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Grand Opera House
Life Span: 1872-1958
Location: 119 North Clark Street, Between Washington and Randolph streets
Architect: Adler, Dankmar, & Co., Adler and Sullivan [1880 interior remodeling and addition]
THE GRAND OPERA HOUSE, OF CHICAGO, is built upon the original site of Bryan Hall and Hooley’s Opera House. J. A. Hamlin and brother (L. B. Hamlin) purchased the property in January, 1872, and erected the first building that was completed upon that block after the fire. In 1873, Hamlin Brothers built upon the rear lot what was subsequently known as Foley’s Billiard Hall, which was at the time the largest billiard hall in the world, containing thirty tables on one floor. In 1874, the billiard hall property passed out of the hands of Mr. Foley into the hands of Hamlin Bros., and the billiard business was discontinued after a few months and the hall re-constructed, with an additional building added to the east end, and for some two years was occupied as a garden, after the style of Gilmore’s Garden of New York, with fountains, waterfalls, vocal and instrumental music, and all kinds of refreshments.
Subsequently the garden, by degrees, was changed to a vaudeville theater, and was continued as such until 1878, when it was again re-constructed as a regular theater, and opened in September, 1878, under the name of Hamlins’ Theater. About that time the property passed out of the hands of Hamlin Bros: into those of William C. Reynolds, who sold it to John Borden in 1880. John Borden shortly afterward sold the property to his son, William Borden, who re-constructed the theater at an additional expense of about $55,000, and it was opened on 6 September 1880, under the name of the Grand Opera House, and under the management of John A. Hamlin. The lot upon which the Grand Opera House buildings are erected contains about thirteen thousand two hundred square feet of ground.
The history of the location as a place of amusement, commencing with the original Bryan Hall, away back in the fifties, and running through all its various changes, is one of almost continuous success, rhe original Bryan Hall being for many years one of the most popular amusement resorts in the city. The Grand Opera House was opened with Hoey & Hardy’s Company, in an adaptation of the play “A Child of the State,” followed by Tom Keene, in a Shakesperian repertory, Nat. Goodwin, Emma Abbott Opera Company, Boston Ideal Opera Company, etc., etc. .
It was the scene of the first production of two huge hit musicals aimed at children. In June 1902, the original production of The Wizard of Oz had its premier there. One year later, in June 1903, came the premiere of Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland.
The Grand Opera House was built as a legitimate theatre and had seating for 1,750 in an orchestra, balcony and gallery. The interior was lit by gas and described by the Chicago Daily Tribune as having “the beautiful blending of rich colors and the graceful elegance of the designs charms the eye at every point”.
In 1912 George M. Cohan and his partner Sam H. Harris leased the theatre, on March 3, the renamed Geo. M. Cohan’s Grand Opera House opened its doors. In 1926 the façade and auditorium were reconstructed by Andrew Rebori, and reopened as the Four Cohans. Later the Shuberts took over and the theatre became the Shubert Grand Opera House, it then returned to its original name Grand Opera House. When live theatre left and films came in the theatre was renamed the RKO Grand. In March 1958 the RKO Grand showed its last film and was demolished a month later. The Chicago Civic Center (renamed the Richard J. Daley Center in 1976) was later constructed on the site.
Among the stars who played the Grand Opera House, over the years, were Lionel Barrymore, Arthur Byron, Mady Christians, George M. Cohan, Constance Collier, Katharine Cornell, Dudley Digges, Robert Edeson, Leon Errol, Douglas Fairbanks, Walter Hampden, Miriam Hopkins, Allan Jones, Bert Lahr, Eva Le Gallienne, Canada Lee, the Marx Brothers, Chester Morris, Mildred Natwick, Effie Shannon, and Ethel Waters.
LEFT: Hamlin Grand Opera House, as rebuilt in 1880
RIGHT: Hamlin Grand Opera House, September 1900
New York Dramatic Mirror, 25 September 1900:
Last week we were entertained by two of the funniest men on earth, and one of them is still with us. His name is Frank Daniels and this is his seeond week at the Grand Opera House in The Ameer.
Hamlin Grand Opera House
Hamlin Grand Opera House Program, 12 October1903
Cohan’s Grand Opera House, 1923
George Cohan’s Grand Opera House, 1924
Anthony F. Dumas
Grand Opera House
Robinson Fire Map 1886
Volume 3, Plate 1
Grand Opera House Seat Plan
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 i 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.
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.
Excerpted from Chicago Tribune, May 30, 1956
As far as our research has shown the following is the roll call of Loop buildings built in in 1872, the first year after the fire, and are still standing.
RKO-Grand theater, 115-21 N. Clark st., built in 1872 as the Grand Opera house. In 1880 it became Hooley’s Opera house, later the Four Cohan’s, and then the Grand Opera house again. Central portion considerably remodeled. Parts of the two wings apparently abandoned.
Original programme of the production of “Wizard of Oz” at the Grand Opera Theater
8 September 1902