Essential Architecture-  Chicago Northeast

Biograph Theater

architect

Samuel N. Crowen

location

2433-43 N. Lincoln Ave.

date

1914

style

NeoRomanesque

construction

red pressed brick and white-glazed terra cotta

type

Theatre
 
 
   
 
Perhaps best known for its historical connection to the infamous gangster John Dillinger, the Biograph Theater is also one of Chicago's oldest remaining neighborhood movie houses. Designed in 1914 by Samuel N. Crowen, an architect known for his classically detailed designs, the Biograph Theater possesses many of the distinguishing characteristics of the earliest movie houses, including a simple storefront-width lobby, recessed entrance, free-standing ticket booth, and canopy marquee. The building is finished with red pressed brick and white-glazed terra cotta, and its construction typifies the first-generation movie houses whose architectural style gave legitimacy and respectability to the fledgling motion picture industry. Dillinger's death here in 1934, after being named "Public Enemy No. 1" by the FBI, guarantees the Biograph's place in Chicago crime history.
 
On the evening of July 22, 1934 a dapper-looking man wearing a straw hat and a pin-striped suit stepped out of the Biograph Theater in downtown Chicago where he and two girlfriends had watched a film called Manhattan Melodrama starring Clark Gable. No sooner had they reached the sidewalk when a man appeared and identified himself as Melvin Purvis of the FBI. He ordered the man in the straw hat to surrender.

Several shots rang out and the fleeing man in the straw hat fell dead to the pavement, his left eye shredded by one of the shots fired by the other agents who lay in wait. So ended the life of John Herbert Dillinger, the most prolific bank robber in modern American history and the general public's favorite Public Enemy No. 1......
or did it?

One of the most famous haunted theaters in the history of Chicago is the Biograph Theater, located on North Lincoln Avenue in downtown Chicago. It was here, in 1934, that John Dillinger supposedly met his end.... The theater has gained a reputation for being haunted, but the story of the ghost seen here actually revolves around the alleyway outside. But the theater, and the surrounding businesses, have banked on the criminal's name for many years. On the day after the fatal shots were fired, the bar next door placed a sign in the window that read "Dillinger had his last drink here". Theater patrons can examine a window in the box office that describes the set-up of Dillinger by the FBI. They can sit in the same seat where Dillinger sat nearly 65 years ago and after the film, they can emerge into "Dillinger's Alley.... it is here where the ghost is said to appear.

But what really happened in the final moments of Dillinger's life? To answer the strange and perplexing questions surrounding his possible death, we have to first look at his bloody and violent life.

On the evening that he was killed, Dillinger left the theater in the company of Anna Sage (the famed "Lady in Red") and with another girlfriend, Polly Hamilton. He had been hiding out in her North Halstead Street apartment but for months he had been pursued diligently by Melvin Purvis, the head of the Chicago branch of the FBI. Purvis had lived and breathed Dillinger (and would, after the robber's death, commit suicide) and had narrowly missed him several times at a State Street and Austin Cafe; at Dillinger's north woods hideout in Sault St. Marie; and at Wisconsin's Little Bohemia, where FBI agents recklessly killed a civilian and injured two others.
It was finally at the Biograph where Purvis caught up with Dillinger and put an end to his career.

The criminal life of John Dillinger started in 1925 when he held up a grocery store in his hometown of Mooresville, Indiana. Pleading guilty, he was sentenced to serve 10-20 years in prison while his accomplice, who claimed not guilty, only received a sentence of 2 years. Dillinger spent the next 8 years in jail but when he was released in May of 1933, he robbed three banks in three months and netted more than $40,000. Thus began Dillinger's wild spree of crime.

Dillinger was captured in September 1933 and imprisoned in Lima, Ohio. In three weeks, his gang sprung him in a dangerous escape and again were back to bank robbing. In January 1934, Dillinger shot and killed a police officer in East Chicago, for which he was arrested in Arizona and jailed in Crown Point, Indiana to await trial. He escaped a month later, using a fake gun that he had carved from a bar of soap and blackened with shoe polish.
He eluded the police for another month, shooting his way out of an ambush in St. Paul and dodging the FBI near Mercer, Wisconsin. Dillinger arrived in Chicago in late June and proceeded to rob a South Bend, Indiana bank and kill a police officer and four civilians. In just over a year, Dillinger has robbed six banks, killed two cops, two FBI agents, escaped from jail twice and had escaped from police and FBI traps six times.
In the process of all of this violence, Dillinger managed to become an American folk hero. It was the time of the Great Depression and here was a man striking back at poverty by taking from those who could afford losing their money the most. Stories began to circulate about Dillinger giving away much of his stolen money to the poor and the needy. Were these stories true? Who knows? But the American public believed it, which was more than the government could stand. Dillinger had to be taken, and soon.
He had become J. Edgar Hoover's "Public Enemy No. 1"... and the heat was on.

Dillinger knew that his luck could only hold out for so long and in May of 1934, he contacted a washed-up doctor who had done time for drug charges named Loeser. He paid him $5000 to perform some plastic surgery on his recognizable face, getting rid of three moles and a scar and getting rid of the cleft of his chin and the bridge of his nose. The doctor agreed to the surgery and left Dillinger in the care of his assistant to administer the general anesthetic. An ether-soaked towel was placed over Dillinger's face and the assistant told him to breathe deeply. Suddenly, Dillinger's face turned blue and he swallowed his tongue... and died!
Dr. Loeser immediately revived the gangster and proceeded to do the surgery. Dillinger would have no idea how close he had come to death. Ironically, just 25 days later, he would catch a bullet in front of the Biograph Theater.... or so they say.

When Dillinger walked into the theater that night he had been set up by Anna Sage, who had taken him there at the request of the FBI. She had promised to be wearing a red dress for identification purposes. Sixteen cops and FBI agents waited over two hours outside the theater, waiting for the unknowing Dillinger to exit. They even walked the aisles of the theater several times to make sure that he was still there.... how could the clever gangster have not noticed them?
Finally, Dillinger left the theater and was met by Melvin Purvis. He stepped down from the curb, just passing the alley entrance and tried to run. He reached for his own gun, but it was too late... four shots were fired and three hit Dillinger. The gangster fell, dead when he hit the pavement.
Purvis ordered Dillinger rushed to nearby Alexian Brothers Hospital. He was turned away at the doors as he was already dead and Purvis and the police waited on the hospital lawn for the coroner to arrive.
A mob scene greeted the coroner at the Cook County Morgue where curiosity-seekers filed in long lines past a glass window for a last look at Dillinger. Little did they know that the man they were looking at may not have been the famed gangster at all.....

The scene at the Biograph Theater was also chaotic. Tradition tells that passers-by ran to the scene and dipped their handkerchiefs in the blood of the fallen man, hoping for a macabre souvenir of this terrible event.
And it is at this theater where the final moments of John Dillinger have left a lasting impression. It would be many years after before people passing by the Biograph on North Lincoln Avenue would begin to spot a blue, hazy figure running down the alley next the theater, falling down and then vanishing.
Along with the sighting of this strange apparition were reports of cold spots, icy chills, unexplainable cool breezes, and odd feelings of fear and uneasiness. Local business owners began to notice that people had stopped using the alley as a shortcut to Halstead Street.
The place certainly seemed haunted.... but is the ghost of the man who has been seen here really that of John Dillinger?
I would hazard a guess to say that it is not!

Ever since the night of the shoot-out at the Biograph, eyewitness accounts and the official autopsy have given support to the theory that the dead man may not have been Dillinger. Rumors have persisted that the man killed by the FBI was actually a small-time hood from Wisconsin who had been set up by Dillinger's girlfriend and Anna Sage to take the hit.
There are many striking errors in the autopsy report.... the dead man had brown eyes while Dillinger's were blue; the corpse had a rheumatic heart condition since childhood while Dillinger's naval service records said that his heart was in perfect condition; and the man who was killed was much shorter and heavier than Dillinger and had none of his distinguishing marks.
Police agencies claimed that Dillinger had plastic surgery to get rid of his scars and moles, but also missing were at least two scars on Dillinger's body!

And there is more conflicting evidence to say that the FBI killed the wrong man...
On the night of the shooting, a local man named Jimmy Lawrence disappeared. Lawrence was a small-time criminal who had recently moved from Wisconsin. He lived in the neighborhood and often came to the Biograph Theater.... he also bore an uncanny resemblance to John Dillinger.
In addition, a photograph taken from the purse of Dillinger's girlfriend shows her in the company of a man who looks like the man killed at the Biograph... a photo taken before Dillinger ever had plastic surgery! Could Dillinger's girlfriend have made a date with Jimmy Lawrence to go to the Biograph, knowing (thanks to Anna Sage) that the FBI was waiting for him there?

Some writers have suggested this is exactly what happened. Respected crime writer, Jay Robert Nash, an expert on Dillinger, reported in his book The Dillinger Dossier that Dillinger's girlfriend and Anna Sage rigged the whole affair. According to Nash, Sage was a prostitute from England who was in danger of being deported. To prevent this, she went to the police and told them that she knew Dillinger. In exchange for not being deported, she would arrange to have Dillinger at the Biograph, where they could nab him. She agreed to wear a bright, red dress so she would be easily recognized. While FBI agents waited, "Dillinger" and his girlfriends watched the movie and enjoyed popcorn and soda. When the film ended, the FBI agents made their move.
Nash believes however, that they shot Jimmy Lawrence instead of Dillinger.
He also believes that when they learned of their mistake, the FBI covered it up, either because they feared the wrath of J. Edgar Hoover, who told them to "get Dillinger or else", or because Hoover himself was too embarrassed to admit the mistake.

So, what happened to the real John Dillinger? Nobody knows for sure, but some claim this American Robin Hood, who supposedly only robbed from banks and gave some of his spoils to the poor, married and moved to Oregon. He disappeared in the late 1940's and was never heard from again.......

Special thanks to http://www.weirdchicago.com/
 

Biograph Theater

Chicago, IL
2433 N. Lincoln Avenue
, Chicago, IL 60657 United States
(map)
773.871.3000
Status: Open
Screens: Single Screen
Style: Italian Renaissance
Function: Playhouse
Seats: 299
Chain: Unknown
Architect: Samuel N. Crowen
Firm: Unknown
Biograph Theater
2002 exterior view of the Biograph
Photo courtesy of Abby Johns
This Lincoln Park neighborhood landmark is probably best known by Chicagoans as the place where John Dillinger was shot and killed in 1934 after attending a screening of "Manhattan Melodrama" starring Clark Gable (allegedly the ghost of Dillinger has haunted the theater ever since).

During the 70s, the balcony was converted into two small additional screens. The original decor mostly lost, the historic Biograph continued to show movies until 2001.

The theater reopened in 2002 under the Village Theatres chain, which operated it until September 2004, when it again closed.

The Biograph was purchased by the legitimate Victory Gardens Theatre company in 2004. The interior has been entirely rebuilt, from a venue which could originally seat over 900 to 299 today (which is about 100 more seats than Victory Gardens' old space down the street, which will now be rented out to other area theater companies). The facade was repaired and cleaned and the marquee was rebuilt to resemble it's original apperance. (The words "Victory Gardens" have replaced the word "Essaness" over the neon-lit Biograph name, Essaness being the chain that operated the movie house during the 1930s.)

The Victory Gardens Theater at the Biograph was opened on September 28th, 2006, with Charles Smith's drama, "Denmark".

Contributed by Abigail Johns, Alan Van Landschoot, Bryan Krefft

YOUR COMMENTS

 
The Biograph closed in early 2001. The Victory Gardens Theater, which is currently seeking a larger venue, and is located just up Lincoln Avenue from the Biograph, has expressed serious interest in purchasing the Biograph as its new home.
posted by Bryan Krefft on Aug 1, 2001 at 9:11am
As of yesterday, July 3, the Biograph has reopened as a first-run theatre. It's being run by the Village Entertainment mini-chain.
posted by abby on Jul 4, 2002 at 1:56pm
The Biograph was once known for showing independent films (besides the Music Box and the Fine Arts downtown). It went through several chains from Plitt to Cineplex Odeon to Loews/Cineplex to Meridian to Village Theaters.
posted by JamesPiscitelli on Oct 12, 2003 at 11:28pm
The Biograph was a hugely popular art house in the 1970's. So much so that the owner decided to add two smaller theaters upstairs that he called the Ritz and the Roxy. For some reason people became confused by the names and it was soon just named the Biograph 1-3. Every year on the anniversary of Dillinger's shooting the theater would play the same movie (Manhattan Melodrama) that was showing that night. The admission price was the same as it was that evening and customers were encouraged to dress in 1930's clothing. The seat where Dillinger supposedly sat is painted a different color from the other seats and is quite easy to notice (left hand side about two thirds down, first seat off the aisle to the left).The Biograph was also the first place in Chicago to start the midnight showings of "Rocky Horror Picture Show" which lasted a few years. When the theater closed in late 2000 it was dark for over a year with the exception of the occasional film festival. They have since re-opened but one wonders for how long. There are no ads in the Chicago Sun-Times for the Biograph, only in the Tribune. The last time I was there I saw "Rules of Attraction" in one of the tiny theaters upstairs with 4 others. When checking out the big theater, which was showing "Sweet Home Alabama" there were only 2 people in the 7pm show.
posted by JohnSanchez on Jan 16, 2004 at 4:21pm
The Biograph was built in 1914 and as a single-screen theater, sat about 1000. Its architect was Samuel N. Crowen, who would later go on to design the Art Deco-meets neo-Gothic gem, the Willoughby Tower at 8 S. Michigan Avenue, in 1928.
posted by Bryan Krefft on Apr 21, 2004 at 9:46pm
A 1930s view of the Biograph's exterior (including the long-gone vertical sign) can be seen here.
posted by Bryan Krefft on May 20, 2004 at 8:34pm
The Biograph was also owned by my grandfather, Harry Moses Lubliner back in the '20-'30.
posted by richardrubin on May 21, 2004 at 9:54am
The Biograph Theater was built by Henry Ericsson & Co, general contractors. Henry Ericsson also owned the building into the 1920's. (Henry Ericsson was my great-grandfather). He built other theaters in Chicago including the Roosevelt, The Cort Theater, and The Lane Court.
posted by fmtheis on May 25, 2004 at 11:44am
I just returned form a trip to Chicago which included a family reunion and a tour of the Biograph. (My great grandfather built it, owned it until 1922 when it went to a holding company controlled by his wife Lena and brother Charles... and then it was transferred to his 7 children in 1947. My grandmother sold her interest in 1972 - I am curious which relative Mr. Lubliner is?. Part of my documentation includes tax payments (really neat, and cheap by today's standards)and floor plans throughout its history.

The theater is going to be turned into a 'legitimate' theater in the next few months, significantly changing the interior structure (little remains of the original). The main theater will lose half of its seats when a stage is built, and one the upper theaters will be modified with flate (rather than raked) floors. Exploratory tests have shown some original work may be hidden beneath the dropped ceilings, but it is too early to know what can/will be preserved.
posted by fmtheis on Jun 28, 2004 at 1:21pm
Fmtheis, I believe Lubliner & Trinz was the circuit that originally operated the Biograph when it first opened before it was later acquired by Essaness. I haven't heard anything about the Biograph becoming a legit theater in the news here in Chicago, so I'm very interested about this development. I know that when Loews Cineplex closed the Biograph in 2001, there was talk about the Victory Gardens Theatre considering taking over the space, but that obviously never came to pass since it was reopened by Village Theatres in 2002.
posted by Bryan Krefft on Jun 28, 2004 at 6:35pm
I attended "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" at The Biograph from 3/80 to 6/83 and it holds very special memories for me.
Anybody know if the beautifully ornate building a little to the north which once housed Wax Trax records was of any historic signifigence?
posted by markh on Jul 3, 2004 at 10:05am
Are there any old pa amplifiers from the Biograph available for purchase... That is, of course, if they are not going to be otherwise used.

Michael
posted by mikeylikey on Aug 22, 2004 at 1:46pm
You'd have to contact the owner, Village theatres. http://www.villagetheatres.com/
posted by BWChicago on Aug 22, 2004 at 3:56pm
The Biograph Theater has now closed. This despite the listings showing it open today. Oh well.
posted by BWChicago on Sep 9, 2004 at 9:55pm
Also, I believe this was a three screen, as there were only three placards and three films booked. But never having been there I can't confirm this.
posted by BWChicago on Sep 9, 2004 at 9:58pm
The Biograph was a three-screen house although, having never seen a film there, I can't attest to the layout.
posted by br91975 on Sep 9, 2004 at 10:18pm
Brian Wolf & br91975, the Biograph has (or had, as the case may be) three screens: one main one on the first level and two smaller ones upstairs. On thing I found charming was the old-fashioned ticket seller's box.
posted by motogal on Oct 10, 2004 at 8:21pm
I only saw one film at the Biograph, back in the early 1970s... A DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVITCH. Don't remember the last of the film tho; I and the Lady I was with had smoked our brains out on weed before coming in, and we fell asleep! <<grin>>

Back then, the whole area was a hippie hangout; right across the street was the old folk music club, "Somebody Else's Troubles".

posted by QUIXOTE on Jan 21, 2005 at 11:16pm

The alley where Dillinger was shot no longer exists as a building was built over it. I saw Rocky Horror there as well in 1978-79. The show was well established and regulars brought all the props. The show was always packed. I maybe confusing locations, but wasn't there a small "Arts" theater called the Three Penny across the street?
I recall a revival theater opening off the Argyle "EL" stop. I saw The Wizard of Oz on the big screen there for the very first time. I was thrilled to see details I never saw on all the years I'd seen it on tv.
Living on the northside in what was then called "New Town", Belmont was my EL stop and I often saw films at the Lakeshore Theater.
I worked in an old theater on Clark Street that had been converted into an mini-indoor shopping center. The ornate white stone facade was all that was left and it was called The Century. Anybody know anything about it?
Ken Raney
posted by Ken Raney on Mar 16, 2005 at 3:16am
Ken, the Three Penny is directly across the street from the Biograph. Regarding The Century, it continues to expand and there are now seven movie screens on the top floor of the mall; they show artsy and foreign films these days.
posted by motogal on Mar 16, 2005 at 7:17am
The Dillinger alley is still there, the buildings around it have just changed. http://www.ci.chi.il.us/Landmarks/B/BiographTheater3.html This shows a diagram of the Dillinger Shooting; the grocery was demolished recently and a coldstone and qdoba now occupy its site. The 3 Penny is still there, twinned. As far as I know, the only theatre just off Argyle was the Argmore, but that closed in the 50s. Perhaps you're thinking of the Bryn Mawr, directly next to the Bryn Mawr stop? The Century Centre, and all the other theatres you mention are all listed on this site.
posted by BWChicago on Mar 16, 2005 at 9:36am
A brief story in today's Chicago Tribune notes that Victory Gardens' renovation of the Biograph is now to be completed by fall of 2006 rather than fall of 2005.
posted by Bryan Krefft on Mar 22, 2005 at 9:37am
The thing I can’t understand is how can 3 Penny keep surviving but Biograph seemed unable to stay afloat? It is not like I want 3 Penny to close anything but the Biograph is across the street and people seemed like they just didn’t want to go to Biograph .
posted by CinemaJunkie on Jun 3, 2005 at 9:19am
I don't think it really was about that. It was open right up til Victory Gardens announced their purchase, and they had been investigating it for a long time. And the ownership shuffle probably didn't help, but that was largely a matter of bankruptcies. Granted, VG has seemingly done very little renovating so far (funding?). It's good to see it in the hands of someone who will use it rather than tear it down, even if their plan isn't totally ideal. It should at least look better.
posted by BWChicago on Jun 3, 2005 at 10:05am
As has been an annual tradition for years, the JOHN DILLINGER DIED FOR YOU SOCIETY will convene outside the Biograph on the evening of July 22, 2005. The public is invited. Also, Dillinger's alley is still there. Contrary to popular belief. tho, the telephone pole there has been replaced many times.
posted by Horace on Jun 27, 2005 at 2:02pm
Village Entrainment is the biggest dumb as*es working in the theater exhibitor business today. Village has no public relations first of all. They do no advertising what so ever. There are no newspaper ads and not even the Village Entrainment web site works anymore
http://www.villagetheatres.com/ The Webmaster had some kind of falling out with Village, which am sure was over money. Village has grown over the years but does not have the money to keep theatres running, either because they don’t have the financial backing or they simply don’t want to spend the money. Biograph Theater was sentence to death under Village’s name. Village sentenced Water Tower Theatre to death. That is just to name a few. Note to big chains if you want to destroy a theatre without a bad mark on your name sell it to Village Entertainment. Landlords want a reason to use a theatre space for other use rent it to Village! At Village Entertainment will kill them all!! No theatre is too big! 1,2,3, 4 screens even 5. Heck give us 20 we kill them too!
posted by CinemaJunkie on Jun 29, 2005 at 8:53am
True story: I was watching The Prince of Tides here a few years ago. I was sitting toward the back and was there pretty much by myself. In front of me I was watching various audience members look down once in a while into the aisles. Shortly afterward I heard a loud squeeking. I looked down and about 12 inches from my feet was a very large rat. I jumped out of my seat and ran into the lobby. I asked for a manager and he told me that there was a big rat infestation in the theater because there was some kind of renovation work going on next door. I had him retrieve my coat and got my money back. Believe it or not, I did go back to the Biograph but sat with my feet tucked under me for the entire movie.
posted by chitownguy on Jul 5, 2005 at 12:41pm
I have to agree with markh cause I attended The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Biograph too from 79 to 83 and it also brings back great memories too and I also remember Trax Wax too mark near the Biograph. It was great growing up there.
posted by vinnieS on Aug 15, 2005 at 9:19pm
This is a 2003 photo of the Biograph Theater.
posted by Lost Memory on Sep 12, 2005 at 7:09am
This is a vintage photo of the Biograph Theater.
posted by Lost Memory on Sep 26, 2005 at 5:48pm
The 2000 film, High Fidelity, starring John Cusack, filmed in front of the Biograph. John does monologue about Dillinger being shot by the FBI because of his (expletive) girlfriend tipping them off (going along with the theme of the movie).
posted by shoeshoe14 on Oct 18, 2005 at 6:05pm
Interior demolition recently began. The lobby is now essentially gutted. Sad, I had thought they would try to restore it.
posted by BWChicago on Jan 6, 2006 at 3:45am
There was very little in the lobby to preserve. That area of the theater had no detailed plaster work of any kind. There was one small wood section that had some painted detail, and a short run of carved wood that appears to have had lights in it at one time, but other than that, it was pretty much concrete and ductwork. The original bricks on the walls will be exposed and cleaned, it should be a nice restoration from the current drywall.
posted by Tracy N on Jan 16, 2006 at 11:53am
I personally grabbed a couple chunks of ornamental, albeit relatively simple, plaster from the dumpster last week. Certainly it's been remodeled a number of times in its history, and this was probably covered over, but it did exist. Are either of those wood sections to be maintained? And what about the main theater, or the upstairs? And yes, I agree it will probably be an improvement over the most recent appearance, and it will look nice, but it's not really restoration. Brick does fit with the Victory Gardens aesthetic from the current location, which I do like. Why was the 'Biograph' over the doors removed? And why is the white pediment over the entrance missing in the renderings? Is the marquee going to be repainted correctly, with the proper typeface and striping missing in the present paint scheme?
posted by BWChicago on Jan 16, 2006 at 12:19pm
The plaster pieces you refer to were from the auditorium, not the lobby and I was responding to your comment about the lobby. Much of the plaster like what you pulled from the dumpster had water damage, and more of it was damaged in earlier renovations. They did try to salvage it by prying it off the wall, but the pieces literally pulverized in the effort. (Please note - the debris in a dumpster is very unstable and it can be quite dangerous to dig around in one). I don't know about the Biograph over the door - are you referring to the faux deco lettering that was added in the 80s? The renderings that you mention are conceptual sketches only and do not represent a completed design. Hope this helps!
posted by Tracy N on Jan 17, 2006 at 5:56pm
Yes, that's the lettering I refer to. I had assumed it was an 80s renovation too initially because the deco style didn't seem to ring true, but it's present in 1939 photos I saw on ebay (I have these saved to disk, in case you'd like me to email them). I've seen similar signage above doors in other deco remodels. It is strange that the lettering there didn't originally match the marquee. In these photos, the colors were reverse of the more recent style and the marquee was painted awkwardly, as well. The underside of the marquee was also white in these. The poster cases were also somewhat larger. Don't get me wrong, i'm very excited to see the Biograph put to a greater use, and I think it's an excellent project - i'm just a bit concerned about what might be lost. Plaster can always be re-cast! And don't worry, I wouldn't be so foolish as to climb in a dumpster, it was right on top. I go to Depaul, so I will be watching this project intently. If any volunteer labor is desired, don't hestiate to contact me. I also have pdfs of the 1914 Tribune articles announcing the theater.
posted by BWChicago on Jan 17, 2006 at 6:18pm
I would love to see the photos! Early photos of the Biograph are very hard to come by and they would be most useful. As to your earlier questions about the second level - that space is in a separate building, and the two theories I have heard are that there was a ballroom or a pool hall up there. There will be a rehearsal room now and there is a studio theater to be built in a future project. Glad to see you're being careful. Unfortunately this is a union project, so we cannot use volunteer labor. Please shoot me an email with the pics when you get a chance. Thanks!
posted by Tracy N on Jan 17, 2006 at 7:39pm
Brian, could you post a link to access the pdfs of the 1914 Tribune article for the rest of us? Thanks!
posted by motogal on Jan 17, 2006 at 8:34pm
There is a terrific early view of the Biograph's auditorium here, the fourth photo from the bottom.
posted by Bryan Krefft on Jan 17, 2006 at 8:39pm
Sure, just send me an email with your address and i'll send my materials right over - or I can put them on a CD and drop them by VG since i'm by there all the time. My address is in my profile. I do seem to recall reading that it was a ballroom, billiards, dance studio, and storage at times, but I don't have time to look up all the articles I had seen at the moment to confirm.
posted by BWChicago on Jan 17, 2006 at 9:36pm
There's not really anywhere I can post them, and it would be copyright infringement to post them elsewhere. However, if you'd like to look up the microfilm at your library, or if you have access to the tribune archives by having a Chicago Public Library card, you can look for April 16, 1914, p17 and a correction in April 19, p11. There is little information in it- only a couple of paragraphs, without any new info, essentailly just sketching the basics - but it is of historical interest. I do encourage people with CPL cards to go on the CPL website and poke around until you find the Chicago Tribune historical archive database, there is an enormous wealth of information out there, and you can really hone your searching skills.

Bryan, that is a great view. Never having actually been in the Biograph myself, can anyone say what, if anything was/is left of this?
posted by BWChicago on Jan 17, 2006 at 9:55pm
Bryan, the last time I went to the Biograph was in 1999 to see "The Sixth Sense". It looked completely different than the photo I posted yesterday. I guess I was in one of the smallish auditoriums carved out of the old balcony space. It looked fairly much like a generic 80s multiplex to me, from what I recall.
posted by Bryan Krefft on Jan 18, 2006 at 8:10am
Well, the Roxy and Ritz were not balcony theaters at all- they were in adjacent former loft/ballroom/billiards/meeting space above the storefronts, added in mid-1983. The main auditorium, as illustrated by your picture, is clearly too low to have had a balcony. I'm surprised to see that picture; it looks like the acoustics must have been horrible when talkies hit. Gene Siskel seems to have loved the theaters; in a 1984 article comparing multiplexes, he said "these three lovingly-designed theaters are among my favorites anywhere in the metropolitan area," and "the two upstairs mini-theaters are without qualification the prettiest mini-theaters in town; in fact, to call them mini-theaters is to do them a disservice." Of course, the comparison was to Chestnut Station, Water Tower Place, and the Fine Arts 4. He was a bit wary of the takeover from Larry Edwards to Plitt.
posted by BWChicago on Jan 18, 2006 at 8:40am
Here is an article from today's Chicago Tribune about the current status of the Biograph's renovation project.
posted by Bryan Krefft on Jan 20, 2006 at 8:57am
Another update about the progress being made on the Biograph from today's Chicago Sun-Times can be seen here.
posted by Bryan Krefft on Feb 13, 2006 at 8:11am
Another update . . . from yesterday's Daily Southtown:

http://www.dailysouthtown.com/southtown/dsnews/123abn5.htm

posted by GerryC on Feb 13, 2006 at 8:33am
Other than to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show, I'd been to the Biograph only once. It was in 1984 and it was to see the full-length version of "Once Upon A Time In America." The Biograph was the only theatre in the Chicagoland Area to show this version--the other cinemas showed the chopped-up 2 hour version. Right before the show, the usher walked up on stage to warn people that this was a 3 1/2 hour movie and that there would be an intermission.

The Biograph was, for a time, the Near North's "Art" house. As time went on and as Cineplex-Odeon gained control, the Biograph showed more and more general fare and abandoning all "Art" films all together. "Rocky Horror" eventually ceased playing there as well. And if memory serves me correctly, towards the end of Cineplex/Loews-Cineplex ownership, the Biograph was actually showing lousy fare.
posted by PAUL FORTINI on Feb 14, 2006 at 12:04pm
And here's a 2003 photo from the Cinematour website. The carpet definitely says "1980s Cineplex-Odeon."

http://www.cinematour.com/picview.php?db=us&id=26192
posted by PAUL FORTINI on Feb 14, 2006 at 12:13pm
Yeah, I remember that carpet at Burnham Plaza and McClurg Court. I was going to go to the Biograph a few years ago, but it never happened.
posted by CinemarkFan on Feb 14, 2006 at 12:34pm
The poster cases, concession stand, and marble tile are also very CO.
posted by BWChicago on Feb 14, 2006 at 2:44pm
The Depaulia newspaper printed an article on the Biograph project this week; it is not online yet, but it included several photos showing the project. The theatre is indeed 100% gutted. Quote VG's head, Dennis Zacek, "We are doing our best to move forward past this particular period in Chicago history." Which begs the question, Why move into a historic landmark?
posted by BWChicago on Feb 20, 2006 at 4:00pm
Because if Victory Gardens didn't move in, it would be likely that the former Biograph would be torn down or gutted for retail use (i.e. not used for theatrical purposes).
posted by PAUL FORTINI on Apr 25, 2006 at 7:08am
No, it is not. It is on both the National Register of Historic Places (since 1984) and is a designated Chicago Landmark, giving it two layers of protection for the exterior, so it could not have been torn down easily at all, and earlier plans for its city landmarking would have landmarked the lobby as well. Who knows what political deals led to that part being dropped. Who cares if it's used for theatrical purposes? The Biograph was always first and foremost a movie house. Biograph, after all, was one of the top silent film studios. If it's gutted either way, with nothing left of the old interior, what's the difference? Look again at The Chicago Landmark page. It says that in addition to the Dillinger connection (though the building he was actually shot at was torn down in the last 5 years; there's a Qdoba there now) it was chosen as typical of early theater construction. For the Natipnal Register, it was named as significant in the areas of Performing Arts (as an early movie house) and Social History (Dillinger). The Biograph has lost what made it historically interesting as a movie house and now Zacek wants to ignore anything that made it historic in the gangster era. So I ask again, why move into a historic landmark if you're only interest is in destroying that history? It's almost the same thing as what happened at Soldier Field.
posted by BWChicago on Apr 25, 2006 at 7:43am
Here is the article from when it was recieving city landmark status.
posted by BWChicago on Apr 25, 2006 at 7:46am
Brian Wolf,

I see your point, and yes there is a lot of history attached to the Biograph. And I'll not dispute you that Soldier Field looks terrible (it looks like somebody plopped one stadium down into another).

But as your message states, there probably was a lot of political wheeling and dealing going on. This same sort of wheeling and dealing has done in other supposedly landmark buildings too and my point was that I'd rather see the place used as a performing arts facility of some sort rather than be demolished or turned into condos.

Also a lot of former cinemas have enjoyed successful second lives as live theatres.

In an earlier message by you, you state that the ownership shuffle didn't help either. As you know, the place went from Cineplex Odeon to Loews-Cineplex to Meridien to Village.
posted by PAUL FORTINI on Apr 26, 2006 at 12:09pm
As far as I know, the only declared Chicago Landmark that has been demolished was the McCarthy building on Block 37. The Chicago landmarking should prevent issuance of permit without review to certify that it would not destroy the character of a landmark (which I would argue has happened here, which i'll explain shortly). The interior of the Biograph, for whatever reason, is NOT among the protected interiors list [url=http://www.ci.chi.il.us/Landmarks/Tours/Interiors.html]here[/url}. Notice the Chicago, Uptown, and New Regal are. National Register protections prevent federal or state encroachment on historic properties, I believe. But in any case, the exterior should be protected. One of the things removed when the lobby was gutted inculded a deco "BIOGRAPH" sign above the doorway, which had been enclosed in the 80s when the doorway was moved forward to include the box office. It was an exterior component, though, and I think that may constitute an exterior alteration.
posted by BWChicago on Apr 26, 2006 at 1:24pm
Brian W, I am sure that more than one Chicago Landmark has bitten the dust. One was a farm house that was on the NW side near Devon and Milwaukee. It was about as old as the Clarke House on Indiana Ave. It actually had an "Indian Escape" room. In the late 1970s, it was bulldozed in the middle of the night so that the property owners could build a Dominick's Foods.

But I digress. On another note, do you know if Victory Gardens is going to keep the Biograph name and the marquee? I think we can agree that at least THAT should be retained.
posted by PAUL FORTINI on Apr 26, 2006 at 7:57pm
Oh, they will. They've always used the marquee in their campaigns, etc, and continue to. And that is also protected under the landmarking. I'll look into the farm house thing, that sounds totally unfamiliar to me. And I suppose i'll drop my objection to the remodeling of the entrance, because poking my head inside I now see an ornate metal ceiling (or maybe just part of the original marquee) is visible where that had been.
posted by BWChicago on Apr 27, 2006 at 11:24am
This has nothing to do with the Biograph, but since we're discussing chicago landmarks, I think it's appropriate. I think I found the house you were talking about. The first designated landmark demolished, the 1851 Rincker house, which stood opposite of Superdawg - now a parking lot for a dunkin donuts, I think - was demolished in 1980 following a suspicious, probably-arson fire (which only destroyed the interior of the salvageable building). It was the second-oldest in the city, and the only remaining example of German Gothic Revival architecture in Chicago, built of thick mud brick faced in timber. Interestingly, the demo permit for that was only issued as a result of an address mix-up, the same thing that happened with the Hayes-Healy gym on depaul last year (although that was not a landmark). 25 years, and they still haven't figured out to list every concievable address of landmarks. As a footnote, prior to the present landmarks commission, an earlier 1957 organization with no enforcement power had designated 38 landmarks, 7 of which were later destroyed (Sullivan's Garrick, Sullivan house, Meyer, and Stock Exchange; the Edison shop; the Cable building; and the Leiter I.)
posted by BWChicago on Apr 28, 2006 at 6:21pm
This really was the best turn of events for the long term future of the theater. There was no practical way that anyone was going to be able to keep it as a movie theater. Sure, they could restore it as a movie theater, but it would of cost a fortune to do so, and once the novelty wore off, it would of gone right back to being a failing business. Noone was going to take that on.

As for the inside being gutted, it's not like there was all kinds of ornate interiors to be saved. The place had been done over so many times, there really wasn't even anything left to save. The marquee was really the only thing that was ever that striking about the place, and as long as that is restored and maintained, I feel it's a win-win-win, for the Theater, for the Victory Gardens, and for the neighborhood. To me, the only options were for a project such as the current one to be undertaken or for the theater to have remained vacant and continued to fall into further and further disrepair.

For those who were talking about Village's short reign, my favorite part was when they left after their half-ass rennovation, they took everything they could with them -- even the lightbulbs. If you look at the marquee today, you can see that all of the lightbulbs except for the top few rows were pulled out. The only reason that the top row's still there is that the workers they had doing it couldn't reach them from their scaffolding. It was pretty funny, I was watching them doing it.
posted by VinnyK on May 22, 2006 at 10:20pm
Here is a profile from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency's HAARGIS system. It includes a small picture.Here is another that seems to be describing another building entirely but includes another picture.
posted by BWChicago on Jun 17, 2006 at 5:16pm
Here is a profile from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency's HAARGIS system. It includes a small picture. Make sure to click the background information link to fully understand WHY it was put on the Register. Here is another that seems to be describing another building entirely but includes another picture.
posted by BWChicago on Jun 17, 2006 at 5:17pm
Just receved news about the Biograph the marquee(as seen in picture in description) is being removed and the theatre is to be renamed something like Victory Gardens At the Biograph. A new marquee is to be installed work crews were out their to day removing it.
I saw it on WGN-TV ch9 on the 9pm news cast.
The Chicago Historical Musueium from what i understand is in talkes to buy the marquee. The Biograph is on the National Regestary of Historical Places. Just thought you might want to know that information thank you for you time :)
posted by CHI74 on Jun 21, 2006 at 8:30pm
Brian, the photos at that link looks like it was taken before CO took over.
posted by CinemarkFan on Jun 21, 2006 at 9:58pm
Here is a story about the work. Looks like they're at least going to try fixing some historic features. I just don't really even care anymore.
posted by BWChicago on Jun 22, 2006 at 4:14am
Here is an article with one of the better historical views of it that i've seen.
posted by BWChicago on Jul 30, 2006 at 9:21am
Here is a set of photos on flickr taken during the demolition. I think these are the features Tracy N referred to earlier. I think one part of these is still there, although now hidden partially by black paint and a 'cloud' ceiling decoration. Otherwise none of the original interior remains except for a terra cotta statue that was salvaged.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/47636110@N00/77617714/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/47636110@N00/5591005/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/47636110@N00/5591004/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/47636110@N00/5590995/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/47636110@N00/77617713/
posted by BWChicago on Sep 10, 2006 at 5:32pm
It is true that the interior has been completely redone and those features are gone (except for the two pieces Brian refers to above - the terra cotta statue he refers to is the last link he included in his comment, the lady with the shield - it is still in it's original location. The facade is a different story - we are working to restore it in a historically accurate manner to the 1930s look. We are replacing the black tile that was added in the eighties with storefront as it originally was. The rest will be cleaned and repaired as needed to get us back to that 30s look.
posted by Tracy N on Sep 11, 2006 at 8:42am
The facade is already looking far better with the cleaning and tuckpointing. Could you tell us a little more about what was found with the three marquees? The first one I assume was a plain canopy, and the third the one that is familiar to us, but what was the second? I was volunteering there saturday and no one seemed to know. I also somehow missed the Terra Cotta statue, where is that located? And is the blacked-out ceiling moulding in the entry vestibule one of the pieces in the above photos? Thanks.

Also, if you e-mail me i'd be happy to provide you with the photos I have.

It's too bad there wasn't more to be salvaged, but there are at least a handful of similar theaters around that are more or less still there, like the Calo, Lakeshore, Logan, Lakeside, Rosewood, Pickford, and Peerless.
posted by BWChicago on Sep 11, 2006 at 9:10am
Well as it turned out there was only ever on front face of the marquee, it was just painted over again and again. The sides and bottom were basically added onto twice, and punched through to get to the electrical feed. Those seem to have been recreated pretty close to what was there before, looking the same, but making the marquee wider and lower. The interior was very badly damaged from years of faulty roof drainage running through it. There was quite a lot of rust and it was structurally unsound. Interestingly, it was not actually attached to the building. It was mainly held up by the cables from above and the whole marquee slid into a pocket in the face of the building and just rested there.

The statue is in the electrical room in the south east corner of the building. We did not have a certificate of occupancy for that portion of the building, so you couldn't get to it. It will not be in a public area, but I could walk you through if you'd like. And yes, that is the same area as the photos.

Sorry to have missed you Saturday, I was there from 3:30 on.
posted by Tracy N on Sep 11, 2006 at 9:49am
I remember going here to see that Eddie Murphy/Red Fox gangster movie. Can't remember the name now. It was after Cineplex Odeon spent some money on the place. Lobby was modernized (with smooth surfaces and lots of neon decoration) but the large auditorium still retained it's original details (albeit under grey paint). New seating, new carpet. I think they added two cinemas in what had been a ballroom upstairs. Classic marquee and box office were still there. Sound was good in the main auditorium. One of my better movie-going recollections from the old days.

posted by Life's too short on Sep 11, 2006 at 6:08pm
The marquee is now up and windows are in. The re-lighting ceremony will be tonight. Unfortunately, I don't think it is quite historically accurate. These are the issues I saw: The new typeface for 'Biograph' is correct, but the outer ribbon as shown in Dillinger-era photos was evidently two distinctly colored thin ribbons, as opposed to the one thick one it is now. I'm guessing one ribbon was likely red and one yellow. The underside of the canopy is done in black semi-corrugated metal, as in the last iteration, but old photos as well as uncoverings during the removal of the old marquee show it was smooth and white. The Essaness lettering was neonized; the Victory Gardens lettering is not. The lettering boards are white movable lettering where the originals were reverse lettering. The new box office is in again and looks pretty good. So do the windows. The poster area is dark gray textured cement over sheetrock where vintage photos show what is likely glazed brick and poster cases. Maybe they'll be putting up poster cases over that tomorrow, but that wouldn't be accurate to the Dillinger-era anyway. The bases of the support piers should be green pulsichrome terra cotta to look like granite, but are instead painted. Overall it looks nice, and fresh, and certainly a major improvement, but it's disingenuous to call it historically accurate, because it just isn't.
posted by BWChicago on Sep 27, 2006 at 10:45pm
Thanks for your feedback, Brian. There are a couple of points I would like to clarify. I am not sure what "ribbon" you mean, but it is my understanding have researched this that we have detailed it to the 30s look. The underside of the canopy is again a recreation of the 30s look. From all photos I saw the Essaness lettering did not look neonized, so we did not include neon in the Victory Gardens lettering. The lettering boards are an exact replica of the original lettering boards and use black channel letters that hook onto the sign. White letters would not show against the white background. No letters have been put up yet, as they arrived at the site approximately an hour ago. The areas that you refer to as gray texturized cement are not yet complete, so the current look does not relfect the finished look. The final look will be a black cement plaster with a high gloss finish, and yes, the poster cases are going back up. I don't know where you saw the green pulsichrome terra cotta, there certainly was no evidence of it existing when we removed the metal panels that had been added in the eighties, and as we only have black and white photos available from that time, we can't really speculate whether it may have been green at some point. Hope this helps!
posted by Tracy N on Sep 28, 2006 at 12:13pm
Thanks again for the reply, Tracy, I really do appreciate it. I'll be there tonight, and i'll bring photos, so we could perhaps discuss it? I wear a green jacket.
posted by BWChicago on Sep 28, 2006 at 2:56pm
Brian - so sorry I missed you! I will be around the theater today at about noon - perhaps you can come by? I will also be around next week most days as well- I know you still want to get in the electrical room and see the plaster lady. I still have some facade work that will occur over the next few weeks, and would love to see the photos you have before I finalize. Thanks! Tracy
posted by Tracy N on Sep 29, 2006 at 7:36am
Per the free newspaper SKYLINE (which is a neighborhood newspaper run by Pioneer Press), the marquee was lit on September 28, 2006.

No matter what some of the above posters have said, I'm GLAD that Victory Gardens took over the Biograph. It is wonderful that it will be used for performing arts instead of being converted to condos or retail or demolished. Let's be real, the Biograph had been losing money for years as a cinema and that's what would have happened to it had Victory Gardens not stepped in. I can't wait to attend a play here.
posted by PAUL FORTINI on Oct 10, 2006 at 4:06pm
Agreed.

posted by Life's too short on Oct 10, 2006 at 6:21pm
My 1984 night-time photo of BIOGRPAH
www.flickr.com/photos/lastpictureshow/266599732
posted by Don Lewis on Oct 10, 2006 at 8:16pm
Not sure if this was posted here yet, but here is a view of the newly restored marquee of the Biograph.
posted by Bryan Krefft on Oct 13, 2006 at 11:48am
You know what? Entertain all the historical accuracy arguments you want. It looks pretty damn cool! Well done!!!

posted by Life's too short on Oct 13, 2006 at 5:18pm
Well yeah! I agree it looks cool. I'm just saying is all.
posted by BWChicago on Oct 13, 2006 at 5:23pm
This is another recent photo of the Biograph Theater.

posted by Lost Memory on Oct 14, 2006 at 11:07am
Good article in the WA POST on the grand re-opening and festivities.
posted by ghamilton on Oct 17, 2006 at 6:02am
That article is here
posted by BWChicago on Oct 17, 2006 at 7:24am
This theater certainly has interesting history with its connection to the infamous Dillinger name!
posted by Patsy on Oct 20, 2006 at 9:05pm
Here are my photos of the Biograph.
posted by BWChicago on Dec 3, 2006 at 8:41pm
Brian is correct about the Marquee orginally having ribbons with two colors. If you look at http://egov.cityofchicago.org/Landmarks/B/BiographTheater2.html you can see a picture that claims to be right after Dilliger was shot. Also Brian is right about the lettering on the old sign being different. In the photo it is a black background with white letters. This being said I do like the new marquee. It is a very good job, glad to see the used actual light bulbs! Only compaint is that I think they could have made the Victory Gardens a little bit bigger on the sign.
posted by melders on Dec 5, 2006 at 10:52pm
In July, 1934, crowds started gathering outside the theatre as soon as news circulated of Dillinger's death. A woman in the center foreground of this photo is already displaying a newspaper "late extra" with the front-page headline, "DILLINGER SLAIN":
www.i8.photobucket.com/albums/a18/Warrengwhiz/biomelo.jpg
posted by Warren on Dec 15, 2006 at 9:57am

links

With special thanks to the City of Chicago website, www.egov.cityofchicago.org , for much of the info on this page.
Photos copyright City of Chicago.
www.essential-architecture.com