9.5. RICE’S THEATER

While the new Tremont House opened on September 29, 1850, Van Osdel was already at work on another commission that the fire demon had created for him.  The return of prosperity in the mid-1840s had also brought with it an increased demand for leisurely diversions.  The depression had, for all practical purposes, wiped out Chicago’s first resident theater troupe that Alexander McKenzie had established in 1837, so that from 1840 the only thespian attempts in the city were those provided by itinerant companies. This situation was forever changed, however, in 1847 when John B. Rice, an actor and stage producer of some repute from Buffalo, decided to visit Chicago with a view towards ascertaining the potential of opening up a theater.  Coming from Buffalo, it is quite possible that Rice knew of the upcoming River and Harbor Convention in Chicago planned to open on July 5 and had set out to exploit its commercial potential.  He arrived during the spring of 1847 and convinced of the city’s economic future, bought a lot on the south side of Randolph Street, one or two lots east of Dearborn, to erect Chicago’s first permanent theater.  He hired builders Peter L. Updike and Azel Peck to design and build a 40′ by 80′ frame building to house the theater.  The theater was located on the second floor of the building and was decorated in a conservative style to lend an air of respectability to an institution that had a questionable reputation.  Rice reinforced this with the requirement that ladies would be admitted only if they had a male escort (to discourage prostitutes from plying their trade).  Rice’s Theater opened with a performance of “The Four Sisters” on June 28, 1847, exactly one week prior to the start of the convention.

On July 29, 1850, Rice had embarked on a new cultural experiment in his theater for Chicago: opera.  Using a home chorus and local orchestra, he had chosen Bellini’s “La Sonnambula” to introduce this art form to his uninitiated audience.  The town’s response to this foreign form of entertainment was lukewarm, leaving the theater far from filled to capacity on opening night.  On the second night of the scheduled two-night run, July 30, the meager attendance turned out to be a blessing, for midway through the opera, the chilling cry of “fire!” rang throughout the theater.  Rice, a consummate actor, immediately stepped onstage and quieted the crowd by reassuring his audience, “Sit down!  Sit down!  Do you think I would permit a fire to occur in my theater?  Sit down!”  Dutifully the audience responded with a sigh of relief, only to hear a voice from the prompter’s box countermand Rice’s performance with “Mr. Rice, the theater is on fire.”  A stable behind the theater had caught fire, that had quickly spread to the theater.  Although the audience was able to escape, the theater was a complete loss before firemen had finally gained control over the blaze.

John M. Van Osdel, Rice’s Theater II, east side of Dearborn (in the middle of the block with the pediment) between Randolph (left) and Washington, 1850. (Andreas, History-Vol.2)

Rice hired Van Osdel to design a larger theater for an adjacent site on the east side of Dearborn, just south of Randolph.  Chicago’s thespian endeavors, meanwhile, were moved to the temporary confines of “Tremont Hall,” a retrofitted dance hall in the then under-construction Tremont House.  Rice’s new theater was more than twice the size of Chicago’s first theater house, with dimensions of 80′ by 100′ that could seat 1400, that included three tiers of boxes.  To regain the confidence of his patrons, Rice had Van Osdel use as much brick as was feasible throughout the building.  Van Osdel even went so far as to incorporate a galvanized iron cornice in place of the conventional wood cornice (this entailed nothing more than a galvanized sheet metal covering over the wood cornice that was believed at the time to be able to protect the wood from fire) as a statement of the building’s fireproof intention.  In order to minimize the loss of business and interest of his audience, Rice had construction proceed at a record pace, so that the new building was completed by January, opening to its first audience on February 3, 1851.

National Amphitheater (far right), Monroe, between La Salle and Wells, 1855. Note that La Salle Street has not been extended south of Monroe. At the far left is the water reservoir on the site of the future Rookery. (Kogan and Wendt, Chicago: A Pictorial History)

Rice had enjoyed a monopoly on both popular and highbrow culture for over four years, until Levi J. North arrived in town with his circus on April 4, 1855.  North quickly perceived that Chicago had outgrown Rice’s ability to serve the expanding population and saw the potential for a large permanent home for his performers that could also present other attractions year-round.  He erected the National Amphitheater three blocks south of Rice’s theater, responding to the increasing price of land near the river and the corresponding spread of the residential area to the south.  Located on Monroe, between Wells and Clark, the wooden structure measured 90′ by 206′ which allowed it to seat over 3,000 spectators.  When the doors opened on August 4, 1855, patrons proceeded up eight-foot-wide stairways to the boxes in the gallery from which they had a view of the 42′ diameter performance ring, the entire hall being lit by 120 gas jets.  So successful was North’s initial investment in Chicago that he soon remodeled the Amphitheater so that it could also present legitimate theater and opera, in direct competition with Rice’s theater.  Meanwhile, the need for popular entertainment seemed to have been filled when Colonel Joseph H. Woods opened his “Museum” on Randolph Street on July 2, 1856.  Although among its “eight living wonders of the world” was the largest woman in the world (who reportedly weighed in at just under 900 pounds), unquestionably the favorite exhibit of museum goers was the ‘Zeuglodon,’ a ninety-six-foot-long fossil of a suspected monster from the past.

Wood’s Museum, Randolph, between Clark and Dearborn, 1856. The Matteson House with its rooftop cupola is visible immediately to the right of the museum. (Heise and Edgerton, Chicago: Center for Enterprise: Jevne and Almini-ICHi-00952)

FURTHER READING:

Andreas, Alfred T. History of Chicago- vols. 1&2. Chicago, 1884-1886. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Cropsey, Eugene H., Crosby’s Opera House: Symbol of Chicago’s Cultural Awakening, Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1999.

Mack, Edwin F. Old Monroe Street: Notes on the Monroe Street of Early Chicago Days. Chicago: Central Trust Company, 1914.

Pierce, Bessie Louis. A History of Chicago– I. New York: Knopf.  1940.

Tallmadge, Thomas Eddy. Architecture in Old Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1941.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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