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Des Plaines Theatre

2001 Photo from the Darren Snow collection.
1476 Miner St
Des Plaines IL 60016

Record #6295  
 Opened: August 9, 1925
Capacity: 600 seats
Architect(s): Betts & Holcum
Architectural Style(s): Spanish Baroque
National Register:
Current Organ: none
 Also Known As:
 Previously operated by: H&E Balaban Corp

Information for this tour was contributed by John Kleinschmidt.

Construction on the Des Plaines Theater began sometime in 1924 as a vaudeville palace under the ownership of the Polka Brothers. The architects were Betts & Holcum, the same, which were to design the Catlow Theatre in Barrington. The original contractor was Ed Nissen of Des Plaines. It originally sat 1,000 patrons, had a 702-sq. ft. stage, an orchestra pit and grand organ. The exterior was Art Deco, complete with a brightly colored, patterned terra cotta façade. The interior was designed using the popular “Atmospherics” of the day.

According to a past resident who often visited the theater as a child, “The walls were painted light blue, the ceiling was dark blue. This is reminiscent of an atmospheric theater with…cloud images projected on the ceiling. What I saw when I was 7 was the organ balconies intact! And these balconies were gold in color…The doors into the auditorium…were red leather with round glass panel in each. The one thing that stands out in my memory about the lobby is the statue/fountain at each end in the alcoves, floodlighted from the ceiling. There may have been some neon or other lighting effect there. The carpet in the theater auditorium as well as the lobby was a dark reddish maroon. As I pointed out, the ceiling was dark blue or black. You should investigate to see if this ceiling had stars…The curtains were reddish maroon, trimmed with gold tassel. The theater seats were the same, trimmed with turquoise paint.” (Attribution unknown)

(My sources are the Des Plaines Journal - which goes back to Feb. 1928 at the DP Library - and the index of the Daily Herald 1901-1945.)

The first reference to the Des Plaines Theatre, in contemporary newspapers, is actually in the Herald 10/9/1925 when the films The Unholy Three, Wild, Wild Susan, Sally of the Sawdust, and Wild Horse Mesa topped a bill which included the vaudeville acts Three Musketeers of Radio: Hill, Hirsch & Gorny; leading lyric soprano: Miss Margaret Zafara; novelty instrumentalist: Ed 'Banjo' Hines; two melody maids and song-birds of jazz: Simmons & Clifford and Bobby Brown and his overseas ukulele!

The new theatre was given “much praise” in the Herald of 10/23/25 and the paper notes that a super organ was installed on 12/11/25. Many other curious acts appear in the record including celebrated Irish tenor John Griffin, Hunt's All Indian Band, Frank and Flo Innis, The San Antonio Siamese Twins and many others. The Maine Township High School presented Schubert's Operetta "Rosamunde" on 2/1/1929. That April, the first talky played at the theatre - "The Singing Fool".

Other notables who appeared on our stage include Freckles, from the Our Gang Comedies (5/16/1930), various WLS radio shows including National Barn Dance '31,'33,'35, and the Merry Go Round in 1933, The World's Fair All-Star Minstrels appeared on 11/3/33 and Mickey Mouse in person on 1/26/34. The tallest person in the world visited in 2/2/1934 and Hollywood's
famous gorilla "Engagi" appeared in 1934. The more famous Gene Autry played in 1933 and 1935.

The Daily Herald makes great note of the reopening in Nov. 1935 and it's gala dedication, which is covered in detail by the Des Plaines Journal (which has up to this point seemingly ignored the Des Plaines Theater, although continually running ads for it's rival and predecessor, The Echo Theatre, which was located on Lee south of The First National Bank). The Journal presented a special edition with extra pages covering the Grand Re-opening when the Theatre opened under the ownership of Harry Balaban (who that self same day closed the deal on the purchase of The Echo and sealed it's doom, no doubt).

Special artwork in the Des Plaines Journal, of a medieval herald on horseback trumpets the opening of the "New" Des Plaines Theater - "Opens Today! All Des Plaines Will Marvel at Its Splendor", the copy reads, "America's Finest Suburban Theater - New Seating Comfort! - New Ultra Modern Perfection in Decoration and Lighting" The performers that night were Little Georgie Goebbel, Red Foley, The Hoosier Sod Busters, Max Terhune, Winnie, Lou and Sally. The movie that night was "Annapolis Farewell" starring Sir Guy Standing and Richard Cromwell.

The paper remarks that "In a blaze of lights music and gayety (sic), the New Des Plaines Theater will officially open its doors at 1:30 p.m., today. After two months of intensive work the theater has been completely remodeled and redecorated. The front foyer and lobby have been rebuilt in the modern motif and a new lounge room added. Tonight at 7:30 p.m. the new canopy will blaze with light and the official opening will take place."

Indeed, much is made of the new neon canopy. "According to (the manager), Mr. Fuelner, it is the newest type of theater sign ever built. Incorporating such features as silhouette letters under the canopy instead of on its sides, colored neon, and a curved under canopy area, it has been the object of much comment since it was erected...as the brightest sign in Des Plaines it should do much to make the street livelier". Miss Lillian Zick (we have to find her), described by the paper as "Maine high school senior, voted by the students as Queen of the recent Fall Frolic, and typical high school girl in a recent competition," handed out free roses to all the ladies at the opening. The Journal makes note that the popular "Screeno" and "Bank Nights" (cash lottery games?) would continue, "there was never any question." The Elks Band paraded the next afternoon and gave a concert in front of the theater. Some of the businesses which still exist and contributed then to the gala decorations were The Des Plaines Journal, The First National Bank, B.F. Kinder's Sons and White Way Sign Co.

New owner Harry Balaban promised "improved projection and sound facilities, and new, comfortable surroundings." He goes on to express to the people of Des Plaines his "grateful appreciation for their past patronage, and to you I dedicate this theater, the Greater Des Plaines."

There was a sober front page editorial about the theater titled Welcome to Our City: "After several years of economic gloom through which Des Plaines and the entire world has been passing, it is a pleasure to pause and ponder the new developments which have taken place in our little community recently, all off which forcifully (sic) indicate an optimism on the part of big business in the belief that the up turn is here and that after all, our community has a future that should be equally as colorful and prosperous as the "good old days", just over the hill.

"The last instance of this is optimism is the forward steps being realized today in the formal grand opening of the new Des Plaines Theater, under the guiding hand of experienced operators, after a remodeling program which has seen some $25,000 become invested in property that for the past few years has seemed a poor business venture. In order to safeguard this sizable investment in Des Plaines, an additional $27,000 has been poured into the poured into the pot, making this single development one of the biggest things happening here since the building of the State Bank Building.

"In making this improvement, those behind the scenes have not only done something for themselves, but in our opinion have done much towards adding to the potential wealth and influence of Des Plaines as a whole. Although several other large projects are essential before the picture is complete, the opening of this new playhouse as one of the finest community theatres in this district should prove to be a valuable asset to our city and a huge magnet to the surrounding community, providing a big agency for making Des Plaines one of the ranking suburbs of the metropolitan area.

"Records show that Des Plaines itself has never been a big movie-conscious city, and that but a small percentage of its citizens spend even one night within the walls of our theaters. To make the operation of a large theatre possible here it has been necessary to draw from the entire surrounding vicinity to make up for our "staidness" as they call it in the theater game. Prior to the present change other adjacent theatre houses drew out of our own city, huge crowds of people who desired to spend their movie-money in the more modern and elaborate showhouses in and around Chicago, with the result that a considerable volume of business in other lines went along with the crowd..."

Harry Balaban made good on his promise to improve the theater and it's movies. The next film shown was "Top Hat" starring Rogers and Astaire. The new theater seems to have done well over the next few years, but the references to activity at the theatre dwindle and then disappear in articles in the Herald by about 1939 by which point we surmise that the Great Depression may have engulfed the city completely, followed by WW II.

The theater was primarily a first run movie house following the death of vaudeville. There are reports that a Kennedy motorcade drove past the theater in 1960 or '61. There are also stories of various theatre groups using the stage through out the 60’s and 70’s, but so far, little research has been done in this time period. In 1982 a fire nearly destroyed the theater, but it was re-opened a couple of years later as a twin, with each auditorium seating 275 patrons and screening second run films. The Theater received a moderate upgrade and clean up in 1998 and today show primarily first run “Bollywood” films and occasional concerts for Indian patrons.

 Photos remain the property of the Member and may not be reproduced without the written consent of the Member.

2003 photos from the Adam Martin collection.

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2003 photos from the John Kleinschmidt collection.

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September 2001 photos from the Darren Snow collection.

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1986 photos from the John Kleinschmidt collection.

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1958 photos from the John Kleinschmidt collection.

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1941 photos from the John Kleinschmidt collection.

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1929 photos from the John Kleinschmidt collection.

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Photos from the Norman Plant collection.

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Last featured 10/23/2004. Last edited 7/27/2022.

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