One of my favorite Chicago theatre memories to date is when Broadway in Chicago presented Fuerza Bruta - a theatrical event that I can only describe as a near-chaotic interactive dance party performance art. While the experience itself proved jaw-dropping, what elevated it was the venue. All the action took place on the Auditorium Theatre's stage - and from that vantage point, you could look out and see the venue's vast grandeur: the nearly 4,000 seats, the tiered balcony, the golden arches, the curtained boxes. It simply took my breath away.
While I've been to the Auditorium Theatre many times before, this perspective made me realize why this space is considered a Chicago landmark. Nestled on the east edge of Chicago's loop, it's our golden gem. And this gem is now celebrating an unparalleled 125-year anniversary, crowned by a celebration on December 9.
This event promises an eclectic evening of dance, musicianship and good, old-school showbiz. Highlights include the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Joffrey Ballet and a performance by Broadway powerhouse Patti LuPone, whose great-grand-aunt, soprano Adelina Patti, performed at the venue's gala opening in 1889.
In honoring this landmark milestone, I took a moment to speak with Auditorium Theatre's Executive Director Brett Batterson about his personal history with the space and what he sees for its future.
Batterson, who's led the venue since 2004, highlighted that over the past 125 years, the theatre has had milestone moments in nearly every decade. "We gave birth to the Lyric Opera and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra," he notes. "During the late '60s, nearly every great rock icon performed here, including Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and and Jim Morrison -- who, according to legend, was arrested after leaving the stage for allegedly flashing the audience."
Beyond its celebrated history, what makes the venue so special? "Our versatility," says Batterson. "The original architects Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan made the venue flexible to host a wide variety of events and artists." The space has gone through a few significant restorations, including a grand reopening in 1967 after a 20-year shutdown, and in the early '90s and 2000s to modernize the space for big-budget mega-musicals such as Phantom and Les Miz.
But while pretty architecture and noteworthy history are great, it's the programming and talent that bring in patrons. Beyond musical theatre fare, "we're the only performing arts venue in the Chicago loop that hosts such an eclectic mix of entertainment, including world-class ballet, opera, rock concerts, and original programming -- as well as Broadway in Chicago," Batterson explains. "And on Sunday, we host church."
The venue's versatility clearly makes for a strong selling point to presenters and audience members. In fact, when the NFL was looking for a space to host the 2015 draft, they selected the Auditorium Theatre out of all the possible venues in the country because of this asset. "This is truly a testament to Adler and Sullivan, who ensured the space was flexible for any type of event," notes Batterson. Once the Mayor's office did the heavy lifting of getting the NFL to consider Chicago and the Auditorium Theatre, "the theatre simply had to sell itself."
Most importantly, the exposure the venue will receive when the draft airs in April next year will be off the charts. "In our 125 years, we've accommodated more than 20 million patrons," notes Batterson. "But in just three days, more than 50 million people will see the venue - which is staggering."
Not to mention the positive economic impact this will have on Chicago, which could be in the hundreds of millions.
Certainly, a bright future exists for the Auditorium Theatre. "While I can't pretend to foresee what entertainment will look like in the next 125 years, I do know that we all have a basic human need to share experiences, laughter and tears," says Batterson. "Live entertainment will always be relevant and essential, and the Auditorium Theatre will be here to deliver that."
Visit auditoriumtheatre.org for more information on the Auditorium Theatre's 125th season.