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Rice’s Theatre I
Location: South side of Randolph Street, 50 feet east of Dearborn
Life Span: 1847-1850
From Andrea’s History of Chicago, Vol. II
Rice’s Theatre.—Until 1857, Rice’s Theater was the attractive center of dramatic representation in Chicago. For ten years it had been the chief place of amusement in the city, and the popularity of Mr. and Mrs. Rice never waned for an instant. No man had done so much for the interest and amusement of the Chicago public as John B. Rice, and his constant increase in favor testified how deeply that public appreciated his labors. But in 1857, he and his wife determined to retire from the stage, and the theater passed under other management It also encountered the competition of its new rival, just erected by J. H. McVicker, and its end was not long in coming. For several years it led a fitful and unpopular existence, until, in 1861, it became manifest to Mr. Rice that it could no longer maintain its place as a theater. He then had it torn down, and on its site erected a handsome business block.
The first Rice’s Theatre
The real beginning of theatrical history in Chicago was made by J. B. Rice, who erected and dedicated, June 28, 1847, the first theater building constructed in Chicago. It was erected on the south side of Randolph Street, 50 feet east of Dearborn, and was opened by a stock company, in The Four Sisters. The company included Mrs. Hunt, afterwards Mrs. John Drew, Mr. and Mrs. J. B. Rice and Dan Marble. On May 2, 1848, J. H. McVicker made his first appearance, the farce being My Neighbor’s Wife. Edwin Forrest and Junius Brutus Booth were among the attractions of that year. The theater burned July 30, 1850, during a performance of La Somnambula, and it is stated that Mr. McVicker was on the stage when the alarm was given.
Rice Theater Program
LEFT: July 14, 1848
RIGHT: September 19, 1848
The Chicago Daily Journal1 July 30, 1850
An excellent house welcomed the Opera Troupe to the Chicago boards last evening and La Somnambula was performed as announced. Whatever may be the taste of the theatre-going public in this city with regard to Operas, all must conceed that the music was of a high order, and executed with admirable grace and skill. Miss Brientfs face is eloquent in her favor, to begin with, and her voice, now as soft as a vesper bell, now wild and shrill as a clarion, doubles and completes the charm. Messrs. Manvers and Guibel both possess voices of tone, power and cultivation, and with Miss Brienti and Miss Mathews make melody and harmony that Apollo would not hesitate to accompany upon his ocean-tuned harp.
On the evening of July 30th, the opera troupe gave their second performance of La Sonnambula, and the season was brought to a close by the burning of the theatre during the second act.
The Democrat, July 31, 1850
One of the most destructive fires which has taken place in this city for some time occurred last night. Before subdued by the firemen it destroyed over twenty buildings, including the Chicago Theatre half a block in one of the most thickly populated portions of the city. It broke out in the stable owned by Mr. Kelley on Dearborn Street between Randolph and Clark, about 10 o’clock last night. In a few minutes everything was a mass of flames and the fire communicated to the theatre adjoining. The audience, which fortunately was not very large, was alarmed, but Mr. Rice, with much presence of mind, restrained them, and thus enabled all to leave the building without endangering each other by a rush.
The Chicago Daily Journal
Owing to the combustible nature of the materials the theatre was soon enveloped in flames. The curtain, the side scenes, and most of the private wardrobe of the company, was saved, but the properties, furniture, and fixtures were all destroyed. The loss falls heavily on Mr. Rice, the estimable proprietor and conductor of the theatre. He had an insurance of only one thousand dollars, while seven thousand dollars will not make good the destruction.
Mr. McVicker, who with his wife occupied rooms in Mr. Gurley’s building, was compelled to make a “flying leap” losing property to the value of two hundred dollars, and of a nature difficult to replace.
The streets were completely strewn with household furniture, Saloon fixtures, and fragments of the wreck of the theatre, and what with the crowds of people filling the sidewalks, and clustered upon the roofs, and at every window, the hoarse call of the speaking trumpet, the foliage lighted up with strange tints, and the sky of a deeper blackness, the huge volumes of smoke, skirted with crimson, and rolling into the glowing abyss, and church spires rising glittering into the night, while it might have been a scene an artist would love to catch and stay upon canvas, yet it was eloquent of destruction and alarm.
Rice’s Theatre II
Location: On Dearborn Street, between Randolph and Washington
Life Span: 1851-1857
Architect: John M. Van Osdel
The second Rice’s Theatre
Right of the Young America Hotel
The Chicago Daily Journal, October 29, 1850
This fine structure is rapidly approaching completion and is planned after the most approved models for such buildings. Being one hundred feet in length, it gives ample ‘scope and verge’ for those who ‘strut their brief hour upon the stage.’ There will be three tiers of boxes, a Saloon, etc., etc. If the work progresses as begun, Mr. Rice will open about the First of January.
Chicago Tribune, December 28, 1850
J. B. Rice erected a brick Theater on Dearborn between Randolph and Washington streets. It fronts 80 feet on Dearborn and extends back 100 feet. Roof and ornamental cornices of galvanized iron. Cost $11,000—Vanosdel architect, C. & W. Price Masons, Updike & Sollet builders.
The Chicago Daily Journal, January 29, 1851
The interior of this beautiful edifice is receiving the finishing touches. The scenery grows apace. Mountains rise, plains stretch away, palace turrets gleam, and forests rise as magically as ‘Birnam Wood came to Duficinane.’ It is to be opened Monday next.
On February 3, 1851, Mr. Rice opened his second theater, which was built of brick at a cost of $11,000, on Dearborn Street, between Randolph and Washington. With a frontage of 80 feet and many improvements and conveniences, it was regarded as a great step in advance and was destined to be the home of the drama in Chicago for six years, during which period all the important stars of that early day visited the city, which at that time boasted a population of less than 5,000 souls. The theater was opened on the evening already mentioned. The stock company joined first in singing the Star Spangled Banner and then presented a triple bill: Love in Humble Life, Captain of the Watch, and The Dumb Belle.
It was transformed into a business house in 1861, having outlived its usefulness by several years.
The Chicago Daily Journal, October 24, 1853
The undersigned, acting in the name and on behalf of Mme. de Vries and Signor L. Arditi, (known by the name and style of the Artists Association) has the honor of calling the attention of the musical community and of the citizens of Chicago in general, to the fact that he has made an arrangement with Mr. Rice, the manager, to have the Italian Opera Troupe for two nights next week at the Chicago Theatre, to perform the opera in Three Acts, Lucia di Lammermoor, the chef doume of Donizetti, and the grand masterpiece of Bellini, Norma.
The undersigned respectfully begs leave to introduce to the citizens of Chicago in general the following unrivalled artists, who were received with the utmost enthusiasm and unbounded applause by the public of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Richmond, Cincinnati, Louisville, and St. Louis:
- Prima Donna Signorina R. de Vries
Tenor Signer Pozzolini
Baritone Signor Toffanelli
Basso Signor Colletti
The public will find that every department is complete as well for the number as for the excellence of the performers.
A very effective chorus of ladies and gentlemen the best in the United States of America and desirable even in Europe.
The orchestra is composed of solo performers, and all professors of the highest standing over 40 in number, the whole under the magic direction of the most distinguished master and composer, Sig. L. Arditi, of European fame, and well known as one of the greatest living composers.
The undersigned feels confident that the citizens of Chicago will appreciate his efforts to produce before them an Italian Opera on a scale unrivalled, and that they will bestow upon them liberally their favors.
1 Chicago Daily Journal, 1844 – 1929 (newspaper was relaunched as the Chicago Daily Illustrated Times)
1 Chicago Democrat 1833 – 1861 (merged with Chicago Tribune)