of Yiddish and English, her repertoire included “Nathan, Nathan, Tell Me, Vot for Are You Vaitin’, Nathan?”
When he stood in for a performer at a local theater, it was like seeing the Promised Land. Silent films of the time were accompanied by musicians outlining the on-screen action.
“Everyone wanted to have fun and the evenings passed too quickly,” Balaban wrote in his autobiography. “How different all of this was from worrying about spoilage of fruits and vegetables before they were sold and bickering about being underweight and overweight.”
His parents agreed when they saw him singing tunes like “Tipperary”, while a film about Irish revolutionaries was being shown. Their daughter Ida was an accomplished pianist, and they imagined her and AJ as brother and sister, their names sporting a marquee.
Scraping the $100 a month rent, the Balabans rented the Kedzie Theater at 12th Street and Kedzie Avenue. Business was terrible, so AJ kept his day job, booking movies on his lunch break and opening theater doors at 7 p.m. sincere?”
“In May, we were the envy of our competitors who were looking for locations on our street,” AJ recalls. “We have to build a bigger place,” I told Barney, “or someone else will and take our business away from us.”
As a result, they built the 700-seat Circle Theater just down 12th Street (now Roosevelt Road) from the Kedzie Theater. It was a combination of film and vaudeville, and AJ had a knack for persuading big names to play showbiz sticks. One of them was Broadway star Sophie Tucker, who sang numbers with notoriously racy lyrics.
“Young teenage girls were breathless when they recounted her performance,” AJ recalled. “‘Oh, my face was so red when she sang ‘All Alone’ into a phone handed to her onstage from backstage! Don’t you think that was suggestive?
Such word of mouth advertising was selling tickets. But the August heat would wither artists and audiences, forcing nickelodeons and vaudeville houses to close for the summer. So the Balabans decided to create a theater that could operate all year round.
Having worked for Western Cold Storage Co., Barney realized that technology that froze meat could chill patrons at the lavishly furnished 1,700-seat theater he and AJ had planned farther west on Roosevelt Road. The Central Park Theater would become, by most accounts, the first air-conditioned theater in the world.
Due to its high cost, they teamed up with Ida’s husband, Sam Katz, giving the business its iconic name: Balaban & Katz Theatres.
Their Central Park Theater was a pastiche of architectural styles: Mediterranean Renaissance on the exterior; French Baroque, Neoclassical and Neo-Renaissance inside.
Films being fantasies, the Balabans believed that the fantasy should begin when the patrons entered the room. For 25 cents, they got a glimpse of European castles and cathedrals that only the wealthy could travel to see up close.
“You’re giving them too much for their money,” associates told AJ. He replied that they had taken trips to Europe, wintered in Florida, had opera and symphony subscriptions, and had never missed the Ziegfeld Follies. Nothing an everyday movie buff could afford.
“His one weekly night at the movies with his family is to replace the Follies, Florida, Europe, Opera and the Symphony.” AJ noted
Her patrons were also able to see a movie and stage show no matter when they entered. From morning to night, there was something on the stage or on the screen at the Central Park Theater. Hence the title of AJ’s autobiography, “Continuous Performance”.
Using Central Park as a model, Balaban & Katz built over 50 theaters in the Chicago area.
In 1968, Benny Goodman, the famous “King of Swing”, remembers having made his first paid appearance in the first link of this theater chain, as a 12-year-old clarinetist.
“One of my older brothers heard about the ‘Jazz Nights’ they used to have at the Central Park Theater on Roosevelt Road and Central Park Avenue,” Goodman said. “It was pretty exciting when I went out there with a Buster Brown collar and those bow ties they were wearing.”
By the time Goodman shared that memory with a Tribune reporter, Lawndale had become a predominantly black neighborhood. Central Park has featured black artists like the gospel group Mighty Clouds of Joy and the Jackson Five.
Vintage Chicago Grandstand
The Vintage Tribune newsletter is a deep dive into the Chicago Tribune archives with photos and stories about the people, places and events that shape the city’s past, present and future.
But television has blown a big hole in the movie industry. In 1971, the Central Park Theater was acquired by the House of Prayer, Church of God in Christ. Her pastor, Lincoln Scott, used her stage for performances to benefit Teens with Talent, a music lesson program aimed at keeping young people away from neighborhood gangs.
Earlier, a synagogue was similarly offering free tuition, and Goodman said if he hadn’t received it, he might have become a member of a Lawndale gang.
But keeping the Central Park Theater building in barely minimal conditions was a Herculean task for Scott and his successor, the Reverend Robert Marshall. They also had to provide a pantry and organize clothing drives for their destitute neighbors.
While the theater marquee and its imposing sign have disappeared, the auditorium is intact. But after the heating plant failed, Marshall was unable to provide winter services. Although incapacitated by a stroke, he remains dedicated to preserving the building’s heritage, reports his daughter Tashona White:
“My dad says what keeps him going is wanting to see that the theater has been saved.”
Sign up for the Vintage Chicago Tribune newsletter at chicagotribune.com/newsletters for more photos and stories from the Tribune archives.