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Hamlin’s Coliseum (1875), Hamlin’s Theater (1878), Grand Opera House (1880), Cohan’s Grand Opera House (1912), Four Cohans (1926), RKO’s Grand House (1942)
Life Span: 1878-1925 (1958)
Location: 119 North Clark Street, Between Washington and Randolph streets
Architect: Dankmar Adler (1880 interior remodeling and addition)
Chicago Tribune, January 7, 1872
The Hooley Opera House property has just been sold by T. B. Bryan to Messrs. J. A. Hamlin & Brother for $130,750. The lot has 40 feet front on Clark street, by 80 feet deep, and 120 feet north front on “Court Place.” Of the latter, two-thirds is 100 feet deep, and one-third 80 feet deep. All the lots adjoin each other, and include the site of the former Opera House. The purchasers propose to build on it to suit the business of any parties who may desire long leases.
Chicago Tribune, July 18, 1875
The Coliseum Garden—Early Inauguration of a Grand Popular Enterprise.
Public interest and curiosity will, no doubt, be awakened to a high degree at the announcement of active preparations now in progress by Messrs. Hamlin Brothers, proprietors of the building and premises 87 Clark street, in which was located Tom Foley’s mammoth billiard hall,—said to be the largest in the world,—for this transformation of that magnificent temple of amusement into a lofty palace of public entertainment to be dedicated mainly to the service and interest of that wise, sober, temperate, and renowned beverage,—lager beer,—under the classic name of the Coliseum Garden. The scene of transformation is now an impressive one. The great hall has been stripped of the green tables, and all the accontrements and paraphernalia of billiards, and the process of redecoration and reconstruction now being rapidly pushed forward, indicate the novel, original and popular features of the enterprise. Aside from the main-hall, aggregating 8,000 superficial feet of blank space, withe a seating capacity of over 1,000, with spacious ladies’ gallery elegantly furnished and carpeted, and connecting with the main floor by a grand stairway,—an additional apartment, 20×80 feet, to form the remote end of the hall, will be set apart for the entertainment of guests in impressive and interesting scenic effects, mimic scenery of mountain and field, rivulets, bridges, cascades, etc., an old mill or two, a 24-foot waterfall, miniature lake, and other rural work on an expensive scale.
On another side of the main hall is located a platform for the grand orchestra, a perpetual entertainment in the best instrumental and band music constituting a part of the free hospitalities, while opposite the music, and traversing the northern line of the hall, is located the grand lunch stand with mammoth steam table and elaborate fixtures, and immediately accessible to a commodious modern kitchen with capacity for the prompt supply of 1,000 meals and lunches. The Grand Garden will be conducted under police discipline, and the highest social morale maintained by the management. Messrs. J. A. Hamlin & Bro. have been long and favorably known to the mercantile community, and inaugurate their magnificent enterprise with advantage of a wide personal acquaintance and large means, and under auspices indicative of a grand popular success. It is understood also that a large and popular brewing company, the largest and wealthiest in the country, are interested in support of the enterprise. The event of opening, which will be awaited with interest, will be duly announced, and will take place in a few days.
Chicago Tribune, August 8, 1875
Opening of the Coliseum.
The largest crowd that has ever attended an indoor place of amusement in the West was present at the Coliseum Garden at 87 Clark street last evening. From the time the doors were opened until midnight, the immense hall was thronged with an admiring and interested crowd of ladies and gentlemen, and it is not too much to say that the genuine expression of opinion was that the new resort is a marvel of beauty in fitting and completeness of design. Prof. Bichi’s orchestra of twenty pieces proved the fitness of their selection by an artistic rendition of a fine programme.
It is as clear as the sun that the Messrs. Hamlin have struck a responsive chord in the popular taste, and that their success will be all that their best friends can wish them.
A splendid sacred concert programme will be rendered this evening.
Chicago Tribune, July 27, 1878
This will be the future title of the Coliseum, under the management of John Hamlin and a certain gentleman not at present connected with theatricals. This house will open on the 2d of September with Palmer’s “Black Crook” Combination. An entire new structure will be similar in appearance to the New Chicago, but the stage will be deeper. The seating capacity will be 1,200, the stage will be 35 feet wide, and have a depth of 42 feet clean. No change will be made in the main entrance of Clark street. The lobby, however, will lead into a vestibule forty feet wide, from which a broad staircase runs to the gallery. Every facility for escape will be provided in the case of fire. It is proposed that there shall be no less than sixty feet of exit room. In the way of retiring rooms for the ladies, and for gentlemen’s dressing rooms, etc., the accommodations will be very complete. New scenery is now being painted. The improvements cannot cost less than $20,000, and when scenery, properties, furniture, etc., is in, the theater, it is said, will be worth something like $150,000. Mr. W. N. Griffiths will be the stage manager. Prices will range from 25 cents to $1. Stars and combinations likewise.
Chicago Tribune, August 25, 1878
“THE GRAND” THEATRE.
Mr. John A. Hamlin is on the eve of opening his new theatre in the old Coliseum building on Clark street, the interior having been entirely reconstructed. The place will be completed in the course of the present week, and it bids fair to be among the neatest auditoriums in the city. The main floor has been raised five feet, and is provided with comfortable opera-chairs. A semi-circle balcony on the west side of the house extends to the proscenium-boxes on either side of the stage. The seating capacity of the house is estimated at 1,500. There are six direct exits in addition to the main one, so that egress will not be attended with inconvenience in the event of an accident. The roof has been raised several feet, and a thirty-foot opening,—considerably larger than the average. The decoration of walls and ceiling, now in progress, promises to be very pretty, the best frescoers of the city being engaged in the work. In addition to having a cozy and handsome theatre, Mr. Hamlin proposes to make it a family resort. Smoking and the use of liquor are positively prohibited, and the rule will at all times be strictly enforced. The arrangements appear to be good, and the energy and enterprise of the manager will doubtless receive the encouragement merited. The place will be opened in fine style about the 1st (though a positive announcement will be made later) by the production of Dalrympel’s “Naiad Queen,” an operatic spectacle in three acts. The cast will include Miss Georgina Smithson, the English burlesque actress (her first appearance in Chicago); Miss Belle Norton, Miss Jennie Crisp, Miss Lucy Miller, William N. Griffith, John Marble, W. C. Stewart, Signor Abecco, Thomas Miaco, George Sterling, J. H. Mitchell, and James Paxton. The ballet, under the direction of Signor G. Cardella, will be led by then premier assoluta, Mlle. Marie Bonfanti, assisted by Mlle. Eugenia. The coryphees will be efficient and well-trained dancers. Specialty acts will be introduced in the fete scene, including Miss Georgina Smithson in her character changes, the Clinetop Sisters in aryistic dances, Algebrame Urabe in his well-known specialty, Frank and Mamie Quinnette, the midgets of the air, aged 4 and 6 years respectively; Miss Jennie Miaco, skipping rope dancer; the McCain Sisters in songs and dances. All the scenery will be new, the work of those well-known scenic artists, Minard Lewis, John Hilliard, and William Burchy.
Chicago Tribune, August 29, 1880
Changes in the Building.
This structure, formerly known as Hamlin’s Theatre, will be thrown open to the public about Sept. 6. The changes made for its owner, Mr. William Border, under the supervision of Architect Adler, have been so radical as to almost produce an entirely new building. New walls have been strengthened by enormous buttresses, the entire ceiling and roof, and almost all the interior partitions, as well as most of the floors and all the stairs, have been taken out and replaced by new work, all of the most rich and solid description.
Until now all has been chaos and confusion within the walls of the theatre; and even yet the efforts of the reporter in quest of information are attended with a degree of difficulty. The first improvement is noticed even before entering, in the removal of the old, ugly iron step and the leveling and widening of the sidewalk arising therefrom. The main entrance hall has been entirely replastered, and is now being provided with a new door of encaustic tiles and a wainscot of polished marble of various colors.
The foyer, elevated a few steps above the vestibule, is almost completed. The grand staircase, its main feature, is a most elaborate and elegant structure. The alcove, though not quite completed, and still devoid of the fireplace which is to adorn it, promises to have a charming effect. The mirrors, which are to cover the entire north wall of the foyer, will not be placed in position till the latter part of the week. They will be so located as to reflect the entire foyer and the grand staircase.
The auditorium has been enlarged by the removal of partitions which formerly inclosed it and by the demolition of a number of sleeping rooms, also by the addition of a second gallery, so that it is now one of the largest in the city. he pillars, beams, arches, and trusses which now furnish the support formerly given by the partitions, as also the buttresses with which the walls have been strengthened, have all been made features in the decoration of the building, and produce many original and effective combinations of many original and effective combinations of forms and color. The most noteworthy feature of the theatre will probably be in the treatment of the proscenium boxes, which are altogether novel and unique. They are almost completed, wanting only their final coloring and the mirrors, which are to fill the east wall of each. Though still somewhat obscured by scaffolding, the harmony of the architectural composition formed by the boxes and the proscenium arch, and their connection with the sounding-board above them, blending with and supporting the domical ceiling, is already apparent. There is an abundance of stairways to the galleries—six in all—and a corresponding number of exit doors.
A visit to the cellar showed the boiler-room in a court entirely outside the building, a huge fan, and a labyrinth of air-ducts intended to convey fresh air to every part of the auditorium.
Grand Opera House
Grand Opening Programme
September 6, 1880
Grand Opera House stage view showing the curtain painted by Walter Burridge in 1882.
Chicago’s First Half Century, The Inter Ocean, 1883
GRAND OPERA HOUSE.
The House of Light Opera.
In considering the experience of Mr. John A. Hamlin as a theatrical manager, there is presented before the immediate view three years of extraordinary and uninterrupted success. While it is true that Mr. Hamlin was for a long time previous to the opening of the Grand Opera House connected with one or another form of amusement enterprise, in every undertaking demonstrating his shrewdness and ability as a financier, it is perhaps quite as true his great pride grows out of his prosperous relation to the beautiful house he now controls. And he has admirable reasons for making the distinction, inasmuch as his present position is evidence of his capability for coping with unfortuitous circumstances, and proves the determination and spirit of a man who could surmount obstacles that would have dismayed many another, and could convert apparent disaster into substantial profit.
Though he is now past the middle period of his years and can look back upon a busy life of mercantile care that began in his youth, he is yet young in management, and it is the highest gratification to him to know that he has not only kept pace with the older managers but has succeeded in very nearly taking.
The Leading Local Enterpriser.
Mr. Hamlin is peculiarly constituted, being at once a companionable, free hearted, and rather jovial gentleman, and an exacting scrupulous man of business, and although the two qualities are often seen together in his intercourse with men they never conflict—one never getting into the proper place of the other.
Those who have known him longest remember these were always marked characteristics with him, and through their exercise he gained friends wherever he desired without ever losing the respect of men with whom he had business transactions. A notable trait of moral nature with Mr. Hamlin is the high estimate he places on his pledge. He believes in the old virtue that a man’s word should bind him no less than his written obligation, and when Mr. Hamlin gives his assurance of an act or office, in friendship or in business, he will make good the promise even at the sacrifice of his own personal interests.
His career has been a varied one, for he began his encounter with the world at an early age, and his sanguine, nervous temperament led him into adventures for financial gain that early taught him the principles since so successfully applied in all his undertakings. He began in Cincinnati, quitting college to enter the great school of practical thing, and. at the age of 21 had already acquired, a substantial footing and gained a valuable business acquaintance. In a few years he got together a comfortable capital for more extensive operations. He believed that large success could only come of large undertakings, and he inaugurated a scheme wholly new then that soon made
His Name Known Throughout the Country.
This was the manufacture and sale of a medicine to which he shrewdly gave the brand “Wizard Oil.” because of its remarkable properties as a curative. Instead of settling down to the conservative methods of local trade to wait for slow coming fortune, Mr. Hamlin built a number of elegant wagons of an elaborate and unique design, drawn by four and six splendid horses, furnished them with cabinet organs and sent them into all parts of the country accompanied by a regular concert company. The effect of this Napoleonic move was magical. Crowds thronged about these wagons in city or in town to enjoy the very excellent entertainment given and to purchase the wonderful fluid, the merits of which were expounded by expert lecturers, and Mr. Hamlin made an immense fortune in very short order.1
He had a clear perception of the advantages afforded by Chicago for the investment and accumulation of money, and bought property here very extensively. His business had grown so large that he took his brother into an interest with him and began to realize what it is to be a rich man.
After the great fire of 1871 Mr. Hamlin bought the famous site of the Bryan Hall, that had been converted into Hooley’s Theater, and erected what was then considered one of the most magnificent buildings in the city, and which is now one of the most desirable pieces of property in the commercial center. The principal floor was fitted up as a superb billiard hall, and was leased and run by the well known Tom Foley, and became perhaps
The Most Popular Resort in Chicago.
Mr. Hamlin, like many another rich man, felt the evil force of the panic of 1873, and was seriously crippled in his business concerns, and for the first time in his life saw his plans go amiss. He was a man of too prolific resources to be dismayed by his losses, and immediately set about restoring his impaired fortune. He began by converting the billiard hall into a place of resort known as the Coliseum, which at once became popular, and proved a money-making enterprise.
But, after running the Coliseum for a time, Mr. Hamlin become dissatisfied with the sort of patronage the place attracted, and, though his income was very great and his expenses quite low, resolved to convert the building into a theater for a more respectable public. He instituted Hamlin’s Theater, a cozy little house where dramatic spectacular, and vaudeville entertainments were given.
In the management of this house Mr. Hamlin got the idea that he could establish a very different theater, and determined upon making a bold play for the lead in Chicago theater enterprises. He therfore announced the entire demolition of Hamlin’s Theater, to make way for an opera house that should be the realization of artistic loveliness. Many discouragements were thrown in Mr. Hamlin’s way, and there were numerous croakers ready to predict the folly and certain failure of the project But Mr. Hamlin feels a confidence in the success of any undertaking to which he gives his personal endeavor, and he went resolutely ahead with hie plans, until in good season he opened to the public the most charming, beautiful, and exquisitely arranged theater then existing in the city. It was as bright and attractive as the others were gloomy and old-fashioned, eo that it not only became the talk of profesional
people, but secured the immediate indorsement of the public and became the
Favorite Resort of Fashionable Patronage.
The house has continued for three years without any interruption of its enviable success, and Mr. Hamlin has had the extreme satisfaction of demonstrating his entire capacity for first-class theatric management and of triumphing over the opposition he encountered on entering the field of his present labors.
The Grand Opera House has been made as nearly perfect in respect to convenience and public safety as it is possible to have such a building. One cannot conceive a catastrophe possible to this house, fortified as it is with a multiplicity of exits and armed underneath with a fire-wall that would absolutely prevent the spread of a fire from the stage to the auditorium. Every precaution against danger is observed, and “in some instances there have been wholly unnecessary steps taken to insure the welfare of an audience
Though the theater is one of the prettiest and most enjoyable in the country, Mr. Hamlin intends to further beautify and embellish it during the present year, so that by the opening of the next winter season it will be as new and beautiful to the eye as the night three years ago when it was so auspiciously inaugurated by the Emma Abbott Opera Company. As its name implies, music is the specialty of the house, all the important light opera companies of the country having bookings here, for one reason, because Manager Hamlin cultivates that sort of attraction, and for another reason, that the people prefer to sing in that house. But the attractions are by no means confined to opera, it being the aim to have the best standard attractions, be their line what it may, and the house is known for its choice.
Chicago Tribune July 7, 1885
MR. HAMLIN AND THE PRODUCTION OF “THE MIKADO” AT THE GRAND
There was a little excitement in front of the Grand Opera House last night owing to the fact that the doors were not opened until almost 9 o’clock. The reason was that Mr. Hamlin refused to let Mr. Sydney Rosenfeld give a performance of Sullivan-Gilbert’s “Mikado” before he had made good his agreement to pay a week’s rent in advance, so as to relieve him from all interest in the proceeds of the production. About 7 p.m. Mr. Rosenfeld tendered the contents of the drawer in the box-office, somewhat less than $100, and checks for the balance of the rent, but Mr. Hamlin came with the money, and then Mr. Hamlin surrendered the house to him. Mr. Hamlin stated to a Tribune reporter that he had been desirous of getting out of his contract with Rosenfeld, since he had been notified by Mr. D’Oyly Carte that Rosenfeld had no right to produce “The Mikado,” and the proprietors of the Grand Opera-House would be sued for damages if they permitted the performance in their place. He had been informed, however, by his lawyer that he could not break his contract with Rosenfeld that he would have no interest in the receipts of the box office, and that Rosenfeld would be the actual lessee of ther house during the week he was to run “The Mikado.” Having received his rent in advance he proposed to let Mr. Rosenfeld fight it out with the people who denied his right to produce “The Mikado.” To show that he disclaimed all interest in the theatre Mr. Hamlin, in the presence of witnesses, bought a seat for the performance, which did not begin until nearly 9 o’clock.
The opera ended at about 11:30. Mr. Rosenfeld came on for his promised speech between the acts at about 10:45. The cast contained Holand Reed as Ko-ko, J. W. Herbert as the Mikado, Signor Montegriffo as Nanki-Poo, Miss Alice Harrison as the Princess Yum-Yum, Mr. George Broderick as Pish-Tush, Mrs. Broderick as Katisha, etc. The company members were so strange to one another, and the representation was so put out of sorts by the lateness of opening that the evening was nothing more than a dress rehearsal. Signor Montegriffo was as wooden and wax-like as possible in his part. Broderick was better. Reed was Reed and no mistake. Miss Alice Harrison has a voice which at times is pleasing. She has the unusual excellence of delivering her text in singing so that it can be understood. The singing as a whole, both concerted and chorus, was not in good tune and was carried too far into the colloquial. The company contains so much talent that there is prospect of an enjoyable performance when the rehearsals have had a fair chance.
Standard Guide to Chicago, 1892
Grand Opera House.
Centrally located on the east side of Clark, between Randolph and Washington sts., oposite the Court House, close to all the leading hotels and convenient to railroad depots and street-car terminals. Harry L. Hamlin, manager.
This popular place of amusement is one of the leading first-class theatres of Chicago and the West. During the summer of 1891 the interior was entirely remodeled and reconstructed in accordance with the latest and most advanced ideas of theatrical architecture. In consequence of these changes it ranks as one of the handsomest and most comfortable theatres in America. The shape of the auditorium is so a/lmirable, and the acoustic properties so perfect, that there is actually not one undesirable seat in the house. The appointments and furnishings are most luxurious and elegant; in this respect it gives one the impression of a modern drawing-room, rather than the ordinary place of amusement. The chairs are of the latest pattern, wide and roomy, cushioned in seat, back and arm, and covered entirely with handsome plush. The aisles are wide, and lead directly to ample exits; there is unusual space between the rows of seats, a point of great importance when the comfort of an audience is considered. The carpets and draperies are of the very finest quality procurable, and these, together with the chairs and wall decorations, are in ‘the softest and most harmonious colors. The drop curtain is a work of art, painted by the celebrated artist, Walter Burridge. The stage is large, and is fitted with the most approved appliances. Both auditorium and stage are lighted by incandescent electric lamps. Owing to its admirable shape and cozy decorations, the Grand is apparently of moderate size, but in reality it is a large theatre, its seating capacity being exceeded by that of only one Chicago theatre. There are eight handsome proscenium boxes. The attractions presented at the Grand are uniformly first class and of a high order of excellence. It is especially adapted to comedy, light opera and drama of the modern school. The care taken by the management to rigorously exclude anything in the slightest degree objectionable has contributed largely to making the Grand Opera House a favorite family resort. Visitors will find it a pleasant house in summer, the ventilation being perfect. The regular prices range from 25 cents to $1.50; boxes, $8 and $12; general admission, 50 cents.
Interior View of Grand Opera House
Engraved for The Standard Guide Company
Grand Opera House
Frank Daniel’s “The Ameer” premiered at the Grand Opera House on November 19, 1899
Chicago Tribune June 24, 1902
At the Grand Opera House
“The Wizard of Oz,” which began the second week of its summer run at the Grand opera house last night, played to the capacity of the house every night of last week, and at the matinees and on Derby day night hundreds of persons were turned away. The piece has been carefully revised since the opening performance and materially improved by some slight alterations and skillful pruning. Some of the less attractive vocal numbers, like “Guardians of the Gate,” at the beginning of the second act, and the duet of Cynthia and Dorothy, “The Different Ways of Making Love,” in the same act, have been cut out, and by some additional pruning the length of the performance has been reduced to reasonable limits. Another change has been introduced by John Slavin, the Wizard of Oz. He has made the part a German comedy character and has generally improved it in other ways. Some of the stage effects have been greatly improved, and everything now works smoothly and satisfactory.
Original programme of the production of “Wizard of Oz” at the Grand Opera Theater
September 8, 1902
Hamlin’s Grand Opera House
Chicago Tribune, November 3, 1911
Grand Opera House Leased.
Differences among the heirs of the late John A. Hamlin regarding the conduct of their property, the Grand Opera house, is said to have been the cause of transferring the lease to Messrs. Cohan and Harris of New York. The Grand had been sought by many other New York theatrical interests, and at the beginning of the war of the syndicates both sides offered prodigal terms to the Hamlins for control. When the lessees take charge of the theater next season it will be known as Cohan’s Grand Opera house, and it will be used as a haven for the Cohan & Harris enterprises, most of which now have their headquarters at the Olympic. The Grand has been the most stalwart of independent theaters in America. No matter how complex the managerial and producing situation, it was always willing to house any attraction deemed worthy by its manager. Of late years its “time” has been largely in control of Messrs. Liebler & Co.
Chicago Tribune, March 3, 1912
BY PERCY HAMMOND.
The Hamlin dynasty ended at the Grand Opera house last evening after directing the affairs of that theater for thirty-two years. Appropriately enough, one of the finest audiences in the history of tyhe house was present to see the last performance of the players from the Abbey theater, Dublin, and scores of those in attendance stopped in the business office to say good-by to Marry L. Hamlin and Harry Askin, the retiring executives.
In the foyer the familiar pictures of Mansfield and Mrs. Fiske had been replaced with handsome photographs of Mr. Cohan’s “Royal Family”—Helen, Jerry, Josephine, and George—and outside, above the canopy, a big sign announced that hereafter it was to be “George M. Cohan’s Grand Opera house.”
Many bright changes in the electric lights will be visible in the Grand tonight, but the courtly Mr. Aeddies will be present, as usual, to welcome patrons, and Mr. McDaniel and Mr. Huston will still be in the box office.
The engagement of the Irish actors closed poetically with “Cathleen-ni-Hoilihen” as the last play of a bill containing “Spreading the News” and “The Building Fund.” After it was over there was an unusual demonstration and all the members of the company were called out and cheered repeatedly.
Miss Sara Aligood received flowers and a special curtain call. They leave tomorrow for Boston, where they have been most successful commercially and where on Monday they will have a benefit. Wednesday morning they will sail for home on the Campania.
Cohan’s Grand Opera House, 1923
Chicago Tribune, June 20, 1925
Cohan’s Grand opera house met its fate yesterday.
George M. Cohan, in Chicago at the Blackstone hotel, announced that he had completed plans for the wrecking of the old theater, and for the construction on the same site of a new and modern playhouse, to cost approximately $750,000. The new theater will be known as The Four Cohans, which years ago was the trade mark of that famous family of the stage, Jerry J., Helen F., Josephine, and George M.
Ready at Holiday Season.
July 1 will mark the beginning of dismantling the old landmark. Plans discussed yesterday by Mr. Cohan and A.N. Rebori, the architect who has designed the new structure, comprehend the completion of the building at about the holiday season of this year, when it is Mr. Cohan’s intention to come from New York to take part in the opening.
The name selected for the new theater is meant to keep fresh in the memory of the present generation the attachment among the four members of the Cohan family, two of whom, Jerry J. and Josephine, who was Mrs. Fred Niblo, are dead.
Site Famed for Theaters.
The old building stands on a site occupied for 65 years by amusement houses. The first was known to Chicagoans of that day as Bryan’s hall, and was erected in 1860. In 1870, the name was changed to Hooley’s opera house. Afterwards it became known as the Coliseum.
It was rebuilt in 1880, and was leased to John A. Hamlin, when the name was again changed, and it was called the Grand opera house. George M. Cohan and his partner, Sam Harris, leased the property in 1912, and since that time it has been known as Cohan’s Grand. Mr. Cohan said yesterday that his new lease is for 33 years.
Chicago Tribune, May 9, 1926
By Frederick Donaghey.
MR. COHAN’S NEW THEATER.
And the foregoing is a prelude to my saying that I have an excitement about the opening of the Four Cohans. As the excitement has to do with the theater’s having been the Grand Opera-House rather than with its being a new house. I assume that it is a sentimental rather than aesthetic or commercial; but whatever it is, I should like to believe that I’m not in sole possession of the excitement. I saw the Chicago Opera-House torn down in 1913 with no emotion than that of wonder whether the workmen would make enough noise to disturb our afternoon audiences in the La Salle. I shed no tears when, two years ago, Powers’ was turned over to the wreckers; and my regret in the passing of the Colonial (Iroquois), I recall, had to do solely with its being the Chicago theater with the best lobby, the most attractive foyer, and the most sensible stage. . . But the old Grand was ever a place of enchantment for me; it was the theater of all theaters in the world that, as a theater, held my affection. I realized back in 1912, when the walls of the Palace were climbing across the alley, that the Grand needed wholesale rehabilitation; but I knew a dogged joy as each year passed and nothing was done.
The Four Cohans
The why of this deep love for an old, unsteady building that happened to house a theater is beyond my explaining; all I know is that it was a thing of beauty to me, even when it was the dustiest, shabbiest, and most in need of the repairman and the cleaner. And I have been, beset with wonder as to how much of the charm the old place held for me I should recapture in the Four Cohans . . . I wangled past the workmen, the other day, and a look at the beauty Mr. Ribori, the architect, has involved involved in the chore he undertook for Mr. Cohan. The seats were not in; there were piles of refuse in one place and another; there were a thousand things to be done, as always when a new theater is in the very eve of opening; but what I saw was lovely, and enticing, and rich in the joyous spirit that every theater should inspire,—and that decreasingly few do inspire. I’ve been happier since I lied to the gruff fellow in charge of the place when I sneaked in, and told him I was there for an inspection in behalf of the Bureau of Safety, although I have no reason to believe that there is such a bureau in city, county, State, or nation. Anyway, I wasn’t compelled to sneak in; a phone-call to Mr. Ridings would have brought me a barrel of permission and his own escort; but, then, Mr. Ridings couldn’t have known that my real name was to square the Four Cohans with my memories of the Grand Opera-House . . .
And all’s square now; and I think Chicago owes something to Mr. Cohen for what he has done and has caused to be done at 119 North Clark Street.
The RKO Grand
Chicago Tribune, April 1, 1958
BY LOUISE HUTCHINSON
Drowning in memory and muted in shadow, Chicago’s Grand Opera house yesterday awaited its final curtain—destruction.
The voices of Katharine Cornell and Fannie Bryce, of Al Jolson and Ted Lewis, of Ethel Waters, and George M. Cohan, linger in its dressing rooms. But they are as faint as the prints on the playbills.
Yesterday, a strange company played in the theater at 119 N. Clark st. Workmen yanked seats from the floor, snatched movie bills from the lobby, carted off popcorn and soft drink machines. “The show’s over now,” chuckled one. A skyscraper will rise on the site.
Began in 1860.
The drama began in 1860 when Thomas Barbour Bryan built an auditorium there with dress circles and gallery. Here the Chicago Philharmonic society played its first concert in 1860.
In 1870, R. M. Hooley bought the building and installed his minstrels. The theater was part of the 1871 Chicago fire toll. But the Hamlin family, whose wealth came fro Wizard Oil, a patent medicine cure-all, built both a billiard hall and beer garden, glorified with waterfalls and fountains.
By 1880, it had been named the Grand Opera house and became a legitimate theater. In 1902, the Hamlins were presented with a musical comedy.
Leased by Cohan.
“They knew little about musical comedy,” remembers an oldtimer. “But they thought anything with the name ‘Wizard’ in it should do well.” It did. It was the “Wizard of Oz.”
By 1912, George M. Cohan and his partner, Sam Harris, leased the theater. Later it was known briefly as the Four Cohans. The Shuberts were producing with Cohan by the late 1920’s and continued when Cohan dropped out.
But by the early 1940s, the Grand Opera house had become RKO Grand movie house. Its last film was run a couple of weeks ago.
The property was bought by Peerless Weighing and Vending corporation of New York City from a syndicate. A spokesman for David Rockola, Peerless board chairman and president of the Rockola Manufacturing corporation, 800 N. Kedzie av., said sketches for the skyscraper are being readied.
The RKO Grand
Grand Opera House
Robinson Fire Map
Grand Opera House
Sanborn Fire Insurance Map
1 First produced in 1861 in Chicago by former magician John Austin Hamlin and his brother Lysander Butler Hamlin, Wizard Oil was primarily sold and used as a liniment for rheumatic pain and sore muscles, but was advertised as a treatment for pneumonia, cancer, diphtheria, earache, toothache, headache and hydrophobia. It was made of 50-70% alcohol containing camphor, ammonia, chloroform, sassafras, cloves, and turpentine, and was said to be usable both internally and topically. In 1916, Lysander’s son Lawrence B. Hamlin of Elgin, by then manager of the firm, was fined $200 under the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act for advertising that Hamlin’s Wizard Oil could “check the growth and permanently kill cancer.”
Jeff Diver says
Thanks for your fine summary and pics. I have linked to it from page 159 of the Earl J. Arnold Advertising Card Collection 1885. (http://arnoldpostcardcollection.blogspot.com/2015/03/page-159.html)
Mary K downes says
I have a book that printed for
“The CHICAGO GRAND OPERA COMPANY
Andreas Dippel, General Manager
AUDITORIUM THEATRE SEASON 1910 – 1911”
with all the advertisement of Chicago
Marilynn Miller says
I am looking for an operatic soprano who was my grandfather’s cousin. She sang the first “The Merry Widow” in Chicago, but I do not know her name.
My grandfather was Thomas Edward Larner, who lived thru the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 at 15 years old. Her last (maiden) name may have been Larner, but I’m not sure. Grampa was born in New Jersey, and grew up in Tonawanda, NY.