Vaudeville in Chicago: Theatres, People, and Hotels
If you want an elaboration on any people or places mentioned, please reach out to me.
Chicago was such a hub for Vaudeville and pop culture that is was considered only second to the Big Apple, New York City. Chicago boasted many theatres and circuits, but the biggest was the Western Vaudeville Managers Association.
As for theatres, the supporting character of Roxie’s daydreams, Sophie Tucker, preferred the American Music Hall situated at Peck Court and Wabash Avenue. Tucker described the AMH as “a long, narrow theatre, very intimate, and a very warm house.” This sounds like a floor for a party and entertaining.
There is also the Wilson Avenue Theatre which was managed by the Albees.
The Kedzie theatre was the first large venue that Ethel Waters played at.
The Chicago Opera House as a large space that was popular among African-American audiences. However, it is said that COH had “scrubby looking” dressing rooms.
Behind that COH was a shared alleyway with the burlesque house, the Sam T. Jack Theatre. The STJ Theatre would book the same headliners as the COH except at the different rate. The performers would change the name of their act and add in some different choreography, perhaps a bit more risque, and the theatre would sell tickets at a cheaper rate. This sounds a little unorthodox, but any headliner getting to make money for the same act on the same day would take the job.
The Haymarket Theatre is well documented in the memories of Leo Carrillo. He first arrived in Chicago at the Haymarket and shared a dressing room with a monkey and a burro. That night he performed to an audience primarily made up of Sioux Indians who were in town for a convention. They took their cues from the other patrons, particularly “bravo!” from world heavyweight champion James J. Corbett. The success of Carrillo’s act with the Sioux and Corbett landed him a six week gig in New York.
At The Great Northern Hippodrome Theatre acts would interchange throughout the day. This method was not preferred among the actors or the patronage, but the theatre paid very well and the Hippodrome employed big-time acts with name recognition.
At the Schindler theatre, vaudeville fans didn’t like the manger because when he decided to cancel an act he would walk down the house aisles yelling, ‘You are shut!”
Al Capone was an intense fan of vaudeville and regularly reserved sixteen tickets throughout the theatre for himself and his bodyguards.
The Chicago vaudeville scene was not saved from censorship and social regulation, especially in 1910. Sophie Tucker was stopped by police from singing her song “Angle Worm Wiggle.” She took the situation to court and the judge ruled in her favor against censorship.
The vaudeville scene extended from the stage and into the hotels of Chicago. The House of All Nations was run by two spinsters. The house boasted it’s reputation by housing women of all nationalities. All of the rooms were decorated in the theme of a different country. Charlie Chaplin thought it was one of the most elaborate and expensive houses of its kind. He also regarded Chicago as having a “grimy, industrial atmosphere” and having a “frontier spirit.”
The Board of Health became concerned with the ait quality of vaudeville theatres, worrying that the constant ebb and flow of patrons and acts would pollute the air to contamination. It became mandated that the theatres had to close for two hours in the afternoon to air out the building. Of course, theatre owners were not in favour of this mandate because it meant losing money. A compromise was made with one theatre in which the Calumet Juvenile Protective League got a place on the bill by contributing lectures and lecturers to the theatre.
Smalltime vaudeville theatres performers typically stayed at Hotel Grant, the Revere House, or the Saratoga. These establishments were popular as after-party spots (like how we have a party after the last performance, except out in public and frequent as all get out; can you imagine having a cast party every night?) It was said that so much opium was smoked in the Revere that a new guest would fall asleep just by walking in the door. Apparently the Saratoga “was so run down no headliner would stay there.”
The Palace Hotel, owned by H.B. Humphrey, featured a turkish bath. The rate went $3.50 per week or $7.00 per week with a private bath. If Roxie could, this is where she would be.
Charlie Chaplin resided at a small hotel in Uptown Chicago. He described it as “grim and seedy” but liked the hotel because it was “heavily populated with burlesque girls” which inclined him to “love” the place. He once said, “In each town we always made a beeline for the hotel where the showgirls stayed, with a libidinous hope that never materialized.” Poor Charlie.
Perhaps the most interesting of Chicago’s temporary abodes was Mrs. Keller’s boardinghouse where vaude artists as well as “freaks” from circus and museum acts stayed. It was said that a usual night at the dinner table featured “George, the “turtle boy,” Eli Bowen “the legless wonder,”” and numerous other famous acts scattered around the table such as “the fat lady, the bearded lady, and the glass eater.”
DiMeglio, John E. Vaudeville U.S.A. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green U Popular, 1973. Print.