My last stop in Uptown during the OHC was the Riviera Theater. While I have been there on several occasions, I usually tend to be in an altered state from the $8 beers offered in this wonderful venue and accompanied by a couple thousand friends listening to some quality music. It’s not exactly the best time to look around at all the amazing detail of this diamond in the rough and “take it all in”. So when I heard the doors would be open to the public allowing me the chance to admire the workmanship without having to push my way through a mosh pit and make myself vulnerable to catching a crowd surfer’s boot in my face, I had to jump on it.
The Riviera was completed in 1917 by architects George and Cornelius W Rapp and opened in 1918, nine years before the first “talkie.” It was built as a movie theater for the Balaban & Katz chain and showed movies alternating with vaudeville and live music acts common at the time.
The 2,600-seat building distinguished itself from other theatres of its day through its sense of grandeur and attention to detail inside and out. The very visible marquee draws attention to its red brick façade featuring a grand arched entrance and glazed white terra cotta ornamentation. You can also see this detail in the original ceiling mural in the auditorium, as well as the balcony with framed mirrors and original silk curtains.
The growth of the suburbs and introduction of TV led to the decline of movie palaces in the 1960s-70s. Transformed into a private nightclub in 1986, the Riviera Theatre is now one of Chicago’s premier concert and special events venues.
Unfortunately, much like some of the other architectural wonders in the Uptown neighborhood, the Riv has seen better days. From the now infamous “diaper” that covers the exterior terra cotta to protects large chunks of the building from falling on folks passing by, to the damaged ceiling in the auditorium which is reminiscent of the 1982 Camaro owned by the guy down the street from where I grew up with the blue body paint, a red driver side door, a hood covered in primer and a rear fender patched up with a heavy dose of Bondo. The Riv is a little beat up. But once you get past all that patch work, the sticky floors, the dungeon-like lighting, the balcony seats that probably have stains that are older than I am and the crumbling façade, you can easily see how amazing this place once was and you can only hope that someday she gets the makeover she deserves to become a proud and historic addition to the neighborhood currently taking baby steps towards becoming Chicago’s newest entertainment district.
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